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About Those Who Have Died 11.4.18

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words. Last June I went to my Allegheny College 40th reunion. At Allegheny, students are required to do a senior research project in order to graduate. At the reunion, several recent graduates gave presentations on their research projects. One of the students was a religion major. Her study was on the ancient Mesopotamian “Epic of Gilgamesh”. This is the oldest known work of literature. Her presentation was fascinating. About half of the poem is about the quest of Gilgamesh to answer this question: What happens after we die? This student studied the way people have sought answers to that question over the millennia and concluded that those folks got the same answer that Gilgamesh did. It’s a mystery. So, what do we Christians think? What do we think happens when we die? We go to heaven, right? But what does that mean? If you go to the bookstore, you will find several books about folks who have had what we call near death experiences. I have read most of them. All very descriptive and hopeful. We find these books comforting because they give us a bit of certainty, right? “That is what is going to happen to me when I die.” But what does scripture say? This much is certain. Scripture says that something happens. We do not end in oblivion. There is more to come. But beyond that, frankly, scripture is kind of unclear. The problem is that there are no real descriptions of “heaven” in scripture. I know that Revelation has something to offer, but Revelation is metaphorical and is not particularly helpful, in my view. So, at the risk of oversimplification, scripture sets forth two primary views of what happens when we die.

  1. We will go straight to “heaven”, much like what is described in those near-death experiences, or
  2. We will sleep until Jesus comes for us and takes us to “heaven”.

There are other views, but these two seem to me to be the ones supported by Jesus and Paul. I will put off the topic of resurrection for another time, though in my view, nothing I say today is inconsistent with it. Let’s look at the straight to heaven approach. Paul at one point says that to be gone from the body, to be dead, is to be in the presence of God. Jesus calls the presence of God, paradise! So, scripture says the people we remember today are in paradise. Right now. What does that mean? Paradise is the word used to describe the Garden of Eden. A place where humanity lives with God. What is life there like? It’s … well … pastoral. I have read that paradise is basically an eternal sabbath. Our Eden. Our eternal life. Our resting in peace. But then there is Paul’s description to the Thessalonians that the dead must wait for Jesus to come and get them, and that that will happen sometime down the road. Paul seems to say that there is some intermediate period where we “sleep”. Some call this “soul sleep”. Sort of a temporary oblivion. So, which is it? Well, in the end, Paul basically admits, it’s a mystery. We heard this in his first letter to the Corinthians. For here and now, we know only in part, and here and now, we can describe only in part; but when the complete comes, then and there, the partial will come to an end. … For now, here, we see in a mirror dimly, but then, there, we will see face to face. Now, here, we know only in part; then, there, we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. Paul says our understanding of life and death is incomplete. God’s ways are beyond our understanding. To us here on this side of death, it is a mystery. Paul is not alone. The author of 1 John 3: 2 says this: 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. In other words, we will not know for certain what happens to us when we die until we are in the presence of God. I like this quote I read in Dr. Dale Allison’s book, Night Comes. As … theologian [Charles Brown] put it, “I believe that personal consciousness survives the shock of that physical episode we call death. As to the conditions or employments of that future life, I have no conception whatever.” Which brings me to the question – “Does it make any difference? If we sleep until time ends, I’m ok with that. As one of my seminary professors said, I can use the rest. I go to sleep and wake up in God’s presence. And if we go immediately, all the better, right? But I like how Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long explains it in his book “They Accompanied Them with Singing”. From God’s perspective, we are all already there. In the presence of God, there is no time. When Jesus told the thief today, they would be in paradise, Jesus meant the eternal “today”. We all go into God’s presence at once, in God’s eternity. And it happened when Jesus rose from the dead. Right then. We all rose with him. So, when we ask where our loved ones are, and what happens to us, we can take comfort that we all are in eternity with God. That is our faith. The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Because Jesus lives, our loved ones live, and so will I. Yet, when a loved one dies, we mourn and grieve. As we come forward to light a candle of remembrance, some come with tears in their eyes. Why? If we believe in this paradise thing, why do we grieve? We grieve because from our perspective in time, they are there, and we are still here. The grief we feel today is because we miss them. Part of our lives is gone. And it hurts. And this is an appropriate response. While our faith says we are to have hope, it does not say we don’t grieve. It does not say we don’t mourn. Jesus wept and Lazarus’ tomb. So, our sadness is not a sign of a lack of faith. It demonstrates the depth of our love for the one who died. But what we don’t do is mourn like ones with no hope. They wail and howl because they believe that the one who died has gone into oblivion. Not us. We have hope. We believe there is more to come. And that allows us to both mourn and celebrate. Mourn an end and celebrate a beginning. I like the words of Dr. Allison: Our tradition has been at its’ best when it’s … conceded how little we know. In this connection I recall some words of Luther … : “We know no more about heaven than a child in its mother’s womb knows of the world into which it is about to be born.” … Here death is birth, or as in the catacomb inscriptions, the day of one’s death is dies natalis, one’s birthday. And like that illustration. An end and a beginning. The early Christian community had a different illustration. They believed that the function of a funeral was to accompany the loved one, not down the birth canal, but to a door that led into the presence of God. And while they accompanied their loved one, they sang. They sang praises to God, thanking God for the earthly life that was over and the eternal life that was beginning. That is what we do today. We sing. We sing for those whose candles we light today. We sing because while it seems that night comes, we remember the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 139: 11 If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, 12 even the darkness is not dark to [God]; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [God]. … I come to the end, I am still with [God].

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