St. Philips, Laurel, DE.
What happens after we die?
It’s a question that has been asked by human beings, probably since the first human sat with a loved one who died. It has probably followed the questions, “Where do we come from?” And, “Why am I here?” And, “Why do we die?” It’s a question little children ask after they see a dead bird or after the death of a family pet.
What happens after we die?
In today’s Gospel lesson from St. John, we are returned to the scene in that Upper Room. Judas has just betrayed Jesus and has left the room in a huff. Jesus turns to his disciples – “little children,” he calls them – and tells them that he is not going to be with them for much longer. And then, he says, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” John 13:31-35
I suspect Jesus was not saying to them that they can’t go to heaven. I think Jesus was telling them that he has to make this final piece of the journey by himself.
He’s talking about the betrayal and the trial, the scourging and the mocking, the crucifixion and the death. I suspect that the writers of John’s Gospel are saying that Jesus had to do these things first before they could have life eternal with him and join him in heaven.
Jesus has to make that journey of redemption first before we can follow.
The image from the second reading from Revelations gives us a glimmer of that place which Jesus has made possible for us to enter. We hear the words that have comforted so many centuries of people during funeral services, that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
|Chinese symbol for Eternal Life|
In the first reading, from the Book of Acts – the chronicle of the earliest, developmental forms of the church – we see one manifestation of the declaration and prophecy of The Revelation “See, I am making all things new.”
All the old Levitical Purity Codes about what and who is clean no longer define what it is to be a member of this new Christian community.
And those who heard Peter’s vision of this new Way of Jesus were radically changed and transformed and were never again the same. They praised God, saying a most radical thing: "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life."
Whoa! That is pretty revolutionary stuff! Even the Gentiles have been given the path to new life! That was as radical a statement at that time and in that place as the abolition of slavery was in that day, or suffrage for women, or marriage equality in our time.
It is fulfillment of the commandment Jesus gave his disciples – and so, to us – that “you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
Lovely, right? Of course, right. Easier said than done, right? Absolutely right.
We have been hearing lots of political rhetoric this election cycle from people who call themselves Christians which sounds anything but lovely. It certainly doesn’t praise God, much less represent any teaching of Jesus I ever read or studied. I don’t know about you, but I am sooOOoo over this political election season! I have rolled my eyes so often at things that have been said that I’m sure I’m going to need eye surgery by November.
Here’s the thing: I think we would all be better Christians if we stopped worrying so much about where we – or “they” – are going to go after we die and concentrate on living the best of this amazing life we’ve been given, the world would be a better place.
I mean, that’s the real crux of the matter, isn’t it? All this anxiety about what’s going to happen after we leave this earth, our island home? All this stuff about Judgment Day?
It's all about "saving" ourselves from "them". Or saving them from themselves. Thing of it is that Jesus already saved us. Even from ourselves.
Except we spend so much time deflecting our anxiety by judging other people in this life that we forget that it is we, ourselves, who will be judged in the next.
Not anyone else’s opinions about us. Just how the One who Created us, the One who has walked with us in this life, and the One who calls us home will understand all of what we’ve done within the context of our whole lives.
And, here’s my best hunch: God will be a lot more forgiving to us than we are to ourselves. Or, each other. God will love us beyond anything we are able to imagine, no matter what we’ve done – or left undone.
I had a Hospice patient a few years back whose death taught me a great deal about this. I had been seeing him and his wife for a few months. His decline was slow but at the point of inevitability. Even so, the end came so swiftly both his wife and I were totally unprepared when it came.
They were a lovely couple. Kind. Generous. Loving. A good, solid marriage.
She had led me into the bedroom to talk with her husband and then asked if there was anything she could get for us. Her husband asked if she might fix us all a cup of tea. She was happy to oblige. I later figured out why he did that. He wanted some time to talk with me alone.
“Listen,” he said, as his wife rattled around in the kitchen, putting the kettle on and getting out a try of teacups and saucers. “I have to ask you to promise me something.”
“Well,” I said, “I never make a promise I don’t know I can’t keep.”
“This is very important,” he said, “I want you to promise me, after I die, that you tell my wife that I’m so very sorry for that affair I had with that woman 30 years ago.”
“And does your wife know about this affair?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I’ve never told her. But, you must tell her that I never meant for it to happen. That, I knew it was wrong. That I cut it off because I didn’t want to hurt her and never told her because I never wanted to hurt her. You have to promise me that you’ll tell her that.”
I sighed and said, “The only way I could possibly make that promise would be after YOU tell her about the affair. And then, I’ll reinforce what you’ve said to me. About your love for her and how you didn’t want to hurt her. That, I can do. But first, YOU have to tell her yourself.”
He sighed deeply and shook his head sadly. Just at that point, I could hear his wife in the kitchen. She seemed to be having difficulty carrying the tray so I left the bedside and went in to help her.
As I was leaving the room, I turned back to see my patient. He smiled wryly and put his thumb up, as if to say that it was okay – that it would all, somehow, be okay.
When his wife and I returned to the bedroom a few minutes later, we found him lying very still, his eyes closed, his chest not moving. His wife gasped.
I put the tray down and went to his bedside. I could not find a pulse. I could not hear a breath. It was pretty clear that, while we were in the kitchen, he had passed away.
I got up, went to his wife and held her in my arms as she cried and then, she gathered herself up and went to his bedside and sat next to him. She kissed him lightly on the forehead and then said, “Damn fool! You left before I had the chance to say I have forgiven you for that stupid affair you had 30 years ago. I know you loved me. I hope you know how much I loved you.”
It was my turn to gasp quietly. In that moment, and many moments since, I’ve wondered how much time – how much precious time – both of them had wasted worrying about this moment. How many hours had he wasted in guilt and she in anger? How many times had he rehearsed what she might say to her? How much time had she spent wrestling with forgiveness? How much of the contours and content of their lives had been shaped by silent regret?
No one knows what happens after we die – much less at the moment of death, when it will come and what will happen. No one knows where we go when we die. We do have this promise of life eternal from Jesus. And, we do have this commandment to love one another as he loved us.
The two are intimately intertwined – following his commandment and claiming his promise. The promise of life eternal is ours, even if we don’t live our lives perfectly. Even if our loving one another is deeply flawed. I believe in God’s two precious gifts of free will and grace, one making the other a richer experience. I believe that God does, indeed, make all things new.
I suspect our life and our love would be vastly improved if we stopped worrying so much about what was going to happen after we die and put more energy into living the life we’ve been given.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you haven't experienced love and loved in return, if you haven't messed up and hurt someone you love or been hurt by someone you love, if you haven't forgiven or experienced someone's forgiveness, then you really haven't lived the fullness of the life that God has given you.
Jesus said to his disciples during their Passover meal, “Where I am going, you can not come.” They didn’t know it at the time, but he was their Pascal Lamb. He became the blood on the lintels of the doorway to our hearts, which allows the deadly plagues of life to pass over and lead us into life abundant, life eternal. No one could have made that first journey but Him.
Henri Nouwen wrote: “We seldom realise fully that we are sent to fulfill God-given tasks. We act as if we have to choose how, where, and with whom to live. We act as if we were simply plopped down in creation and have to decide how to entertain ourselves until we die. But we were sent into the world by God, just as Jesus was. Once we start living our lives with that conviction, we will soon know what we were sent to do.”
Each one of us is here for a purpose. Each one of is here to accomplish something no one else can achieve.
Sometimes, that simply means loving one another and forgive one another when we fail. Practicing that unconditional love that we will experience one day. Not judging ourselves or others.
No matter how old or young, each one of us is here to make this world a better place to live – for ourselves and for each other. Let’s get on with it. Amen.