Preached November 4, 2012, in the Dunmore/Throop charge
Revelation 21: 1-6a
We really don’t know what happens after we die. We know that we feel some things in this life, and death sometimes alleviates pain, and suffering. We don’t know what happens next. We have some ideas, there have been people over the years who have written books about what happens next. Going into the light, coming back from the light…We just don’t really know, and we don’t like to feel sad, and we don’t like going to a funeral, and seeing the family, and not knowing what to say.
And if you’ve ever been on the other side of that; if your spouse has died, or a parent, or a sibling, or a child, and you’re the one receiving the line. It’s brutal. You have to open yourself up enough to accept the grace and well wishes of many, many people all in a row, and endure some really boneheaded statements because they mean well.
I remember that when some people would try to comfort me, they would say some things that would make me very angry, angry enough t want to lash out. “Well, God just needed another angel in heaven”. “Well, her spirit had learned all it needed to, and it has gone back home.”
Yeah. I’ll be honest. I wanted to swing at someone. God didn’t need another angel more than my son needs his mother. Her spirit wouldn’t have quit midstream just because it was done.
At the same time, they were doing their best to say something of comfort in a terrible situation. I knew that, too.
What I believe is that in most cases, God does not call people home. What I believe is that God accepts them freely when they arrive, but there is no grand calendar by which we live and die according to a schedule. My God is a comforting God, an accepting god. My God is not a God that causes death, or pain, or cancer, or car accidents, or heart attacks or aneurysms. These are just our bodies at work. And God IS ALWAYS ready to accept us home when we arrive, though God is sometimes surprised to see us there.
The 14th chapter of John speaks of this, where Jesus says “where I go, I go to prepare a place for you; in my fathers house are many dwelling places…” Like the Grand Hotel on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with great green lawns. And Jesus says, “I’m going to prepare a place for you.”
We as Christians, we do not believe that death is an end. We believe that death is a change, and a positive change. Everything that we receive from God and Scripture and tradition tells is that when we die, we return to God. This is not the final place. This is not even the best place. Where we’re going next is better. Where we’re going next is to be with God.
Now, another thing: when we talk about death, and All Saints, we talk about heaven, we have to be honest and also talk about hell.
When we read our funeral liturgy, what you hear in the service passes only very lightly over hell, though you will hear it mentioned. What you gather from that is that hell is never a permanent place; and I think this is Christian orthodoxy. I think this is right. This is just not what Jesus is about.
But we have to deal with it in our culture, because there is so much popular or folk Christianity out there that says, “bad people go to hell”, and “good people go to heaven.” And some people get it so twisted up in their minds that they end up not being sure where they will end up. Some say “all non Christians are going to hell”, and “All Christians who didn’t do what they were supposed to” are going to hell. Well, maybe so. But I don’t think so.
One of my friends is a pastor who once had to deal with the idea that had taken hold of a congregation that said that people who die in suicide all go to hell. Then someone in her congregation did so, and she had to deal with the dismissive-ness and anguish with the people who now believed that their friend has kissed her guarantee to heaven goodbye in one irrational act.
Northing in scripture supports this. If someone commits suicide, they are in a huge amount of pain, and they make an irrational snap decision. It’s different when someone is suffering from a terminal illness, the treatment may be worse than the disease itself, and all treatments give you a half life measured in months. That’s not suicide in the sense that this colleague was dealing with. There is nothing in scripture that deals with this, so there is nothing that permits us to go against the loving spirit of God in saying that that person has sent themselves to hell, permanently.
Hell might be there, for all we know, but right in the beginning of our funeral liturgy we say that “Jesus holds the keys of hell and death.” What that means is that whomever might be sent to hell, they are not there permanently. The power of the redemption of Jesus is such that he can open the gates and redeem everyone inside, as well!
This is what we believe. Our God, our Jesus, is more powerful than hell. Our God, our Jesus, is more powerful than death; we know this because of the resurrection of Jesus by God at Easter.
There’s a church tradition (I’m not sure how Scriptural it is, I know it more from the original Apostles’ creed, but I like it) that in those three days between Good Friday and Easter, between death and resurrection, Jesus also went to hell, and he had keys made for the gates, so to speak. Because he’s coming back, he’s unlocking those gates on that day, end everyone inside is coming home, Olly Olly Oxen Free.
Even the father who beat your mom when he was drunk and you were a kid. Even the mother who abandoned you. Even Hitler. They will all be redeemed, they will all be changed, they will all be brought back into God.
All of our relatives are part of being in God after we die. These people will join them at the right time, and Jerusalem will descend from heaven, as a symbol of God coming to be with us. There will be one place, and we will all be with them.
This is what we understand heaven to be. Because of the love of God, in Christ, we can be assured that we will end up here, too when it is our time to die. Deny that idea all you want, ignore it, push it away; but we will all die. It is inevitable. But take comfort and reassurance that the next stop, the destination, is a better place, and we will all be with God. We will all be reunited with those whom we love; we will all be reconciled to those whom we hate, and we will all be in one place, together.
Where we’re going is not scary. Where we’re going is love. Where we’re going is home.