A sure and certain hope

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
All Saints & All Souls
4 November 2018

 

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At some time in the past twelve months almost everyone here this morning will have heard a priest say these words:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, you have given us a sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. In your keeping are all those who have departed in Christ.

In my reflections this morning, I would like to tease out a little what we might mean by those familiar words.

For the most part, I suspect they are not matters we spend a lot of time considering. Our culture is so death-averse that conversations about dying and serious thinking about ‘resurrection’ are rare things.

But today death is on the agenda because we are here to remember loved ones who have died, and especially those who have died in the past year. These departed ones still matter to us. They continue to be part of who we are. We are shaped by their impact on us during their lives.

Like most humans throughout the 300,000+ years that our species has been on this planet, we find it impossible to believe that what emerges seemingly from nowhere simply ends up nowhere.

The fact that we exist is perhaps the greatest miracle of all, and it gives us ground to think that nothingness is not the final state. If it were, this world would most likely not exist even for a short 15 billion years!

The God who calls the universe into being has also called us into being, and God will continue to call us into life even on the other side of death. Such is the nature of God. She cannot help herself.

When we carefully examine the biblical texts, it is clear that this confidence took some time to develop. But for us as Christian people it has been crystallised at Easter. Our hope for the future is not derived from natural processes or philosophical reflection. It has a simple base that we rehearse in this and every Eucharist:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

We can reframe that statement of the core mystery of the faith so that it reads:

We all shall die.
We shall all be raised.
We shall all come again.

When we place ourselves inside the Christ experience, we acknowledge the reality of our deaths—but we also claim the truth that God’s loving purposes for us is not yet complete, and that in God’s keeping our continuity is assured.

We exist—and we shall continue to exist—because that is the essence of God’s character.

You may have noticed that I am choosing my words carefully here.

In the first place, we really do not have words for whatever it means to continue forever in God’s love on the other side of death. Our carefully crafted words are like the burning bush that caused Moses to go aside and see what this strange thing might be. We have to use words, but the words are never adequate to the task.

Secondly, most of the traditional Christian images for life after death no longer work for us. Let’s recall some of the most common images:

  • Up there … and perhaps even an ascension (or a rapture) to get us there
  • Pearly gates, and streets paved with gold
  • Paradise garden
  • Banquet that lasts forever
  • Large house with space for everyone
  • Never ending church service (!!!)

Interestingly, the second reading this morning offered us a very different image for renewed and reconstituted life on the other side of death and destruction.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘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; …

Rather than imagining a damaged and decaying world being left behind, John the Seer has a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Life as we know it is renewed, not replaced with some ethereal spiritual existence outside of our bodies.

Such a vision is a renewal of creation rather than a shift to some other kind of reality.

Of course, this too is a metaphor, an image. But notice how this unfamiliar image works.

Rather than encourage us to discount the value of life in this world, this vision invites us to imagine our world renewed and something even more significant: God relocates from heaven to earth.

This world matters.

Our life here matters.

How we care for and sustain this world matters.

Even after our death, our future is inextricably linked with the future of this world.

Our future in the presence of God is not because we escape this world, but because God chooses to make this world—and our company—the place where God is to be found.

Yes, this is just another metaphor, another image.

But metaphors shape the way we see reality, and I hope this metaphor changes the way you think about our loved ones who have already gone before and also changes the way we think about how we choose to live here and now.

We do not treat the world as a single-use plastic bag, but as a precious thing called into existence by love, sustained every day by the love that pulses at the very heart of the universe, and beloved by God who chooses to become a part of this word: Emmanuel, God with us, God among us.

That is a truth to live by, on both sides of death. Emmanuel.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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