Death and Beyond

Mark 12:18-27, 1 Cor 15:35-44

One of the hardest things we face in our lives is that at some point we have to say goodbye. At some point we have to call it quits and take a new journey into the unknown of what lies beyond. One of the realities that hasn’t changed all through the ages is that mortality rates for every living creature including ourselves has remained at 100%. No amount of research and scientific discovery has managed to budge this figure.

One of the surprising things is that in a world where we seem keen to break every taboo in terms of what we talk about and what we parade in the media, death remains something we hide from. Our society seems to keep hoping that death will somehow remain over the horizon. I simply want to make the assertion that a healthy view of death helps us live healthy lives. John Calvin the great reformer used to say take a walk in a cemetery at least once a week – it’s good for the soul. Dying shouldn’t be discussed in hushed tones, but should be a reality we accept. A healthy view of dying us will enhance our living and often will help us die well, and our religion should help us find this life and confidence in the face of death. God’s Spirit proclaims a message of hope not fear. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” Paul said, “has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

I wonder what he meant by set you free from the law of death. I think it’s something like this: The Spirit of Jesus, or what we know as the Holy Spirit will move within us to help us face death with hope, not fear, with a deep confidence not anxiety. Jesus has walked through death and come out the other side. It is not a full stop.
It is also not a removal to some far off place called heaven where we wander around in white robes and playing golf all day. Being set free means simply trusting God that all will be well.

The Spirit whispers…
Death is a part of life. Dying is how things are supposed to be. There are deaths that happen far too soon and in ways that God does not desire. There is tragedy in life and I don’t think of us can fully understand why. But dying is part of living and in the end we have to step aside and let someone else have a turn. In the natural order of things we wear out and we have to let go and let another generation take over. As leaves on the tree we do our bit to bring life to the tree but in the end we have to let go and drop to the earth to let new buds burst forth with new leaves. This is how life works.

The Spirit whispers…
Death is a mystery. What actually happens in death remains mystery. Jesus spoke of resurrection and evidenced this in his own life. The Sadducees tried to rubbish Jesus on this point. They were a group of Jewish intellectuals who were strict about keeping the laws and following scripture. They had no place for people who talked about a new fangled idea called resurrection. Read your scriptures they would say and a careful reading of much of the Old Testament would indeed back them up. So who would you be married to in the afterlife they questioned Jesus if you had multiple wives. Good practical question but as Jesus answers it’s not as straightforward as that. What follows isn’t continuation of what is. He simply says our forefathers in the faith like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive in God. It’s an interesting answer because Jesus refuses to give a clear picture of how or what death entails, other than to say we are gathered into God’s eternal life.

Paul picks up this mystery in his letter to the Corinthians. He claims we simply have no way of knowing exactly what lies ahead because it’s like entering another dimension of this world. He uses the analogy of the seed dying. You plant a seed and next thing you see the seed changed into a plant. You could never guess what that transformation looks like by looking at the seed. The resurrection life is quite different and yet it is closely linked to what went before. Our creeds talk of Jesus’ resurrection as a physical resurrection – his continuing life is still intimately linked to this earth and is not about some removed far off heaven.

I expect there will be some awareness of reunion with our loved ones. When I am with dying people I often hear stories of loved ones visiting or waiting but our individuality is different when we die into God. I have a hunch that dying is a bit like being gathered up by a giant wave of warmth and love. I like the images contained in our faith of being called home or returning to the source, but don’t ask me to explain these images in every last detail. They are metaphorical images. The deepest things in life are all about metaphorical images.

The Spirit whispers…..
Death involves judgment. In recent years we have reports from people who have died and been resuscitated again. Often these people talk of travelling down some sort of tunnel and becoming aware of a wonderful light and warmth and love. A welcoming home. But they will often talk of their life being reviewed before them and of judging their own lives in the presence of love. I am aware that some say all this is simply chemical interaction in the brain but I don’t think it’s that simple. Jesus too talked of judgment and in our heritage that has taken the form of images of being cast into hell. I sat with someone dying a while ago who was clearly uncomfortable about dying. I think they contemplated the possibility that they were somehow not good enough to be welcomed into God’s arms. Like all of us they knew they could have done better. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and like most of us there were things in their life they were not proud of. Would they get the thumbs up or the thumbs down? Hell pictured this way is an unhelpful image. I lived in Jerusalem for a few months and one day took a walk to hell. I need to explain. There was (actually there still is) a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem called Gehenna where there was a constant fire burning and wild animals ran around gnashing teeth. Gehenna in our English bibles is called hell. It was a rubbish dump. It is a good thing for us to let stuff go from our lives. The failure to use our gifts well, the fears that have imprisoned us, the relationships that have gone bad. I believe in death there will be a chuck out of stuff in our lives to be forgotten and cast on the rubbish heap. This purifying fire may surprise us with some bitter truths. But I think there will be some other surprises. Many who think of themselves as nothing special, and I look out and see a whole host of you here, will discover that all those deeds of kindness, the moments when you put others first are remembered and celebrated by God.

God’s judgment is not a matter of punishment or an instrument of torture but is a restoring judgment. People who have had near death experiences and experienced the judgment of their lives invariably have new energy to live more meaningful lives. Judgment motivates and reminds us that the choices we make matter. The choices we make have consequences and the tradition of talking about judgment in death should energise us to discover what is of real value in our mission of loving and healing God’s world. It is to encourage us to use our wealth to make others rich, not to hoard it, to use our power to encourage others not to pull them down, to give of ourselves to enhancing the gift of life in ourselves in others and in all the earth.
So dying… We die into God. We will enter into a goodness so good, a richness so rich, a holiness so holy, a mercy and love so strong and true that all of our pride, lust, greed, resentment and fear will instantly be melted out of us. We will at that moment understand how deep is God’s love.

We die into God and this future is described by another image in our scriptures, and that is the image of a great banquet around God’s table of joy. It is an image of acceptance, feasting, communion, equality, aliveness, festivity. Trust God and know those who have gone before us, and every one of us will discover a love that will not let you go when our turn comes to cross the great divide..

Dugald Wilson 11 Nov 2018

Was there something that stood out for you in the address today?

Talk with a friend about your experiences and your fears about death. Talk together about what you think happens at death and what images surrounding death are important for you…..

What have you been taught about God’s judgment. Do you think of judgment as punishment or as purification?

Imagine God as a wonderful warm presence of love that holds all those who go before us and rest in that presence.