Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 23rd July 2017
Theme: Eternal Life – Do you Believe in it?
(1 Corinthians 15:12-26; John 17:1-11)
This is the first of a series of summer sermons on themes chosen by some members of the congregation. There’s still time to make some further suggestions.
Two members of St Mary’s wanted to hear something about life after death. Next week, I’ll try and respond to the question of what happens to good atheists after death, but this week I’ve simply been asked to reply to this question: Do you believe in the afterlife?
It was a familiar question: somebody asked it only two years ago and I preached a summer sermon on exactly the same question. So let’s acknowledge the question behind the question, which is this – what happens to my loved ones and what happens to me when I die?
In the sermon two years ago, which I’ll repost on the website with this sermon, I made a few points that are worth simply making again. First, any answer to that question will depend on Easter and the empty tomb of Jesus. Without Easter nothing about life after death makes sense. Second, whatever eternal life is, it has something to do with being with Jesus. Scripture is fairly reticent about what heaven is, but the Christian tradition does have a clear sense of eternal life being something about fellowship with Jesus, being where Jesus is. Third, Scripture talks about a new heaven and a new earth. The focus of the future is about God’s kingdom coming on earth, not about God whisking us all off to heaven. The bible’s interest is primarily in the transformation of creation. So, my key point was that focusing on this world and making it better is the Christian’s primary concern.
But today, I want to offer another perspective which has helped me to understand what the focus of the bible’s talk of eternal life is all about. It’s source is not mine but that of Archbishop Rowan Williams. I owe this reflection to him, and I find it very helpful.
Archbishop Rowan says that the problem we get into – it’s the reason why many people go to mediums for example – is that we imagine eternal life to be somehow the extension of life as we have experienced. Such projection of this life into the next – with all its hopes, crises, embarrassments and choices of this life – is, according to Jesus, nonsense. When we view eternal life like this – or even if we imagine eternal life to be a very, very long church service – eternal life is first and foremost about us, whereas for Jesus, says Rowan, eternal life is about God.
Eternal life is being alive to God, both now and hereafter. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is the God of Abraham, both then and now; Isaac then and now; Jacob then and now; Jesus then and now. Because God is alive, all of these are alive.
That’s the heart of what eternal life means. When we seek to share the good news of eternal life, we’re not trying to persuade people that there is an endless soap opera ongoing after death, that eternal life means life going on just like this. What we are seeking to invite people to see that the God we believe in is a God who never let goes of what he has made, that the God who has breathed his life into us will always regard us as alive and will never let go of what he has made. That relationship will not disappear.
So, you see, the question what do I believe about life after death is really a question about what I believe about God. The good news of the Gospel is that when we are living as people who are alive to God, people who are in touch with God we are doing what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did and, most of all, we live as Jesus did. Jesus, so full and alive to God, lives a life full of passion and reconciliation, of reckless inclusive grace, a life ready to stand by the poor, the suffering and the forgotten, in this he shows us what eternal life is. That’s what we see in God’s life. So when our lives show these things to the world around us, they show eternal life, because this is what God is like. Bishop John V Taylor once said this, “God is as God is in Christ and in him there is no unChristlikeness.”. The life of the Christlikeness is the life that will never die. We live because Christ lives. And we shall live because Christ lives. The Christian hope of life after death, or more accurately, of eternal life, is not that things will go on getting better, neither is it a promise that things will go on forever. The Christian hope is that there is One who is alive who will never take his eyes off us and who will never let us fall from his hand. That’s a belief about God not about us. That to answer the question “Do you believe in life after death?” is answered by me as, “I believe in a God of life and life in all its fullness.
We come to this place for many reasons, but most of all, we are invited to come to this table, because here is the God of life, here is life. Here is the reality of Jesus Christ, the life of God most fully lived, in form of bread and wine. Food for humanity. Here is life. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we deepen, and God recreates in us, the relationship we have with the God of life. And because Jesus is alive, this means we can anticipate and experience a taste of what resurrection life is. Here is a very sense of heaven. This is the beginning of new creation. This is where life begins again and again, and even with lives burdened with guilt and failure, we again and again can find the life that never ends and invites us to start living again. Start living God’s life, eternal life, the life of reconciliation, of generosity, of selfless identification with those in need, those on the edge of things, those who feel they have no value. And when we leave this table, this is the life we carry in us, for this world and for the world to come.
Eternal life is not an abstract speculation about the future; eternal life is visible and tangible. Here and now we can see what heaven is like, because it is where God is and so it is where we are now.
In the name…