Sunday, July 28, 2019
“I Wonder…” Summer Sermon Series
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Will you believe me when I tell you that I love funerals? Most people give me strange looks when I say so, but the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I’ve come to find ministry come alive at the time of death more than in almost any other place. Many of the pastors I know agree with me on this. When we were preparing for ministry, we were eager to lead great worship and Bible studies. We were excited that we could preside at weddings. Yet, we found very quickly that great sermons are quickly forgotten and that weddings are the arena of florists and musicians and DJs. The pastor is often just one more minor element in the show. Play the part. Sign the papers. Move on. Most couples abide with what I think is appropriate for the ceremony mostly because they need me to sign the license.
But, funerals? I love funerals because people get real at funerals. Faced with mortality, they think about life itself. What is the meaning of life? Am I doing with my life something real and useful, or am I just taking up space? What happens after a person dies? What can we say in the face of death as Christians? So, this morning I’d like to welcome you to a funeral – the place where we think about eternity and life after death. You all asked some interesting and difficult questions on the subject. I’m going to touch on four of those questions today through the lens of John 14 and Revelation 21, two passages I frequently read at funerals. As with all of these huge topics, I’m only going to be able to skim the surface, but I really hope I get you thinking about the topic and dig more deeply into it on your own. There are few better ways to live well than to be prepared to die. It puts everything in perspective and gives us all a different sense of purpose for how we are to live day to day.
So, let’s get started with John 14. In John’s gospel, this is the night of the Last Supper. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, and the tension is building. They know something is about to happen, but they don’t know what. Tensions are running high. Jesus has told them that one of the disciples will betray him. He tells Peter that he will deny knowing Jesus shortly. Things are on edge and they will only get worse. There is the trial of the unknown through which all the disciples will pass, whether they want to or not.
I think facing the eternal is a bit like that. We have a sense of what is to come based upon the Bible and what we’ve heard in church and culture, but until we’ve experienced it, we really won’t fully know. I think that’s one reason I really wrestled with putting this sermon together for you. There is so much the Bible has to say on the topic – far more than I can give you in a few minutes today – yet none of us has died, experienced the afterlife, and come back to give a detailed accounting of it. Today I am standing on the promises of God, which I trust wholeheartedly to be true, but what exactly all of that will be like is at best interpretive.
In John 14:2, we encounter Jesus’ promise that his Father’s house has many dwelling places and that he is leaving to go prepare a place for us. What are “dwelling places”? The Greek is mone, which means a resting point. It is related to the Greek verb meno, which means to remain or stay. So, I have one thing to clear up before I move on. Older translations of the Bible turned this word into “mansions.” It started with William Tyndale’s 16th century translation, but in Old English “mansion” meant a dwelling place, not a dream house. So, the idea in your head that somehow heaven is like Naples, Florida, is flat out wrong. We are not inheriting mansions. We are getting something far better. In John’s gospel, he constantly is drawing a straight line between Jesus and God the Father. These dwelling places are the places where we finally come to rest and find peace. When he says “many” dwelling places, it’s a promise that there is plenty of room for all and that this is a place of welcome. So this is about participating in the eternal relationship that Jesus and the Father already have. It is both physical and relational. In the words of one interpreter, “To know where Jesus is from is to know his relationship with God.”
Another way to look at it is like this. When people were married in Jesus’ day, the wedding did not happen until the groom had built a dwelling place for the bride to welcome her into the family. This place was built right onto the family home, an addition, if you will. After he had prepared a place for her, then the wedding took place and their new life started. It’s about relationship and location.
Jesus goes further in our passage to an “I am” statement. When Thomas questions what Jesus means by all of this, he responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (14:6). Here we see that Jesus is both access to God and the very embodiment of God. So, let’s get to the questions you asked about people of other faiths and whether or not this includes them. Jesus’ words seem pretty clear here, don’t they? I find that this commentator really gets to the heart of the issue: “‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ These words express the Fourth Evangelist’s unshakable belief that the coming of Jesus, the Word made flesh, decisively altered the relationship between God and humanity. These words affirm that Jesus is the tangible presence of God in the world and that God the Father can be known most directly through that incarnate presence of Jesus. Humanity’s encounter with Jesus the Son makes possible a new experience of God as the Father.
Before I go any further down this path, I do want to offer a word of caution. “The very clarity and decisiveness of the Fourth Evangelist’s conviction here have turned these words into a weapon with which to bludgeon one’s opponents into theological submission. These words are used as a litmus test for Christian faith in myriad conversations and triumphalism, proof positive that Christians have the corner on God and that people of any and all other faiths are condemned. They are seen by others as embarrassingly exclusionary and narrow-minded, and they are pointed to as evidence of the problems inherent in asserting Christian faith claims in a pluralistic world.
“How is the contemporary Christian to interpret this central claim of the Fourth Gospel?” I think John is claiming that something unique and universal is happening through Jesus. That for all people in all times and places, what God did particularly through Jesus altered once and for all the very fabric of the universe. So, I believe Jesus when he says that he is the way, not a way, or my particular way. It is hard for me to imagine God going through the incarnation and everything Jesus suffered at human hands to be just one of many different ways to connect with God eternally. So, to answer the question directly, I don’t think Jesus is talking about other religions when he is talking about many dwelling places in John 14. I do think he is talking about an endless amount of room for any who would come to him.
However, before you think I’m being too narrow in my understanding, let me go a little bit further, and I’ll do so by touching on the questions, “What happens to the those who don’t know Christ?” as well as “What about those who lived before Jesus came?” Our Reformed Christian faith takes very seriously that judgment is God’s job, not ours. God is in charge, not me and not you. Do people in other faiths encounter Jesus in ways we don’t understand? Possibly. Do people have experiences of Jesus apart from the organized church? Quite likely. Is there no time for repentance after death? Will all people hear the good news of Jesus at some point, even if it’s after death? I have no idea, except that there are some hints towards that sort of thing happening, particularly at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Since it’s not my job to judge, I cannot give a definitive answer to this. It’s God’s business and prerogative not mine. I do know that my deep desire is that all would come to know God’s love is true for them.
What can I say for sure? God loves everybody, and God is patient with us. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Going back to one of the most well-known passages of the Bible from John’s gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16). God wants all to come to repentance. God loves the world, not just some of it. If God loves the whole world and if God wants all to come to repentance, than surely God is at work to make this happen. How exactly God does that is well beyond my comprehension, but I do know that as a follower of Jesus, my life must be oriented around God’s love for my neighbor, regardless of their religion or anything else that makes them different from me. I must be like Christ to them, for just as I know I have received an immeasurable gift from God, so too I’d like others to share in the joy of knowing Jesus and of living in his way, for Jesus is both the way to God and the very embodiment of God. This touches on the question of those who lived before Jesus came to earth. What I can say is that Jesus points out that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living eternally when he’s questioned by the Sadducees, so there is biblical evidence that even people who preceded Christ on this earth had a chance to know what God was up to.
So, does this mean everyone will be saved? I don’t think so because I think there are people who ultimately don’t want what God is offering. Love cannot be forced – even by God – so it is quite possible that people will forever say “no” to God’s love and an eternity spent in relationship with their Creator. God loves them so much to let them make that decision.
So, what about heaven? Will we be reunited with loved ones? What will it be like? Just like the previous questions, I think the answers are found much more in images and metaphors offered by the Bible, which leave wide berth for interpretation. I often use the words of Revelation 21 when I am graveside with a family because they offer a glimpse of what is to come. John’s vision at the end of things includes a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth had passed away. This image gives us a glimpse of a reunion of God’s place – heaven – and our place – earth, but now things are made new. It is like the Garden of Eden in that the relationship between God and the creation is fully restored. But it is different from Eden in that we are no longer in a garden but rather it’s a city.
In John’s vision, the One sitting on the throne says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he 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.” (Rev. 21:3-4). Where does our pain come from? Our brokenness in body and in relationship, so if God is fixing all of that, it stands to reason that our relationships are restored and eternal in some sort of way, doesn’t it? I’d like to think that we recognize each other in heaven.
But, if I’m wrong, I don’t think we’re going to be sad about it either. The whole point of this is for God to make all things new and to bring things to where God wanted them to be in the first place. If we’re not satisfied with that, then heaven and eternity is not a place that we’d want to be.
Let me close with one last point. These questions about eternity have massive implications for how we live today. I fear that we push these off until a major life event – a death, a diagnosis, a crisis – and then we don’t deal with the eternal until the end or even at all. When Jesus speaks about eternal life, he’s talking about the eternal kind of life that begins the moment you encounter him and realize that you are a part of what he is already making new. In my estimation, there’s no greater gift than that and there’s no better way to live. We’ll always have questions, and the ones I covered quickly this week are questions of deep compassion. I’m grateful to serve a congregation that is concerned for others and for the world. I’m also grateful that you will let me struggle with answers to these difficult questions. Ultimately, I trust what God has done in Jesus for the whole world. How that shakes out is up to God. Our job is to love God and love our neighbors in word and deed until Christ calls us home.
 New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary. Vol. IX. 740.
 ibid. 743.