Church Unity: the narrow stream of death

As All Saints’ Day approaches, I wanted to share this hymn by Charles Wesley with you.  It’s a nice five-verse song (at least in my hymnal) set to the simple tune Dundee.  And its theology is amazing.  Here’s verse 1.

Let saints on earth in concert sing
With those whose work is done;
For all the servants of our King
In heav’n and earth are one.

This starts us off with a call to worship, basically, calling us to sing alongside other Christians who have since departed this life.  Despite physical death, we are united, one in Christ.  This is what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the Communion of Saints.”  The second verse describes this further:

One family we dwell in him,
One Church, above, beneath,
Though now divided by the stream,
The narrow stream of death.

It is popular to talk about how we’re one in Christ, but how often we forget that even death cannot separate us from him.  And if we cannot be separated from him, neither can we be separated from one another!  Verse three takes this to another level of imagery.

One army of the living God,
To his command we bow;
Part of the host have crossed the flood,
And part are crossing now.

The previous verse’s “narrow stream of death” is now a flood that we, God’s army, are crossing.  We’re headed out of this world and into the next: God’s eternal kingdom.  This unity of purpose and movement is described in the next verse.

E’en now by faith we join our hands
With those that went before,
And greet the ever-living bands
On the eternal shore.

In the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein, the elves and certain other characters “die” by sailing West on the sea to a distant land.  A similar concept is being used in this hymn, except here the opposite shore is in reach – the unity of God’s people is not seriously interrupted by death.  So instead of being afraid of death as if it were a permanent defeat, we are able to see it merely as part of our journey in Christ.  The last verse reflects this attitude.

Jesus, be thou our constant Guide;
Then, when the word is giv’n,
Bid Jordan’s narrow stream divide,
And bring us safe to heav’n.

Now the “narrow stream of death” has a name: the Jordan.  This brings in Old Testament imagery: as the Israelites had to cross the Jordan to enter into their promised land and earthly Jerusalem, so do we now, as Christians, cross the stream of death to enter into the promised land of the heavenly Jerusalem!  The reality of death is a sad and painful interruption of visible union, but in terms of spiritual reality it does not separate God’s people at all.  Thus we can sing this song about death without thinking of it as being morbid, but matter-of-factly.

Being one in Christ is a profound and beautiful reality, and it merits celebration.  All Saints’ Day is a day we especially highlight it in the liturgy and teaching of the Church, but this unbroken communion of saints is one of those Gospel truths that ought to be remembered and lived out every day of our lives.  As my (and my wife’s and my mentee’s) favorite part of the Eucharistic prayers put it, “Therefore, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of power and might…!”

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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