Year C, Pentecost, 7 July 2019
“I Have A Question! What Happens When We Die?”
Trinity Church on the Green
We begin a six week Summer Sermon Series today called “I have a question!” I solicited questions from you, our congregation and community, and you asked! You asked some great questions. Over the next few weeks, I and 5 other guest preachers will aim to answer those questions in our sermons. We will also try to answer some of your questions in the classroom – at adult education immediately following the 10:00 service downstairs in the library, beginning next Sunday. So buckle up, we’re in for a wild ride, and I hope it will be illuminating and helpful.
Today’s question may be the ultimate question: it is a question that brings and keeps many of us coming back to church. Today’s question is, “what happens when we die?”
I’m sure that many of you have seen the film Monty Python’s Meaning of Life? One of the best and final scenes has Death pay a visit, literally. The stylized Grim Reaper complete with his scythe comes and knocks on the door of a simple little house in the British countryside. The owner opens the door, Death gets invited in, and in a very funny scene, those gathered for cocktails and dinner do what so many of us do when it comes to encountering death. We try to ignore it – we put it off – we try to distract ourselves – we try to talk small talk around it –we use humour – we question it – we bargain with death. After trying to get Death to have a drink and join the party, Death reveals that they are all indeed now dead due to botulism from the salmon mousse – yes, even, somehow the guest who never ate the salmon mousse – and then Death goes on to take them to a very, very silly version of paradise.
What happens when we die? I don’t think it’s quite what the Pythons imagined. Yet, neither I know the exact details – no one does. BUT – Jesus has reassured us that death is not the end. Jesus’ whole mission was to conquer death – our belief as Christians is that Jesus overcame death, and opened the way to eternal life. What do we mean by this technical language? By eternal life, we mean a new existence: one in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other. Something better than we have here – something better than we can ask or imagine. And our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. That is what we are promised: we are promised this better existence, united with God and all those we love and see no more.
These days as more causes of death result from chronic conditions, people are living AND dying longer. Despite this, our culture is one that is saturated in messages of cure, restoration and recovery. It is important that we as the Church respond to this. Throughout its history, the Church and the Gospel have offered comfort and hope when its people have faced death. We’ve gotten a whole lot wrong, but I’d like to think that our beliefs and rituals around death and dying have helped some if not many. I believe that if the church does NOTHING else, it must attend to the needs of the dying and those who grieve.
There are many Scripture passages we could look to – so many, that we could be here all day and into the week, but my FAVORITE passage to look to for an answer to today’s question is from John’s Gospel, chapter 14, verses 1-7. It is the passage I typically choose to read and preach on at funerals:
Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” This has also been translated as “My Father’s house has many rooms.” or “My Father’s House has MORE than enough room.” Or, “In my Father’s House there are many mansions.” (who doesn’t want their own mansion?)
Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled!” Jesus is not just saying, “try not to be sad.” Jesus is telling his disciples then in preparation for his death and now to us living in these frightening times to stand firm in the face of death, especially when it looks like evil and death will get the upper hand. Jesus is saying, “be strong. Be strong. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jewish traditions identified the “Father’s House” with a heavenly dwelling place. Jesus may not exactly be promising us our own mansions in heaven – our own luxury suites with hot tubs and room service. Rather, Jesus is speaking of the mutual indwelling of God and Jesus – a relationship of wondrous love that is inclusive to all of us. A promise that by Jesus returning to God, we too may return to God and be reunited and reconciled, inhabiting one’s “place” in God’s home.
Thomas says, “we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?” I hear ya, Thomas! Every time we face death, it is upsetting and unsettling. Each time we suffer a loss, we experience it in a fresh way – we don’t know the exact way we will grieve someone we love. Yet, Jesus assures us that we know the way. By knowing Jesus, we can find our way forward. By knowing Jesus, we know the way to God.
The follow up question will no doubt be: but what about Heaven and Hell? And yes, we Episcopalians do technically believe in hell. Hell is eternal death in our rejection of God. Hell is maybe not so much a place but a condition: one can certainly experience hell on earth. And what about heaven? Heaven is eternal life in our enjoyment of God. And what about Purgatory? The concept of Purgatory can be traced back to patristic times as a temporary, intermediate state between heaven and hell. As developed in the Roman Catholic Church, purgatory is a state or place of hope and anticipation, where sins are forgiven and any last minute punishment is carried out. The Articles of Religion, which you can find in the back of your Prayer Book, and which were established by the Bishops, Clergy and Laity of the early Episcopal Church in 1801 deem that Purgatory is a “Romish Doctrine” that is “grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God,” and is therefore of no official merit in our Catechism and Book of Common Prayer. One can believe in Purgatory, however, and some of us do: many Anglicans believe in a continuing process of growth and development after death – that is why we pray for those who have died. I both love and hate the idea of having to make peace with all the people I did not like someday in Purgatory – of having to reconcile with everyone I ever even got cross with before being allowed to go on to Heaven.
Whatever exactly happens to us after we die, our souls are in God’s hands. I don’t think there will be pearly gates, but I also don’t think there will be fire and brimstone. Jesus depicts God the Father as a Prodigal God – an extravagant God who runs to greet us, who wants to throw us a feast when we return home. We are all God’s kids – and God is a loving parent who wants all of God’s kids home for the holiday.
As people of faith, it begins with us. We cannot be in denial of death, and we cannot trust purely in science or medicine. As part of the Christian story, we are first and last creatures of God. While we are individuals, we must remember that we are dependent and interdependent of each other – and one day we will die. We may think we are our own, but life is a precious and fragile gift. Sometimes we tend to revel in a youth culture of easy cures, and we claim our individualism in every area of life – socially, economically, politically and religiously. Sometimes our individualism expresses itself in selfishness: we always want and expect more: more life, more time, more care, more medication, more from caregivers. It is when we decide that we know better than God, when we go our own way that we sin. We can certainly hope in miracles, but we sometimes hope to the point of insisting that the God who loves each of us and is powerful can therefore rearrange the entire created world in order to delay the dying of each of God’s creatures. Unfortunately, we will not always be satisfied with the outcome. I do believe in miracles as I’ve seen them happen, and I know that prayer is powerful. But part of our journey is learning to align our lives to walk in faith, trusting in God, though we walk in the valley of the shadow of death and we may not be able to see the other side.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “those who live with Christ die daily to their own will…in this way our physical death very truly becomes not the end but rather the fulfillment of our life with Jesus Christ.” The Gospel message and the Christian story of dying in faith can therefore unfold and provide for each of us a firm foundation on which to face life’s final task.
Let us Pray:
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, in your mercy, grant us safe lodgings, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.