Saturday, 13 November 2010

3 before Advent: Life after death. a sermon by Kevin Bright

Job 19.23-27a, Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17 & Luke 20.27-38

I was chatting earlier this week about what keyhole surgery is, when you think about it the surgeons have given themselves plenty of room for interpretation here. It really all depends on the size of the key doesn’t it, is it one of those tiny keys that you use for a pointless suitcase padlock that can spring open in a strong wind or are we talking about the sort of key used to open ancient church doors?

As you came into church this morning you will have walked under a man holding some keys which are also rather large in proportion to his body, St Peter allegedly holding the keys to heaven and it’s access to heaven, the afterlife, the resurrection life, our very salvation which features in our readings today.

Of course before we can consider the question of what life after death could be like we have to consider the issue of death itself. Sitting between the Sundays of All Souls, when we remember loved ones who have died and Remembrance Sunday when we reflect on sacrifice, service and many who have died in distressing circumstances, perhaps today’s readings are well placed.

Most of us will have suffered the death of someone we love and will know the resulting distress, sadness and heartbreak that changes our lives for their remainder. At its rawest moments someone telling us that our loved ones are at peace with God might offer long term hope but does little to ease the excruciating pain of the loss.

There’s certainly nowhere that states the rules for access to eternity with God nor much detail on what the afterlife could be like. Perhaps there are reasons for this, it may not be possible to define in earthly terms.

If you have ever watched the cooking programme ‘Saturday Morning Kitchen’ they usually have a guest who states what their idea of food heaven and food hell is, recently food hell was described as a pumpkin dish for one guest though you can be sure that many people at home would be shouting at the television that this is one of their favourite dishes. Similarly one person’s idea of heaven might be somewhere they can swim in the sea every day, another where reading time is unlimited, another having a beautiful garden to work in and another where they have the freshest ingredients available to prepare the finest meals.

Jesus makes it clear that all such ideas are superfluous in the answer which he provides to the Sadducees.

The question arose in the last week of Jesus earthly life following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They attempt to ridicule the concept of resurrection life by using a far-fetched example to make nonsense of it. In the resurrection what is the situation of a woman who had seven earthly husbands? Which, if any, would be her real husband? The Law of Moses forbade the practice of having more than one husband at a time.Thus all seven could not morally be her husbands and, presumably, there would be no immorality in the resurrected life and therefore, it could not exist.

The answer goes way beyond the question to the point where it is left looking ridiculous.

Jesus makes it clear that such earthly considerations have no place in heaven any more than the type of food we prefer, the next life cannot be compared to this one. Jesus tells us how different it will be when he says ‘they cannot die anymore because they are like angels and children of God’.

When I thought about the fact that Jesus indicates there will be no marriage in heaven I had serious and not so serious thoughts.

One conjured up a cartoon like image of a worn down little woman with a grumpy and overbearing husband sitting in the pew with a balloon coming out of her head stating ‘is this what they meant when they said come to church to hear the good news?

The more sensible thought was how you sometimes see on a gravestone where husband and wife are buried ‘united once again’ or similar sentiments. It shows how we are limited to seeing things in earthly terms, yet such words symbolise our hope for an eternity with those we love, knowing that if we are children of God then we can trust the God of love to care for us in ways which we cannot currently comprehend.

I can remember the words of the priest at my brother’s funeral. He had lifelong disabilities which meant he never was able to walk or do all the things my second brother and I were able to take for granted. She stated that following his death he was now kicking a football in heaven. I don’t think she meant that this would be compulsory otherwise we will be heading back to different peoples ideas of heaven and hell. I think she meant that she believed we will one day be free of the constraints of our earthly bodies able to enjoy perfect health in a new form.

It is both wise and proper that we think about what happens to us after we die and yet we have to also think whether this affects the way we chose to live our lives now.

Are we able to enter into a loving relationship with God now which will endure for eternity? Can we trust that Jesus sacrifice on the cross and his victory over death through the resurrection has opened a pathway to God for us?

I would hope that the answer is yes but the truth is probably…not always.

Sometimes earthly concerns and worries dominate our thoughts and shut out God. Sometimes we let ourselves down and cannot imagine a God so generous that he would forgive us and have us back. Sometimes faith in something so wonderful, so generous, such sacrificial love can seem just too great to be real. Put simply it’s often difficult to believe that each one of us could really be loved so much, and yet we are.

In the letter to the Thessalonians the people are urged to move beyond anxiety and fear about the end times and to focus on what they need to survive the times of difficulty, to keep their faith real and to draw on the assurance of their salvation. Like them we should be encouraged to stand firm in our faith avoiding the temptation to abandon it when it would be more convenient to do so.

I was recently given a copy of the text and accompanying notes for the passion play which takes place in the German town of Oberammergau every ten years.

The notes remind us that familiarity with Christ’s story cannot always be assumed and also that the issues and questions which seem relevant to it can shift with time. It’s something we need to consider when sharing Christ’s message with others. Yet there is also an element that doesn’t change, the fact that the story of Christ’s life captures ‘the fears and longings of the people’ giving’ them the kind of hope offered by faith.’ It states that the play is not museum like folk theatre but is a story that continues to reach deep into life.

It’s a message we will do well to apply to today’s readings reminding ourselves that the powerful message of God’s love and the hope it offers to us are not just something found in the history told by the bible but continue to be real, personal and available to us today.

Not long after answering the question about life after death from the Sadducees Jesus would find himself close to death on the cross as one of the criminals at his side uttered those familiar words ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replies ‘truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’.

He wants his followers to know that they will be with him when this life is over.

Confident in this truth we realise that all the rest is detail, detail which we can happily trust to God.


Kevin Bright

7 November 2010

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