Based on the Scripture readings:
2010 October 31
Not at All Dead
Last week, I was having lunch with a good friend whose father had died. He was bearing his grief and missing his dad. When my mother died suddenly years ago, I felt something similar. But amidst his grief, my friend reminded me of something said by an Episcopal priest we knew up in Maine. This man, Rev. Dwinell, said that when we die, we just go to another part of God.
In a sense, that is what the author of Ephesians says with all those references to being "in" Jesus and "in" God. That is, God was in Christ, we are in Christ, so we are all connected: eternally, in different parts of God. The dead are not departed from God. Or us. Dwinell said that we don't know exactly where they are, so we have to search hard to find them.
Today is All Hallow's Eve. As we learned well last week, for many centuries Christians have claimed that on this day we can encounter a thin place between life and death where spirits are a little closer than otherwise -- around All Saints' Day. Like the image in Luke where the rich man and Lazarus, lying on the bosom of Abraham, reveal a thin place between life and death, we can also apprehend other parts of God today.
And that is my focus this morning: what happens when people die? Where do we go, who are we, what does our Christian faith proclaim? The answer takes more than one sermon, although I've summarized it already, too: we go to another part of God, plain and simple.
Think about Jesus' teaching to follow this focus. And pursue your exploration of death with His words of life. For Jesus affirms often that our God is a God of the living. Which can sound restricting. Yet after His death and resurrection, those who follow Jesus realize something about life after life, too. They realize that our God is a God of the living and that life is both here and now as well as there and eternal. We say this with consistency: consistency from the testimony of Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews and from the early days of the Church until this day. Life builds on life in the God of the living.
Consider the origins of this promise, and look around at how it lives now.
Here is a semester course in one paragraph, summarizing ten books of the Bible as well as Jewish and Christian thought since the Second Temple period around 515 BC. Just one paragraph. One dense paragraph. Here goes. Since the time of the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, our Jewish and Christian ancestors have believed in something called resurrection. Daniel, Hosea, Ezekiel, and others make these amazing assertions: the God who can create from dust can make a new creation too, and the people who experience conquest, domination, and loss do not lose their chosen identity from God ever, and God's ultimate values include liberation and restoration, and divine judgment is on the cruel and convicting, not the weak or oppressed. Therefore, across twenty-five centuries, resurrection reveals the reversal of both death and injustice as well as any sense of abandonment. Jesus, when preaching the Kingdom of God or offering the Beatitudes, addresses what happens in the last days, so even before His own, resurrection was in his mind. The faith that followed Him regarding a new heaven and a new earth imagined a cosmic character to resurrection, beyond the individualistic affects that entangle us, and so in scripture there are three main types of resurrection: Jesus', ours, and the most prevalent all along: a general resurrection, which means that this is a communal gift. Because in resurrection God vindicates and reaffirms that creation is good and vanquishes all pretenders to power in the interim. Which is where we live: in the interim. But this general, communal, powerful, justice-drenched, love-grounded event fulfills a promise and inaugurates eternal life, which one scholar calls transphysical. That's the whole semester in eight sentences.1
It means that our people have believed in resurrection for a long, long time with characteristics far beyond our media imagery or storybook summary. And it's not about us and how nice we are: it's not the natural progression of a tender spirit freed from a broken body by a kind God. It is the unnatural reclamation of all people individually and communally by the God who created them from the world which they made for their own image. It is about the triumph of love over entropy and promise over pessimism. And as good a picture as any can paint of it, it looks different from our best efforts.
I like the simplicity of the Apostle Paul. He says, "The dead will be raised." That's it. The dead will be raised. And, he says, what we sow for the next life is not the body you know: this is a kernel or a grain -- this life is the seed for the next. God takes the kernel, says Paul, and gives it a new life. This next body, this unimaginable body, is imperishable, spiritual, glorious, powerful, and changed, says Paul. (1 Corinthians 15)
Paul's image is hugely comforting: the heavenly image of something so different from what we know -- as different as seed and plant -- yet so organically connected and inseparable, too. There is a poetry to the connection of seed and plant, a harmony, a mystery, so Paul cries, resurrection renounces the sting of death.
His image of connection is complicated, though. How can I imagine a tomato plant if all I have is a seed? How can I imagine a resurrected life if all I see is the kernel? Carl Jung says that we are trying to "speak of incomprehensible things" here. But listen to Rev. Frederick Buechner and to Jung for two images to add to Paul's and to encourage ours.
Fred Buechner is a minister and writer and a true representative of orthodox faith. He says that we should look beyond the immortality of the soul because that's not exactly in the Bible. He writes, "The Biblical understanding of man is not that he has a body but that he is a body," like Adam and Eve connecting the breath and earth to come alive. And if the body isn't bad and signifies life, why should our soul separate from it? This doesn't make sense if we proclaim the goodness of creation, Buechner says.
He writes, "Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is as natural a function of humankind as digestion after eating. //The Bible instead speaks of resurrection: … entirely unnatural… People go to the grave as dead as a doornail and are given their life back again by God, just as we were given it in the first place by God." He says that "the idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of humankind's indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God's unspeakable love." He says he doesn't know exactly what happens. But he believes that it is much more than we would modestly presume.
Carl Jung adds something more. In his autobiography Jung writes about life after death. He says that quite often what is believed about the hereafter comes from wishful thinking that can make everything pleasant. Yet not everything is pure heaven. So Jung reports on his observations involving connections between the living and the dead. And he arrives at three conclusions: we go to death with what we have gathered in life. Not materially, but in our experience, our consciousness, our soul. We proceed in an afterlife beyond space and time, in eternity, and we have an interest in what he calls the final psychological results of human life. We have an interest in life's summary. And, he says, it is a conscious existence, it is an embodied existence in some way, and it is an existence that sometimes comes in contact with existence on earth.
Jung doesn't preach orthodox Christianity, but he supports it. And our picture now includes the seed and plant, the new creation in God, and the engaged result of our own lives in and beyond this sphere. That's quite a picture.
Pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. was orthodox in his faith, too. At a child's funeral long ago, he said that "death is not a period at the end of the sentence of life but a comma that punctuates it," with more to come.
The faith that something happens after death is at the core of Christianity. The Bible knows of Sheol and Gehenna as well as a new heaven and a new earth where God is present and the pains of life are past. The Psalmist and Jesus speak of houses, mansions with many rooms, and of a mighty fortress.
These form our faith.
Earlier this month, M., a member of our church, lost her sister and her brother-in-law to an assault during a robbery. Tania and Alfredo were her beloved, and their death was crushing. M. gave me permission to tell you that about ten days ago, she was sitting in her own chair at her home here in Newton when there was sound at her door. And Tania came in, looking quite composed, youthful, and comfortable. And she stood in the doorway and spoke just two words: Ahora que. Now what? Then there was a knock at the door, and an aide came through it, and her sister disappeared, and when Mary asked, the aide told her she had seen no one at the door. But Mary has been pondering those words for days, since they seemed like a question. I asked her if they could have been spoken not as a question but as an imperative. Now. What. As an imperative they mean something. But of course, maybe M. was just hearing things.
A week after my mother died, my father was sleeping at my house. He knew he was asleep and that people have many types of dreams at such times, especially those that fulfill wishes. But one night he was in the guest room that he had shared often with Mom, and he saw her there, dressed for a summer day. She looked composed and youthful and comfortable. He looked at her and said, "Thelma, I thought you were dead." And he heard her speak four simple words. She said, "No, not at all." Dead? Not at all.
There is no way that I could live in this world of bounty and deprivation, of joy and pain, giving and need, if I believed that this was all that there is. Because God leads me to believe that there is more, I have the spirit and the will to commit myself to this world, now and eternally.
For I accept the central affirmations of our faith. There is eternal life. It is transphysical. It is totally in God's hands, and it is hugely affected by the choices that we make, by what we are. And at times that life is not out of our reach, and perhaps we are not out of its reach, at thin places. Certain science and skepticism may never apprehend this life, but that doesn't prove its absence. Who would believe in an apple tree if all they saw was the seed, and who could describe the sweet taste of its cider looking only at a sapling? Who would believe in liberation if all they knew was oppression or in love if all they knew was hurt?
God longs for us to be raised. In the eyes of our hearts, the conditions of our creation, and the mansion of eternity. Amen.
1This scholarship comes from Resurrection by K. Madigan and J. Levenson of Harvard.
Copyright © 2010 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.