The Sunday Sermon: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 1, 2018
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
What Happens to Us After We Die?
In a twist of the words preached by Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1922 we hear our call for this month:
The Church treats our minds as though they were really important. The church says to all of us, young and old: “Here are the mysteries challenging our investigation. Here are the truths we have discerned, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have discovered and then look deeper to discover more, for faith is also an intellectual adventure for the Truth.”
And so we accept this invitation, generated as it is out of our hope that the church universal may one day be this open to new discoveries, new insights, new articulations of its mysteries: God, Christ, the Bible, community, salvation, and life everlasting. We’re not going to wait for such a time. We’re going to begin it in our own small, humble, way this month.
As the announcement in our bulletin insert this morning notes: You have responded. I have listened. Now it’s the Spirits turn to speak. Our message titles are listed there and the topics should be (mostly) understood from them. I have combined some of your inquiries in creative ways to engage as many of the thirty-five responses as I could in five Sundays. This morning we begin with our response to the question “What Happens after We Die?”
Pray with me … Read 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
One of the responses, not necessarily having to do with life after death, asked for some exploration of this scripture passage, 1 Corinthians, chapter 13 , beyond it’s usual reading at marriage ceremonies. “It’s so much more than a simple wedding passage about love,” someone wrote. Indeed it is. This morning as we read and hear its verses, we hear “glimpses” – however dimly and incompletely – of our sermon subject this morning: eternal life.
So, in other words from the writings of Paul: What then are we to day about these things? Romans 8:31
For most of Christian history, any discussion of eternal life was limited to a discussion of death and life beyond death, whether for us as individuals or for history as whole. What happens to us when we die? Is there a “death” of all creation? And, if so, how will that happen – a transformation of this world or the destruction of it? And in response to these questions, great discussions developed, and develop still, around the notions of resurrection, Christ’s second coming, a last judgment, and everlasting salvation or damnation (Suchocki, God Christ Church, 183). In these conversations “what comes next,” God’s reign, was, and still is, imaged as “the city of God,” or “the Kingdom of God,” or, further separating it from any reality we are familiar with, in the gospel of Matthew’s metaphor “the Kingdom of Heaven.”
While there has been some attention given to the life of the church and the individual Christian in history, itself, particularly in the last fifty years or so, the dominant thought from all these discussions was, and still is, that Christians are a pilgrim people, journeying toward another place, that “city not made with hands,” eternal in the heavens” toward which God calls us all to be judged and meet our eternal destiny.
In spite of 20th century scientific discoveries and 21st century theological insights, we continue to cling to notions of this “heaven” in the sky after we die and of God as loving, but still controlling, judge because it helps assure us that something is in control, that evil will be punished, and that we will be rewarded in some way for all that we have had to endure in this life. (Hmm …)
The concept of “Heaven” grew, and grows, out of something deep within the human being and, however pure the original motivations for conceiving of a “place where there was no sorrow or sadness and no separation,” it quickly became a method of behavior control by both church and society (Spong, Resurrection, 287). It still is used that way by many churches (and many societies), but I don’t personally believe in life after death as a method to control behavior, and I hope that the whole church will someday reject this path, as well. The Protestant church has to large extent.
Something in our experience of the “real world” (i.e. Why do bad things happen to Good people, and vice versa – sermon two our Summer series, next week) and something in our understanding of a God who is Love and Grace doesn’t allow us to be quite so swayed by the reward/punishment aspect of an afterlife.
Something in our modern and post-modern minds doesn’t allow us to image that afterlife spent in the clouds, be-winged and holding harps. And for many of us, maybe most of us, it’s no longer comforting even to imagine “heaven” as “life as we know it now” only with no pain, suffering, anxiety or worry. That seems so … detached and meaningless to the world we know and from all those we love who may remain after we die.
So what are we supposed to imagine? What are we to believe, to “give our hearts to” and set our minds on?
I’m going to respond initially, and very personally, in the words of almost all the other theologians I turn to for help on theological matters such as this. And it probably won’t surprise many of you to hear me say: I don’t have a clue about what happens next. We don’t have a clue about what happens next.
In that response, as I just noted, I am in accord with many a theologian and perhaps most of you. But unlike some of those theologians, many of whom work in academia, not the parish setting, I’m called to say more.
What happens to us after we die?
Let me start here: I’m intrigued, as many others are, by some of the research done on near death experiences, on people who have been near death. Many of those who are deemed credible report fascinatingly similar patterns: journeying through a tunnel, bursts of light, a sense of being surrounded by a comforting presence, and often a sense of being “out of their body.” Marcus Borg says that it’s this last experience that intrigues him the most. Me, too. The idea that our consciousness and perception can, even for a moment, be separate from our bodies – most often we hear something like “I was rising above my body and looking down” – that idea, allows us to imagine all sorts of possibilities after death (Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 181). But, still, all those who have reported these things didn’t die, or didn’t “remain dead,” depending on what you believe about their reports. I, we, still have no real idea what any of this might mean for life beyond death.
We do know a lot about the diverse ways that Christians through the millennia have thought about or believed in this afterlife, as well as those of people of others religions. The dominant belief for the first thousand years of Christianity was that we’re simply dead until the second coming of Jesus and the “resurrection of all the dead,” complete with judgment. Around the year 1000, belief began to shift to judgment at the moment of death. So which is it?
Throughout history, Christians have believed in at least three possible post-death states. There is heaven and hell, and the third state is purgatory. Even today only Protestants, who make up a very small percentage of the Christians who have ever lived, have rejected purgatory. Are we right?
Does heaven involve the survival of our personal self-awareness? And if so, is that desirable? Does heaven involve reunions with family? And if so, would that be good news or bad news? Will we all be “perfected?” And if so, will we then be the same people?
These are the questions that bombard us when we think about what happens to us when we die. And there is no honest way of deciding among the different ways of thinking about what lies beyond death (182). So why can’t we just say “yes” to all those possibilities? Let us “take what we’ve discerned so far and go further …”
“Yes” to life after death being a reward, being a reunion, being a resurrection?
“Yes” to life after death being a conscious existence, being a shared experience, being a collective encounter?
“Yes” to life after death being a continuation of, a connection to, and a comfort for those who remain in the life we’ve lived together, here?
Life in this world is finite. It comes into existence at a particular moment, lives out its appointed days and passes out of existence here. But here’s the thing: Because we can think about, because we can imagine it, and because – after thinking and imagining it, we choose to believe in it, we can connect our “appointed span of days” here with that which is beyond our limits. We can connect with the eternal, with the “More,” with that which we call “God.” And as we connect to God (And think bigger when you think “God” – think Love, think Life itself), as we connect to Life, with a capital “L,” more and more deeply in our lives together, here, we incorporate our lives more and more fully into the eternal, into “God” at the moment of our death.
I say “yes” to life after death because as all of us entered into a relationship with God (think bigger, remember – we “entered into” Love itself through the doorway that is Jesus, the Christ), as we entered into relationship with this eternity – whether we were young or older, or it was only a moment ago – we entered into the timelessness that is God. In the truest of senses, then, we are experiencing life after death right now. And when we die, we cannot die into nothingness. We’ll die into God – into Life itself, and into all that Life truly intends. That’s what happens to us after we die. We live … more fully … in the reality that we name “God.
It seems to me that, theological as I know it is, that’s a too much of a “philosophical” way for me to conclude this message. So I share one more idea for this morning. In his book, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, priest, professor, and writer Henri Nouwen shares a version of the following tale:
In a mother’s womb were two babies awaiting birth, twins, a brother and a sister. After some time together growing, jostling for space as time went by, always finding a way to live side-by-side but more and more aware that this “space” wasn’t going to hold them forever, the brother asked his sister: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”
The sister replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. This can’t be all, beautiful as it is. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nah. I think it’s nonsense” said the brother. “I don’t believe there is life after delivery. I mean, what kind of life would that be, anyway?”
The sister said, “I don’t know, but I imagine there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and even eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses, feel other things that we can’t understand now.”
To which the brother replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short that life after delivery is, well, logically unimaginable.”
The sister persisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The brother repeated, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life after delivery, then why has no one ever come back from there? No, delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but a deeper darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the sister, “but certainly I think we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
Her brother became angry. “A mother!” he shouted. “What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? As I told you, this place is all we have. Why do you always want more? This is not such a bad place, after all. We have all we need, so let’s be content.”
The sister was quite overwhelmed by her brother’s response and for a while didn’t dare say anything more. But she couldn’t let go of her thoughts, and since she had only her twin brother to speak to, she finally said, “Sometimes, when we’re really quiet and I focus in and listen, I can perceive Her presence, and hear Her loving voice. And don’t you feel these squeezes every once in a while? They’re not always pleasant and sometimes they’re even painful, but … She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”
The brother didn’t answer. He was fed up with the foolish talk of his sister and felt that the best thing would be simply to ignore her and hope that she would leave him alone.
“I’ll never leave you alone,” She said. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” he said.
The sister smiled and whispered to herself, “Maybe that’s the best answer for now.”
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now we know only in part; then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.
We believe. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / July 1, 2018