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Here and Hereafter

November 8, 2010

“Here and Hereafter” Job 19:21-29; Revelation 21:1-27; Luke 16:19-31; John 11:17-27 © November 7, 2010 by Tom Cheatham @ First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

As a seminary student in my 20s I was academically bright but a dim bulb about most everything else. Like how to provide comfort to an elderly lady in a nursing home. The incident I’m about to share sticks in my mind because it was what we call today a “teachable moment,” providing a lesson in how to be a pastor better than anything I could have received in a classroom.

I had been assigned to bring a devotional in a retirement center near Reformed Seminary. The text I chose was John 14:1-6. This was back in the early ‘70s, and I was using the old Revised Standard Version. In that, Jesus says “In my Father’s house are many rooms….” I finished my message and was visiting with the residents. When I came to one lady, her only comment about the devotional was “You said there were rooms in heaven; I’m going to have a mansion.” With utter insensitivity, I said, “Well, no ma’ m, the text says ‘rooms.’” She persisted, and I finally figured it out. Her whole existence was four walls in a room in a nursing home. Hearing she was going to have a room in heaven was no comfort and brought no joy. But a mansion? Oh, yeah! So I relented, fortunately, and said “Yes, I’m sure you’ll have a mansion.”

That lady’s hope for a palatial home in heaven sustained her in a life that was no doubt drab and lonely. She looked forward to a reward for enduring grief and heartache and pain. I suspect she had sung and agreed with the familiar old hymn: “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

When you’re hurting and have suffered the loss of everything dear to you, including your independence and the proper functioning of your body and mind, death and heaven are welcome. Perhaps no piece of music puts that better than the classic bluegrass tune “I’ll Fly Away.” After playing and singing it the other night at Fall Fling, I realized how much pain the writer must have been in or how he must have been oppressed by circumstance: “Some glad morning when this life is over: I’ll fly away. To a home on God’s celestial shore: I’ll fly away. When the shadows of this life are gone: I’ll fly away. Like a bird from prison bars has flown: I’ll fly away. Just a few more weary days and then: I’ll fly away. To a land where joy shall never end: I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away, O Glory; I’ll fly away. When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye; I’ll fly away” (emphasis mine).

Those who have it good don’t say things like that. They aren’t longing for the “sweet by and by.” There’s too much to hang onto here, too much that ties them to this world, too much that’s enjoyable and interesting, too much yet to do.

Some years ago the Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney was speaking to a group of students at a Christian college. One kid asked “Dr. Marney, will you say a word about the resurrection of the dead?” Known as somewhat bad-tempered, Marney was in true form that day. He answered: “I will not discuss the resurrection with people like you; I don’t discuss such things with anyone under 30. Look at you all: in the prime of life. Never have you known honest-to-God failure, heartburn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls or mortality. You’re extremely apt and handsome—white kids who have never in all your lives been 30 miles from home, or 20 minutes into the New Testament, or more than a mile and a half from a Baptist or Methodist church, or within a thousand miles of any issue that mattered to a kingdom that matters. So what can you know of a world that makes sense only if Christ is raised?” (quoted by Kyle Childress, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, November 2, 2010).

Marney was right that if you haven’t suffered grief or failure or deprivation, you most likely can’t truly appreciate the power of the good news of resurrection and heaven. But I don’t think it matters how old you are. I’ve known youth and college students who experienced hard and hurtful loss. Whatever your age, if you long for release, healing, and help, heaven is about hope for something better.

But we also want there to be an afterlife, both heaven and hell, because we long to know that there will someday be justice that is denied or miscarried in this world. And related to that, we would like to think that what we do matters. If indeed there will be an accounting, then ultimately our actions mean something. Even if we fail in this life despite our best efforts, even if we make little difference, our commitments will be recognized and rewarded. Those sleepless nights caring for someone, that little unremembered act of kindness, that impassioned plea on behalf of some cause that went ignored. And by the same token, those who have done wrong and have prospered from their evil will not escape. Even if their victims’ cries have not been heard by society, God hears. Even if the courts do not punish, God will not hold evildoers guiltless.

Jesus’ story certainly speaks to this longing for the scales to be balanced. A rich man had feasted while a poor man had languished at his gates, starving and sick. Only the dogs were kind to him. In death, their roles are reversed. The rich man is in torment, while Lazarus lies comforted in the bosom of Abraham, gathered to the ancestors. To add to the rich man’s agony, he can see what Lazarus is enjoying. Justice is served. No doubt the poor of Jesus’ day nodded their heads in approval. And maybe those who saw in the rich man a brother got the message.

Finally, the hereafter is important to us not only for the hope it offers in suffering and the promise of justice it makes, but also because we long to know that the essence of who we are lives on. There’s a voice within us that tells us this world cannot be all there is, that we are not born, and we do not sweat and toil and love and laugh, only to have no hope but the end of it all in death. From the ancient world until today, in religions of all sorts and in popular culture, the belief that we and our loved ones continue in some form or other has been strong. The Egyptians buried their Pharaohs with goods from this life to use in the next. The Greeks spun stories about the River Styx and the Elysian Fields. People have been telling stories about and experiencing ghosts for centuries. And science fiction today, like the TV series Caprica, has loved ones living on in a virtual world through an avatar or having their consciousness downloaded into another body. In the classic “Star Trek,” the Vulcan katra could be carried by another until it was reunited with the one to whom it properly belonged. Movies like Hereafter and What Dreams May Come, among others, explore questions of the afterlife. Yes, there’s something within us, the knowledge that we have intuitively, that the essence of us will not merely cease to exist, but live on.

The idea that has probably had the most influence on the popular imagination and indeed on the church is the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul. For the Greeks, the soul was who we really are. Our bodies are but prisons, at best, vessels, to carry our essence. So upon death, the soul finally escaped from its fleshly incarceration and lived on in bliss, never to be bothered with the entanglements of this world again. The medieval church bought into such ideas strongly, because theology then was influenced heavily by Greek philosophy.

The biblical hope, though, is not the immortality of the soul but the resurrection of the body. You might say “No way! I don’t want to live on in the body I have now. Too much I don’t like, too much wrong.” Don’t worry. The biblical witness is that as Christ did at his resurrection, we will have a spiritual body at our own rising.

Ben Franklin’s epitaph, that he wrote for himself, is pretty much on target: “The body of Benjamin Franklin, printer,/like the cover of an old book,/its contents torn out and/stripped of its lettering and gilding,/lies here, food for worms./Yet the work itself shall not be lost,/for it will as he believed appear once more/in a new and more perfect edition,/corrected and amended by the Author.”

We are promised a body that is perfected, whole and holy, that will never die. A body with which our souls are reunited, and we live on in the new creation God intends and will surely bring to pass. If we are true to Scripture, we really cannot say more than that. We are left with a great deal of mystery. We don’t know when the final day will come. We are not sure what our spiritual bodies will look like. But we are assured that we will be fully and truly human, renewed in the image of God. Surely the promise that we and our loved ones will share in Christ’s resurrection is enough to sustain us, to bring us joy, and to lead us to fall down in praise to God.

Such hope enables us to live in freedom. Particularly are we liberated from the fear of death. We know that when that hour comes, be it soon or late, we are held in the hand of God. So we need not obsess over our mortality, even as we accept it. We don’t need constantly to be worrying over how to make it into heaven. Instead, we can focus on the living of abundant life now.

Dwelling on death can be and is debilitating and counter-productive. In the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, the two have just become acquainted as college students, and they’re driving from Chicago to New York after graduation. Harry asks Sally: “Do ever think about death?” Not wanting to appear shallow, Sally claims that she does. Harry’s not buying it: “Sure you do—a fleeting thought in and out of the transom of you mind. I spend hours, I spend days thinking about it….” Then he tells her in a rather crude way that at the critical moment, his thinking about dying will mean that he’s prepared and she’s not. Sally has a wonderful and insightful come-back: “In the meantime, you’re going to ruin your whole life waiting for it.”

If Harry had kept on constantly thinking about death, obsessing over it, he would have missed out on the wonder of the here and now, like a relationship with Sally. His cousin in the Christian community is that person we probably all know who is so heavenly-minded he or she is no earthly good. The old funeral prayer asks God to help us live as those who are prepared to die, but focusing upward and inward isn’t the way to do it. Instead, we need to look outward toward God’s world and toward our neighbors. Paradoxically, those who are ready actually rejoice in this life. As a billboard I saw once noted about an author: “While dying, he wrote a book about living.” Those prepared to die put their lives into the care of God, who has promised eternal life in Christ. They see the signs of God’s goodness everywhere, including signs of the reality of heaven. Emily Dickinson wrote:

“Heaven” has different Signs—to me—
Sometimes, I think that Noon
Is but a symbol of the Place—
And when again, at Dawn,
A mighty look runs round the World
And settles in the Hills—
An Awe if it should be like that
Upon the Ignorance steals—
The Orchard, when the Sun is on—
The Triumph of the Birds
When they together Victory make—
Some Carnivals of Clouds—
The Rapture of a finished Day—
Returning to the West—
All these—remind us of the place
That Men call “paradise”—
Itself be fairer—we suppose—
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace—
Not yet, our eyes can see—

But if we live as those prepared to die by appreciating the beauty of this world, we primarily show our readiness by doing good works to the glory of God and in the service of our neighbors. A rabbi once said: “This world is like a lobby before the Olam Ha-Ba (the World to Come). Prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall” (quoted on www.jewfaq.org by Tracey Rich). Because our hope is the resurrection of the body, we prepare for the world to come by attending to the needs of the bodies of our neighbors, making sure they have enough food, shelter, medical care, and companionship. We do that because God, who came in the flesh in Jesus, who was raised bodily from the dead, values the concrete day-to-day concerns of human beings.

Yes, this world is not our home; we’re only passing through. We are indeed sojourners here, and one day will go home to be with our Lord. But while we’re here, let’s make a difference. Let’s show our trust in God by our making this world less like hell and more like heaven, by doing his will on earth, by becoming the presence of God to those who long to see his face. And in that way, both here and hereafter, we will bring glory and praise to the Lord of heaven and earth.

*****

For information on the views of Americans about the afterlife, see the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, June 17, 2008, http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2religious-landscape-study-key-findings.pdf .

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