“Is it ok to pray for the dead?”

A Sermon by The Rev’d Wendy Morecroft

Jeremiah 35, Psalm 37.1-9, 2 Timothy 1.15-2.7

When I first looked at tonight’s readings, I told Dean Frank that I couldn’t find anything worth preaching about. I thought I might preach about Labour Day given that that is the reason we have a public holiday tomorrow – even though many people increasingly find they are required to work well over and above their contracted hours.

On a second reading of tonight’s readings, I was struck by the discipline of the Rechabites in the Jeremiah reading. They and their children’s children followed the law of their ancestors that they must not drink alcohol, plant any seeds and must live in tents etc. God wished his people would be so loyal and counted the discipline of the Rechabites as righteousness before him, promising them a descendant to stand before [him] for all time.

The Psalm is a Wisdom Psalm which Brueggeman says highlights that “the world is ordered, that conformity or nonconformity to this order has consequences, that the main issues of order concern social conduct…. Those who do the right thing shall possess the land which is “closely linked to Yahweh, his governance and purpose.”

The Timothy reading caught my attention with its call to share in suffering with references to the soldier’s need for single-mindedness, the athlete’s self-denial, and the farmer’s intense effort.”[1] All three readings were preparing me to talk about the importance of discipline and I was cringing under my own self-examination.

However, when I started reading commentaries on the Timothy reading, I became fascinated over a contentious point in verses 16-18. Paul prays “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me – may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus.”

The contentious point is: Had Onesiphorus died and if so, was this letter an example of Paul praying for the dead?

This was of great interest to me because when I began my curacy here at the Cathedral, I would pray for the dead in our intercessions, whereas I soon learned that our tradition says that we should only give thanks for and remember the dead. I have wrestled with this teaching ever since and this sermon has given me an opportunity to do some exploration on the subject.

Samuel Negewa echoing my question, writes: “Does this mean that we should pray for the dead? This is a difficult question to answer. We must be careful not to answer it solely on the basis of this passage because it is not clear if Paul’s words here were really a prayer. Moreover, even if they were, the prayer is “an exceedingly general one, amounting only to the commendation of the dead man to the divine mercy”. And as a believer Onesiphorus has already been promised mercy – not because he deserved it because of his good deeds, but because of God’s grace (1:9).”[2]

I knew that praying for the dead is a common Roman Catholic practice. Our amazing St Barnabas’ College Librarian, Katrina Dlago, who happens to be a Roman Catholic, helped me to find a book called “Catholic Customs & Traditions”. It says that the Roman Catholic church uses a few instances of scripture to support the belief in purgatory and tonight’s reading about Onesiphorus is one of them. They believe that he was dead and that this is an example of Paul praying for the dead.

According to The New Dictionary of Theology, “The doctrine of purgatory expresses the belief that those who are basically just at the time of death but still burdened with temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven must undergo purgation after death. These departed ones can be aided by the prayers and good works of those living on earth. This state of purgation is understood to be an intermediate condition between individual death and entrance into heaven.”

Our Anglican 39 Articles of Religion states in number XXII Of Purgatory

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well as Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

(As an aside, Anglicans do not pray to Saints, but may ask saints to pray for them.)

However, if I pray for my loved ones who have now passed from this life into the next, it is not because I believe in purgatory. So, as Dean Frank once asked me, what would I pray for them if I believe that they are in our Lord’s loving care – what would be the point?

Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17 says that he does not want them to be uninformed about those who have died, so that they might not grieve as people do who have no hope. Paula Gooder, who is the Lay Canon Chancellor for St   Paul’s Cathedral in London, writes in a chapter called “What happens while we wait for the end?” in her book titled “Heaven”. She says that “NT Wright has dubbed the dominant New Testament belief in the after-life (i.e. resurrection at the end times) not life after death but “life after “life after death”’. What he means by this is that what is normally called ‘life after death’ (i.e. what happens to you immediately after you die) is not all there is. This immediate life after death is really a temporary resting place while people wait for the general resurrection at the end of all times. Since it is in this temporary resting place that our loved ones who have died now reside, the nature of this place becomes an important matter.”[3]

This is a fascinating chapter exploring relevant texts from both the Old and New Testaments. Paula concludes the chapter saying that “the account of the ripping of the temple veil in two…Luke’s statement that the criminal would be with Jesus in Paradise… and Paul’s reference to the fact that if anyone was in Christ there was new creation, to name but a few, all point to a belief that the end times had already begun. It is clear, however, that this does not cancel out a belief in the end times and the return of the Son of Man.”

She continues “Many of the New Testament writers seem to point to our living a between-times existence in which the old and new creations overlap. The kingdom has broken in but the old creation still exists and we wait, as does the whole of creation, with eager longing for the revealing of God’s children (Romans 8.19). If this is the case, then is it not possible that the dead have already been raised at the end times? If the end times have begun it is at least possible that the resurrection of the dead has already taken place and that their embodied resurrection selves already enjoy life in the renewed heaven and earth. This could provide an important, and in [her] view helpful, response to people’s anxieties about the fate of their loved ones.”

Paula Gooder summarises that we simply do not know what has happened to our loved ones who have passed because we have such a range of images presented to us in the New Testament.

So what is our hope? I suspect that most of us have the same hope, that our loved ones have been forgiven and presented by Jesus to the Father, to be holy and blameless before him; that they will live in our Father’s house forever and that we will join them when our times comes.

It is the same hope that we express at The Committal in every funeral service: On page 723 of our green prayer books:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,

You have given us a sure and certain hope

Of the resurrection to eternal life.

In your keeping are all who have departed in Christ.

We here commit the body of our loved one

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Who died, and was buried, and rose again for us,

And who shall change our mortal body

That it may be like his glorious body.

And the congregation says

Thanks be to God who gives us the victory

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In another version of a Commendation found on page 703 of the APBA

Gracious God, nothing in death or life, nothing in the world as it is, nothing in the world as it shall be, nothing in all creation can separate us from your love. Jesus commended his spirit into your hands at his last hour. Into those same hands we now commend your servant N, that dying to the world, and cleansed from sin, death may be for him/her the gate to life and to eternal fellowship with you; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. It’s a hope expressed in the popular Taize chant “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Particularly helpful in this conundrum are these words from theologian Samuel Negewa: “When we read [2 Timothy 16-18], we should remember that “If we love a person with all our hearts, and if the remembrance of that person is never absent from our minds and memories, then, whatever the intellect of the theologian may say about it, the instinct of the heart is to remember such a loved one in prayer, whether he is in this or in any other world.””[4]

Perhaps it was with this thought in mind that Ignatius of Loyola wrote this prayer:

“Welcome, Lord, into your calm and peaceful kingdom those who, out of this present life, have departed to be with you; grant them rest and a place with the spirits of the just; and give them the life that knows not age, the reward that passes not away; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. Ignatius Loyola, 1491-1556

[1] Jerome Commentary, 900

[2] Negewa, 202

[3] Gooder, 92

[4] Negewa, 202