Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sermon for October 25th: What Happens To Us After We Die? (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Today in our parish we’re beginning what we hope will turn out to be an annual custom: an opportunity for us to remember with prayer and thanksgiving those of our friends and family who have died in the past year or two. In our congregation we have experienced several deaths this year, and some of us have also lost friends and relatives outside this little Christian community of ours. In fact, there can be very few of us who have not been touched, at one time or another, by the reality of death. And young or old, there can be very few of us who have not wondered what that reality means.

So what’s going to happen to me after I die? This is one of the questions human beings have pondered throughout history. We go through life, we work hard to achieve something, we find someone to love and if we’re fortunate we build a family and experience good and positive and lasting relationships. But what does it all mean if it all ends in death? What’s the point of learning, if my brain’s just going to go demented and then die out? What’s the point of love, if sooner or later you’re going to lose the one you love? Is it really possible that all these years of laughing and working, eating and sleeping, learning and loving are going to end up in nothing more than the decay of my body in the grave?

Human beings have always pondered that question, and throughout our history we’ve continuously speculated about what happens to us after we die. Some, believing that the person continues to live in some sense after death, have left tools and articles of clothing in the grave to help the dead person in the next life. Some people have tried to contact the dead, and others believe that the dead have contacted them. Some people have been afraid of what comes after death and have paid money for masses to be said for the safety of their souls. Some have believed that when we die we go to a better place. Others have been skeptical: we just die, and that’s the end of that.

The Christian faith is firmly on record as teaching that there is life after death. In the Nicene Creed, which goes back in its earliest form to the fourth century A.D., we say, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. What does this mean? What do we actually believe about life after death?

Not surprisingly, the early Christians had these questions as well. One of the earliest books of the New Testament to be written was Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians; scholars think it was written around 50 A.D., some twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christians in Thessalonica were worried about what had happened to their fellow-Christians who had died: were they all right? Yes, says, Paul; there’s no need for you to grieve as if you had no hope. We believe that just as Jesus died and rose again, so God will raise the dead with Jesus. We who are alive when the Lord comes again, he says, won’t precede those who have died; when the last trumpet sounds, they will be raised, and we’ll all meet the Lord, and we’ll live with him forever. So encourage each other – build each other up – with these words.

Now that’s an odd answer, don’t you think? Nowadays if Christians were feeling doubtful about life after death, we’d expect their pastors to talk to them about heaven, that lovely place where those who love the Lord will live with him forever. but Paul doesn’t mention heaven at all; he talks about being raised from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet. What’s that all about?

Well, it’s helpful to speculate as to what the question was that the Thessalonian Christians were asking; when you read Paul’s answer, it doesn’t seem as if the question was, ‘Is there life after death?’ Rather, the question seems to have been something like this: ‘Paul, you taught us that even though Jesus’ rule over all things is hidden right now, one day it’s going to be plain to everyone; every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, and his kingdom will come in all its fullness. But some of our fellow-Christians have died without seeing this. What’s going to happen to them? Are they going to miss out on seeing the Kingdom of God?’

Let’s look a little more closely at how Paul answers that question. What about these Thessalonian Christians who have died? Where are they now? And what’s going to happen to them in the future?

Where are they now? 1 Thessalonians 4:13 says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. Or at least, that’s how the New Revised Standard Version puts it. But there’s a little footnote that tells us that the NRSV has made a little change in the translation, presumably to make Paul’s meaning clear. You see, Paul didn’t actually say, ‘died’, he said, ‘fallen asleep’: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep”. This is a very common New Testament metaphor for death: falling asleep in Christ.

Why do the biblical authors use this ‘sleep’ metaphor? I suspect they use it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, from the point of view of the observer, there are some similarities. The sleeper is usually lying down; their eyes are often closed; there’s no activity going on. And the same is true of the dead. But the second reason is the more important one: sleep is a temporary state. The sleepers are going to wake! And that’s what’s going to happen to those who sleep in death, too: one day they are going to wake up. They are going to be raised from the dead.

From the perspective of the observer it looks as if the dead are asleep; what does it look like from the perspective of the ‘sleeper’? Do they experience ‘dying and going to heaven?’ Do they see a great light and go through a tunnel and all that?

We have to be very careful here, because a lot of what we think is Christian teaching isn’t actually Christian at all; it comes from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato taught that the physical life we live in this present world is a very inferior life, full of imperfection. But in the future, after we die, we’ll get rid of this physical existence completely, and be pure spirits; that’s when we’ll find perfection. In other words, we die and go to a better place where we won’t have to bother with all this messy material stuff; we’ll be pure disembodied spirits.

Does that sound like Christian teaching to you - floating on clouds and playing harps? If it does, that just goes to show how completely Plato’s ideas took over the church. But actually, the New Testament doesn’t have a lot to say about heaven at all. In fact, you can make very strong arguments from the New Testament for two different positions. One would be a variation on the ‘heaven’ idea: we die, we go to be with Jesus in Paradise, and we wait there with him until the day of resurrection when we will resume our physical existence in a renewed heaven and earth. The other idea would be that when we die, we simply fall asleep. And you know how it is when you’ve had a really good sleep: you don’t remember a thing about it. The next thing you know, you’re waking up and it seems as if no time has passed at all, except that you feel refreshed. That will be us: we will fall asleep in Jesus, and it will seem to us that the next thing we know is resurrection day!

To tell you the truth, I don’t really know which of these views is the right one. And I really don’t care, because the one thing they both have in common is that what happens immediately after death is only temporary. The really important thing – the life after life after death – is the coming resurrection.

So let’s go back to 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul says,

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever (4:16-17).

It’s easy to get distracted by the strange mythical language of these verses: the trumpet sound, the clouds, the air and so on. Some Christians have taken them literally, and have produced wonderful bluegrass tunes like “I’ll Fly Away’ to celebrate them. But in fact the early Christians didn’t think that; they understood that they were using the language of Jewish apocalyptic literature, which was full of symbolism. The trumpet, the clouds, the air and so on were all coronation language; the believers, dead and living, were being invited to be present at a coronation ceremony for the Lord of heaven and earth. They were being invited to be present at the final consummation of the Kingdom of God.

In other words, this passage isn’t just about individual Christians going to be with the Lord; it’s about the reign of God finally being realised all over the world, as the world is healed of evil and sin and restored to God’s original dream. That’s why the Nicene Creed ties together these two ideas: ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. Our Christian hope isn’t a selfish one: it’s not just about ‘what will happen to me after I die’. It’s about the future of God’s entire creation. And that future will not just be what we call a ‘spiritual’ thing – it will involve bodies and matter as well. All the material things we know with our senses – the taste of food, the feel of the sun on your skin on a warm day, the caress of a lover – these are good things made by a good and loving God. When the last day comes God isn’t going to abandon matter as a bad idea and opt for a purely ‘spiritual’ world, as Plato taught. No: the Bible tells us that what God is going to do is ‘make all things new’; God is going to heal the wounds of creation and restore it to his original dream. And he’s going to raise his people from the dead so that they can enjoy life as he originally conceived it, before evil entered his world.

Of course, this raises many questions that we haven’t been given answers to. In the time of Jesus, the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. Jesus once had a dispute about it with them, because they assumed that if you believed in the resurrection, that meant you had to believe that everyone would go on being married and having kids and so on, but Jesus cautioned them about that; it’s going to be very different, he said. And I’ve sometimes been asked where we’re going to put everyone! After all, a lot of people – billions, presumably – have died and gone before us. If they’re all going to be raised, where are we going to find room for them all on this little earth? The answer is that we don’t know; there are a lot of things that God hasn’t told us about his future plans, and it would be foolish of me to speculate.

What we do know is that the Christian hope is about the renewal of this world. It tells us that the future of this world is in the hands of God and not of the forces of evil and destruction; that the last word will be God’s word and not the words of tyrants or mass murderers. The symbolic language of the book of Revelation tells us that the day will come when the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth, when God will make his home among us and live with us forever, when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more; the time when God will say, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:2-5).

That’s our hope, and so we can face death with a different attitude. Christian teaching doesn’t pretend that death isn’t a huge blow; Paul doesn’t tell his friends in Thessalonica not to grieve for those who have died. What he says is that they do not need to grieve ‘as others do who have no hope’ (4:13). We will grieve, yes, but only as I might grieve if I was going to be separated from my loved ones for a very long trip in which I would be unable to contact them at all. People who don’t have this hope grieve because they see death as the final separation. But we Christians are encouraged to trust that beyond that separation there will be a great reunion, on that bright morning when God renews his whole creation, when Jesus is acknowledged by all as Lord of heaven and earth, and when the human family finally finds the peace and justice we’ve been longing for, for as long as we can remember.

You and I, and our loved ones who have died in the peace of Christ, will see that day. We’ve got reserved seats at the coronation. Thanks be to God!