The Afterlife

Part of the Summer Sermon Series, Simon was asked by a member of the congregation to preach a sermon on this topic

The Afterlife: Do You Really Believe in It?

A Sermon Preached by Simon Butler

Readings: Revelation 21:1-4; 22-27; John 14:1-7

As part of the Summer Sermon Series, Simon was asked by a member of the
congregation to preach a sermon on this topic. The full text of the sermon is below. He
would be very happy to discuss its contents with anyone who wishes.

The person who requested this sermon told me the other day that we don’t hear
sermons on the Afterlife very much. I think I agree with her. I preach about it regularly
at funerals but, in the context of preaching at funerals, so I guess I think I preach about
it a lot. But not at main church services, perhaps. I can’t recall when I last preached
about it in a main Sunday sermon.

And towards the end of the sermon I might offer you some personal reasons why that
might be. Because the question was rather direct: “What do you think about the
Afterlife?” If I’m going to avoid the issue with a politician’s answer, I think I would do
the question a disservice. As a Christian minister, however, I’m not just here to offer
personal opinions but to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, so in this sermon I’m
going to briefly do both things: first to try and tease out a couple of points about the
Afterlife from the biblical tradition and then, finally, to offer a personal response to
that.

This sermon can only scratch the surface and there is far more that can be said. There is
a long tradition of addressing these questions in the season of Advent with sermons on
what are known as the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Perhaps we
could explore that later in the year.

One final word of caution as well. If I’m going to answer this question both personally
and from within the Christian tradition, I want to park the word Afterlife now. It’s origins
as a word are in the late sixteenth century and it has been rather adopted by those who
want to say far more about life after death than the Christian tradition has ever done. It
is associated with the Spiritualist movement, about which Christians have always been
sceptical, and has been so completely colonised by the wild speculations of film and
literature, that it has become very difficult to separate the relatively restrained insights
of the biblical tradition with the wide amount of fanciful conjecture that has grown up
around it.

So what does the Christian tradition have to say about life after death? The chief thing
of course is Easter. That the tomb of Jesus was empty and that Jesus, crucified, was
raised from death by the Father to what St Paul calls ‘a spiritual body’, which appears to
be both recognisably physical and utterly transformed. Jesus, the Jesus the disciples had
known, is still one and the same and yet, through resurrection, he is somehow filled
with new life that almost overwhelms his physical presence. Without Easter, and if I may
anticipate personal comments, I would say without a bodily resurrection, there is no
good news, there is no hope of eternal life, there is no sure ground for faith. Attempts
to turn the resurrection into some sort of spiritual experience, either for Jesus or the
disciples, which have dogged Christian theology for the past two hundred years, seem to
me to be both historically and theologically wanting. Sadly, there’s not time to explore
that this morning. I could recommend Bishop Tom Wright’s magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God for those who want to plough through 730 pages of compelling
argument.

But what about after that? We know Jesus disappeared into heaven at the Ascension,
something I find far more difficult to understand than the resurrection if I’m honest.
What does the Christian tradition say about life beyond death for us?
The readings I’ve chosen today highlight two key things.

First, we might look to John 14 and the words of Jesus so familiar to us from the funeral service. “I go to prepare a place for you…” “Believe in God, believe also in me..” “I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am there you may also be”.

Three things emerge from this passage. There’s the idea that there is a place for us somewhere (although we’re not really told what that place actually is). Second, that wherever that place actually is Jesus will be there and that it is through him we shall find ourselves in that place with him. And thirdly, that trusting in Jesus – having faith in other words – is the response which Jesus encourages in order to have some sense of peace about this question.

There’s a lot that could be explored in those three points, but I think all I want to say is
how restrained that is. There is very little speculation in the gospels about the
geography of heaven (a reference in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke
tells us something about the contemporary understanding of 1st century Jews, but it
doesn’t really illuminate the question of what happens to us when we die. John offers us
a place to which Jesus will lead us, but all we know about that place is that Jesus will
be there. Even the famous language about “many mansions” is perhaps just a picture of
the generosity of God whose grace extends beyond the narrow confines of 1st century
Jewish understanding rather than anything specific about the architecture of heaven.
The other passage is from Revelation and, again, it’s popular at funerals. But take a
close look – in fact you don’t need to take a close look, you just need to read what it
says – and it doesn’t say anything at all about “going to heaven when we die”. The
image that this John offers us is not that at all; it’s absolutely the opposite. It’s about “a
new heaven and a new earth”, it talks about the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven…” not of us going up to heaven. And, rather decisively, it says this “the home of
God is among mortals..God will be with them…God will wipe every tear from their eye.”
What Revelation seems to offer is not God’s kingdom in heaven but God’s kingdom come
on earth, a world transformed, the new creation come into its fullness, a fullness we
have only glimpsed in those occasional moments of spiritual encounter, those moments
when God’s presence reminds us of his trustworthiness and reality. God’s reign come on
earth is what Revelation promises, the Lamb as the light of the world shining brightly in
a renewed creation. This vision has little to say about “where we go when we die”.
Rather it invites us to imagine what this world of suffering, struggle and for the
Christians who first read it, vicious persecution, might become when transformed by the
work of God and the fullness of the presence of the Risen Jesus.

Two glimpses of the biblical tradition. But, as my sermon requester has asked, what do
you think about life after death? Well, as you will have gathered, my reading of
Scripture leaves me passionate about the resurrection of Jesus as the central point
around which my faith and my ministry are based. But, as to what happens to us after
we die, I am much more agnostic. Not agnostic about the promise of Jesus Christ, but
agnostic about the value of speculation and too much emphasis on worrying about what
happens after we die. There is a danger, a very real danger to my mind among
Christians, that we become so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly use. Spending our
whole lives worrying about getting to heaven – or even worse getting into heaven –
seems to me to be a long way from what Jesus asked his disciples to spend their time
doing. That is not to dismiss or diminish the natural anxiety or questions we have when
faced with a death or our own mortality. Rather it is to my mind – and it’s only my mind
– not the prime concern of Christians, which is to live out the Gospel, to do the work of
the Kingdom (which, I think, is the part we play in bringing the vision of Revelation into
being) and to preach the good news of the Risen Jesus to the world.

This is not meant to be an avoidance of the question, however, which is real to me in a
very personal way. Ten days ago a very good friend of mine and a fellow-priest took his
own life after a period of stress. He leaves behind a wife and two young children. Of
course, that prompts me to lots of questions about faith and God’s goodness and human
frailty and sin. But it also asks me what I believe about what has happened to
Christopher now. Put simply, what might I say if I were to be preaching at his funeral.
Here are the three things about life after death I might be able to say:
I might say that what we do know is that Jesus is to be trusted. That God is to be
trusted. That is part of what the empty tomb is about: God’s faithfulness. I might say
that, even though we lose loved ones and face our own mortality, we can do no better
than to trust God. Of course, I pray that I might be able to do that when my own time
comes. Please God that I do. But, though we all share the frailty of human doubt, Easter
tells us that God is to be trusted.

I might say that, wherever Christopher is (or indeed wherever each of us ‘go’ when we
die) is somewhere where Jesus is. What that place is like, who gets there, whether we
go straight away or experience sleep or purgatory or something else, whether my dog
gets there or my unborn child or Adolf Hitler, that’s all speculation I think. Those
questions are God’s not mine: they’re way above my pay grade. But Jesus will be there,
wherever it is. And that, right now, is enough for me.

And I might say that, with those two things established – the reality of Easter and the
presence of Jesus – what really matters is how we live not how we die. Our world cries
out for love, compassion and justice. We Christians, of all people, know that those
things come from God and that God asks us to work with him to make them real.
Allowing for the reality of bereavement and the periods when loss forces us to face
questions of mortality, allowing for those, instead of being crippled by fear of death or
by what happens when we die, let us get on with living for God and doing God’s work. As
Christian Aid puts it pithily: “we believe in life before death.”

I could say much more, but that’s where I am right now on this question. Ask me again
something and my answers might be different. But I hope that gives you something to
think about. Amen.