A sermon preached at St Swithin’s Lincoln on April 7th 2019
My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …
Two conversations this week got me thinking about death. My Mum, who is 92, was asked by the doctor in her residential home if she wanted to be resuscitated if she was to have a heart attack, and she wanted to talk it over. And another friend, as part of an emergency response team in the diocese, was invited into a local school after the tragic death of a young and well-loved teacher. He found that a dog-collar really did give him a status and a role within the shocked and grieving community.
This got me thinking about why it is that the church is welcomed (at least most of the time) when death comes close. I can remember Robert Runcie, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, being interviewed on the telly, and being asked in a somewhat hostile manner why the church would insist on poking its nose into funerals. His answer was that in 95% of cases during his ministry Christian ministers were actively welcomed and invited, and that people genuinely did want to be able to talk about death and dying. Whilst this figure may have decreased over the years, specifically atheist funerals are still almost insignificant in their numbers. So what is it about Christians and death?
I think that we are one of the few groups in society comfortable with thinking about it. Clergy encounter it on a weekly, if not daily basis, and we all did those exercises while we were training when we were forced to confront the feelings and fears we had about our own death. But more than that, the gospel and our discipleship refuse to let us collude with the embarrassed silence of much of society, and speak of death comfortably. I can remember my boss, the former Bishop of Monmouth, saying when facing a quadruple heart by-pass that ‘there are a lot worse things can happen to Christians than death’. And wise clergy will, as part of their teaching ministry, have helped their congregation members to look death square in the face so that it loses some of its terror.
So with that background I was struck by a verse from my daily Bible reading this week. 2 Corinthians 5 is headed in my Bible ‘Awaiting the new body’, and verse 4 tells us that while mortal life is about groaning and being burdened, all this will one day be ‘swallowed up by life’. This phrase is a fascinating reversal of usual language where it is death, or the grave, which ‘swallow up’ life. But for Paul the opposite is true: the miserable half-life we now exist in will one day be swallowed up by real life, life lived to the full, life free from groaning. Furthermore, says Paul, this new real life is the very purpose of our existence, and the Holy Spirit is the deposit which guarantees the full payment to come.
While disciples of Jesus are not those who despise and hate the things of this world in favour of the next, they do have a better sense of perspective than those for whom this life is all there is. Apparently an atheist’s gravestone bore the inscription ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’. Disciples know exactly where they’re going, and it is a matter of great anticipation and joy.
“Lyne Kirk gravestone” by Jonathan Oldenbuck – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lyne_Kirk_gravestone.JPG#/media/File:Lyne_Kirk_gravestone.JPG
In order to cash in positively on Halloween my son helped to run a ‘Death Café’ working with an atheist who nevertheless agreed with him that death is the one big taboo subject in our day, and that it really would do people good to have the opportunity to think and talk about it. Apparently Death Cafés are growing in numbers, and I would have loved to have been there.
There are a few times in the Bible where people tell God that they’ve had enough and would rather just die, an idea which I suspect was not widely represented in the Café. Poor old Moses in Num 11:14; Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4; Job several times, and Jonah in 4:3, for example. That isn’t a prayer I’ve ever prayed, but I have on a couple of occasions been in situations which made me feel that I could understand totally anyone wanting to pray it. I didn’t ask God to take me, but I came pretty close. Sometimes life is so full of trouble that death and heaven seem preferable. Or do they?
I suppose it’s about getting older, but I find myself more and more amazed at the way so many Christians seem to be earthbound in their thinking. Having lived around three quarters of my life now I find the prospect of heaven an increasingly inviting one: on a bad day I can’t wait to get there. But to be honest I don’t find many other people who share these sentiments. There seems to be a burning desire, even among Christians, to hang on to this life as though there were no alternative. It might be awful, but at least I’m alive. Yet the Bible constantly holds out to us the hope of eternal life, and the promise of something better. So much better, in fact, that St Paul can say that he considers ‘that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ (Rom 8:18) Clearly for him heaven was a shining vibrant daily reality, and at times you can hear his frustration that he isn’t already there: ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:21-24) I hear this kind of talk very rarely in today’s church.
This makes me ask how much of a reality is heaven, really, to Christians today. How certain of it are we? Does there still lurk a nagging suspicion that we might just not be quite good enough to make it? And does this anxiety make us want to hang on to this life, however awful, because at least we know it’s real. Or is there a fear of oblivion, nothingness, in spite of the Bible’s reassurances to the contrary?
Might I suggest deeper meditation on the Bible’s constant affirmations of new life, won for his people by Christ and in no way dependent on our hard work, and its frequent reminders that this world is not our home? And to those of us who are teachers in the church, I ask how often the celebration of heaven is a theme upon which we dwell.