The Afterlife: Do You Really Believe in It?

The person who requested this sermon told me the other day that we don’t hear
sermons on the Afterlife very much.

The Afterlife: Do You Really Believe in It?
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Readings: Revelation 21: 1 – 4; 22 – 27; John 14: 1 – 7
Sunday 26th July 2015

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 has 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 is 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.