Sermons

Sun, Nov 10, 2013

What really happens to us after we die?

Series:Sermons
Duration:11 mins 38 secs

What really happens to us after we die?

 

It’s probably not something about which a lot of us spend much time thinking––

certainly, not when we’re young…

when we’re full of bravado…

and when we feel invulnerable and indestructible.

It’s probably not until someone close to us dies––

often a much-loved grandparent…

or, a class-mate in tragic circumstances––

that we’re suddenly hit with the fact that we, too, are mortal…

and that one day, we also will die.

And yet, it’s probably not until we’re much older…

as more and more of our friends and loved ones pass away…

that we begin to face our own impending death.

It’s probably only then that we begin to think seriously about death…

and what happens to us after we die.

 

Some people, of course, believe that nothing happens.

For them, death really is the end.

There is no more.

Put simply…

we’re born…

we live…

we die.

Full stop.

End of story.

And, let’s be honest…

in reality, we have no proof that there is anything else—

notwithstanding stories that we hear of so-called near death experiences…

stories of disembodied floating, of tunnels and bright lights.

After all…

those of us who have been weaned on modern, scientific dogma…

have been trained to be sceptical of anything that can’t be proven;

and, in any case…

there have been several reputable studies done…

that have offered plausible scientific explanations for such phenomena.

But, in reality, when push-comes-to-shove…

and we’re confronted with the death of someone about whom we care deeply…

most of us still cling to some notion of an after-life––

even if it’s diffuse, and undefined, and very fuzzy.

As a minister…

I can’t tell you how many times that I have heard grieving family members say something like…

“Well, it’s okay really.

Mum’s gone to be with Dad.

They’re together again, at last, after all this time.

But, in a way, I know that she’s still with us…

looking down on us…

and one day we will see her again”.

In my experience…

most people still have some sense that our loved ones have just moved to a different place––

a better place;

a place that’s free from suffering and pain;

a vague, nebulous, undefined sort of cosmic holiday camp—

perhaps somewhere beyond the space-time continuum.

And, let’s be honest…

for many of us, such beliefs are important.

They help us as we struggle to make sense of the aching void of bereavement.

They help us to cope with the pain and loss that envelops us.

They give us some sense of comfort and hope.

They enable us, eventually, to pick up our lives and go on with them as before––

admittedly, somewhat impoverished…

but otherwise much the same.

And they also help us to deal with the fact of our own mortality.

 

But is all of that simply the product of naïve popular piety…

or, worse, wishful thinking?

Without even beginning to consider all of the imagery…

and the mythology…

surrounding archaic concepts like “heaven” and “hell”—

what really does happen to us when we die?

 

In a sense, that’s the question at the centre of today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel.

In the story that we heard read, we encounter some Sadducees.

They were an aristocratic group of first-century Israelites.

Conservative and traditional, they interpreted the Bible quite literally.

And, because of that, they didn’t believe in resurrection.

After all, the idea of resurrection isn’t found in the Old Testament.

It’s certainly not found in the first five books, which made up the Sadducees’ bible.

Indeed, the notion of resurrection only entered Hebrew thought quite late––

probably after the Old Testament was written.

In other words, it was a trendy, progressive sort of concept––

one that the traditional, conservative, literalistic Sadducees didn’t accept.

And so, in our story, they went to Jesus—

trying to make such a belief appear foolish…

trying to debunk popular pietistic presumptions.

But, as with everything else, they approached the notion of resurrection quite literally…

in good Dawkin-esque fashion.

They assumed that––

if there were an after-life––

then it must have been just like this life;

that things must continue in the next life just as they do now:

same structures…

same relationships…

same people.

But the author has Jesus pronounce a resounding, “No!”

They had it all wrong.

Death does not involve simply moving on to a different place…

or to a different plane…

and life doesn’t continue after death just as it was before.

After all, the writers of the New Testament believed in a notion of resurrection––

not immortality––

and resurrection involves transformation.

It involves both continuity and discontinuity––

with an emphasis on the discontinuity

Clearly, something of who we are will remain after we die.

But what and how is quite unclear.

After all, although it’s unlikely that the Historical Jesus actually knew

even in this story––

written years after the Easter event––

there’s no detail or elaboration.

Jesus’ comments are offered by way of rebuttal…

and they’re symbolic or metaphoric rather than literal.

Thus, when he says that we will be ‘like angels’…

that’s not suggesting that we’re going to float around the clouds…

dressed in white…

with feathered wings on our backs…

singing and playing harps.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that we’ll be eating Philadelphia cream cheese!

Rather, the image as it occurs here…

is trying to reinforce the sense of dis-continuity.

Indeed, what is clear from this text––

above all else––

is that after death we will not be the same.

Life will not be the same.

And our relationships will not be the same.

 

In reality, we don’t know what happens to us after we die…

and we don’t know what it will be like.

All that the New Testament suggests to us…

is that it won’t be life as we now experience it.

We cannot assume––

and we must not assume––

that we will simply pick up where we left off.

Nor can we assume that we will, somehow, be reunited with our loved ones…

and, even if we were, in what way.

Ultimately, we don’t know.

And we can’t know.

In the end, all that Jesus does do in this story, is point us to God:

Jesus points us to a God whom––

he affirms––

is “God not of the dead, but of the living”.

In other words…

as far as God is concerned…

all who have died are still alive.

None who have died have been lost.

None who have died have died in vain.

None who have died are uncared for.

To God’s way of thinking, they still live on––

not simply in fading memories…

but, in some mysterious way, in reality…

in the life and the experience of God.

Jesus points us to a God who loves us…

with a love that is stronger than death…

and with a love that cannot be defeated by death.

And Jesus points us to a God who promises to raise us to new and transformed life.

And that’s all that we can say.

Beyond that, we’re simply called to trust.

 

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