Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church Fordingbridge and St. Mary’s Church Breamore on the 5th Sunday after Easter 2017 by the Reverend John Towler.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2).
These words from John’s Gospel lie at the heart of the Easter hope for all people. For ‘dwelling places’, in Greek ‘topoi’, I want to translate as ‘resting places’. Bishop’s College, Cheshunt, my Theological College was the original house of the Countess Selina of Huntingdon. It was a rambling but beautiful house with acres of grounds and lakes. In the basement of the house was a series of baths and loos, no showers. This basement we affectionately called the ‘topos’ because the baths and the loos we saw as quiet resting places. Thus, one could hear a conversation like, “Where is Brian?”to which came the reply, “He is in the ‘topos’ again!”
The feeling I want to convey from my understanding of the words of Jesus is that, whatever else happens beyond the grave, we shall be at rest, baths and loos apart! Whatever life holds in store for us, one thing is certain –we shall die. And it is that final moment of physical extinction that life’s destructive forces reach their climax and appear to win a final victory.
I say appears to win; for Christian faith is found on a belief that at our death, ‘in the end is our beginning’. On what evidence might we ask? We have in the reported stories of the resurrection of Christ, and in our experience of his living presence with his people a reality we can know and feel. Critics who say that this is not verifiable scientifically are skating on thin ice. The mystery which surrounds much of our present experience does not present itself easily to scientific analysis either. If we would want to look to psychical research for support, all that can be reasonably ascertained is that certain people’s vibrations survive death for a period.
So, what happens to us when we die? To answer this question we need to look at how resurrection happens now. Orthodoxy in the Western Church has always been presented in terms of a time and a place. Resurrection is presented as an event in the past i.e. the resurrection of Christ’as recorded in the gospel stories and as an event in the future i.e. what happens to us when we die with artists, musicians and theologians painting speculative pictures for us of what our resurrection might look like.
If we are not careful when resurrection is presented solely as either a past event in history or as a future event to happen, we shall be robbed of the impact of resurrection happening right now. ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ declared Jesus. Is it then so strange that resurrection is to be experienced as an integral part of our daily routine lives? So in answer to the question ‘What happens to us when we die?, I suggest we must examine what our experience of resurrection is in this life before we can even get a clue about what it might be like in the next.
If I can be personal for a moment I want to share something of my experience because that is what I know best. Just before Christmas I was told that I had a life threatening condition regarding the state of my heart. I became anxious and fearful for myself and my family. I withdrew somewhat. During my time in hospital I was beset by thoughts of will I make it despite all assurances from my surgeon to the contrary. This morning I stand before as having experienced a miracle of healing and having recieved a gift of resurrection. From literally being half dead I feel very much alive, fully attentive to life and others eternally grateful of the wonders of modern medicine.
Further, in my therapy practice, I frequently witness resurrection happening in others very often as they discover that they have lived for years with a false view of themselves for all sorts of good reasons, often as a result of trauma. In our meeting they uncover a positive picture of themselves which is the beginning of a new life in which they feel more confident about themselves and their relationships, and begin to truly live a more resourceful and enjoyable life. That is resurrection. Resurrection is happening all around us. Sometimes we can see it and sometimes it is hidden from us like the strangers on the road to Emmaus. The living Christ moves secretly and incognito dancing through the lives of people bringing half dead people to life.
So what happens to us when we die? Go to heaven! We are encouraged as Christians to seek heavenly things. What is ‘heaven’? Is it a place, a realm of existence? In the gospels Jesus often talks about the ‘kingdom of heaven’. What does ‘heaven’ mean in this context? It seems to be a metaphor for God’s political and social vision for humanity. ‘Heaven’ seems to be for Jesus ‘here and now’ rather than ‘there and then’. Then, it must be something to do with our experience on earth now. Rather than a world in which there is violence, oppression and injustice Jesus presents us with an alternative vision of a world of peace, blessing and abundance as God intended it to be.
As Diana Butler Bass writes in her book, ‘Grounded’ with stunning insight, “The sky begins at our feet. Thus, we actually live in the heavens now, in the space in which earth and sky meet. God’s ‘heavenly ‘ presence is the air we breathe”. ‘’Heaven’ is part of our experience now.
So what happens to us when we die? Harry Williams tells us, ‘If we are ready for life in the sense of being open to its power and possibilities, then we are also ready for death. If we are aware of the resurrection in the present, then we shall not be over concerned about resurrection in the future.’ Inevitably we are faced with an eternal mystery. We do not have the words, pictures or any kind of wherewithall in trying to define what our eventual resurrection might look like. We know that it is God’s give through his Son Jesus Christ who rose on the third day. We have his promise. That promise forms part of the gospel reading for today, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’…’And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.’ Our questions will remain I am sure like the bewiderment of Thomas.
I want to conclude with an insight shared by Richard Rhor in a meditation I read this week regarding his black labrador Venus,
“If unconditional love, loyalty, and obedience are the tickets to an eternal life, then Venus is surely there long before me, along with all the dear wild animals who care for their young at great cost to themselves—and accept their fate far better than most humans. When I had to make the very painful decision to put Venus to sleep on March 30 this year, she literally put her two black paws straight in front of her, stared at me, slowly bowed her head straight to the ground and died. I hope I will die with such trustful surrender.”