Sunday, April 8, 2018
Scripture: Psalm 23 & Luke 15:11-24
Rev. Jill VanderWal

The week after Easter is a great time to continue the discussion on the topic of the mystery of death, dying and the afterlife. I am reminded of the mystery each time I walk with a person and family in a journey toward death. It is as if there is a sliding glass door that we can journey with a person up to; when they die, they continue on through the door and we are left wondering what is on the other side.

Where we go when we die is a big discussion in our pop culture. There are discussions and controversies around the books such as Heaven is for Real or The Map of Heaven. If you read Amazon or media reviews people love these books or hate these books, citing them as publicity ploys. Many people are hungry for signs of proof and stories of heaven. To further complicate the discussion,  religious groups try to initiate conversations about faith by asking “where would you go if you died tonight?” Thus religion becomes very destination-focused as we are told our life’s work will earn us a ticket to a future destination.

Easter, the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection are an invitation to talk about what matters most in life, about dying, and to ask big questions about what happens after we die. What are our wondering questions about death and the afterlife? Today I want to ask two questions with you: 1) Where do we go when we die? How does Jesus and scripture talk about what is after death? And 2) What happens to our bodies?

Jesus shows us the way…to Home

While I can’t say “where” we go exactly, as I read scripture and meditate on the images of scripture I am struck by the “type” of place we will go. I have chosen the parable of the Lost Son as our text this morning and there are so many ways to read this story, but for me, it is a story of home. It’s a story from the heart of God that communicates God’s love, embrace, acceptance and generous forgiveness for all. When discussing forgiveness a child once said, “it’s like God can’t even remember.” Here we see a father’s huge heart which is open to his lost son. God can’t even remember the pain, betrayal or mess.

I imagine the story of the Lost Son to be a parable of what is next. We will be welcomed to our true home. All will be forgiven, all will be embraced and there will be a great feast. For some, this story presents the obvious challenge with “God/father” language and “home” language. For many, fathers do not embody love, and home was not a safe or loving place. In the book The Shack, the main character, Mack, revisits the shack where his daughter was murdered. It turns out that his daughter’s murder is not the only tragedy in his life, as his home life had been horrible growing up with an abusive father.

Mack is invited to visit the shack where his daughter disappeared. When he enters the shack, it is transformed into a warm home. Mack encounters manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father takes the form of an African-American woman who calls herself Elousia and Papa; Jesus is a Middle Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman named Sarayu.

This shack becomes a home where he is embraced with his anger, fear and pain. It is a place of rest, searching, revelation and healing that leads to wholeness. This is a home he never had, where he meets a Trinitarian, relational, dynamic God he didn’t believe in. This book re-creates a vision of the God who welcomes us home – and what home can be.

In John 14 Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 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.”

Jesus tells us where he goes and what type of a place he prepares. Jesus goes to his Father’s house, where there is room for all. All are welcomed home – you may have wasted away your inheritance, lived wildly, woken up hung-over in a pig pin. But you are always welcomed home. This radical nature of welcome is displayed on the cross when Jesus says to man hanging next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23.

This Paradise is also referred to in Rev 2:7, which speaks of the paradise of God where the people of God eat from the tree of life.

It is this image and this promise that gives me hope for things to come – an invitation to be free from fear of death. Jesus invites us to find peace in our hope for the future. I love these two quotes about the adventures that await:

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer – “Death, the greatest feast on the way to freedom”
  • Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter – “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next
    great adventure.”

So what about question two, What about our physical bodies in death?

Many of us have walked with those who have suffered through mental and physical decline. When they die there is loss and sadness but also sometimes relief as they are finally “freed” from their bodies. Sometimes we are happy to think of being free from bodies, but our bodies …embody us. Touch, hugs and other expressions of connection remind us of how important our bodies are in how we experience life. Once, my young daughter was talking about death and how we live on each others hearts, then she paused and with tears in her eyes said, “but I won’t be able to snuggle with you in heaven when you go to heaven.”

The concept of a release of this body is exemplified in a quote from the French philosopher Pierre de Chardin who said, “The physical body is not truly ours, it belongs to planet earth. We can call it our own while we reside in it but it does not belong to us. We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” This is a concept that we may resonate with, but Jesus’ resurrection of the body re-states the importance of our bodies. After the resurrection, Jesus walked, talked, ate, and was with his disciples. He had Thomas touch the nail marks still present in his hands. 1 Corinthians 15: 20 states, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” Christ is called ἀπαρχή τῶν κεκοιμημένων as the first one recalled to life of them that have fallen asleep.

Let’s close – with what it means to LIVE an eternal kind of life

Luke 24-  While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women[b] were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men[c] said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? The angels are saying, “He is not here, but has risen!” The empty tomb is about Jesus’ invitation to life – here and now.  While Jesus speaks to resurrection and future life; in his ministry he taught and focused more on the present reality of the Kingdom of Heaven with us, on earth and the invitation to choose to live for God’s kingdom in the present.

The wisdom literature, the psalms and Jesus’ words are about choosing life and the way of life here and now!

Psalm 23 (often a part of funeral liturgy) is really about life lived with the great shepherd.  In Psalm 23 there are words of assurance, “I am with you, I will lead you to green pastures, by still waters.” These words speak to provision, care, and protection while we trust that the good shepherd will lead us in the way of life. Even in the darkest of valleys we are not alone. The words of Psalm 23 are an invitation to live every day of this life with and for God. Here are the final words of Psalm 23: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (the promise) and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (forever).

John 20:31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Jesus shows us what it is to choose life; to live for something greater than ourselves. Jesus shows us how to live for love, generosity, kindness, justice, and reconciliation. This is the way of life. An eternal kind of living- to find freedom and hope in the knowledge that Jesus and the saints led the way into the next life, so that we may truly live each day of this life.

Invitation to Communion Poem

Stations on the Road to Freedom – (Death) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded, so that at last we may see that which here remains hidden. Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed in the Lord.