Sermon preached at Evensong, St Andrew’s Church, Chippenham, 30 April 1972 (and again, presumably with revisions, in Stockwood, Bristol, on 4 March 1973)
Last week, as most of you will know by now, my father died. He has been ill for a time on and off but, as many have said, it was still a shock “when the end came.” Well, I think I have got over some of the shock now; and I have been able to think about what has happened, what I believe as a struggling Christian about death, and the soul, and the eternal love and mercy of God.
It’s true; grief is a feeling very much like fear. The tightness in the throat, the need to keep taking deep breaths, the steeling of nerves, the empty, hollow feeling in your stomach.
Then there’s the sense of guilt, of feeling you could have done more, the trying to feel brave, then the irritation when people sympathise, or when they stay away – “what’s the matter, don’t they care, can’t you see I’m grieving?”
This terrible feeling of being exposed, pushed out in front, the old supports and protection gone. Life will never be the same. That’s true… but is it necessarily bad?
When someone you love dies, the first reaction is often unbelief. Of course he isn’t dead, it’s only temporary, like being asleep. Many expressions of death are like this. We talk of people who have fallen asleep… passed away… passed over… or grotesquely, as having snuffed it, or kicked the bucket. All attempts to avoid the dreadful word “died.”
This idea that the dead aren’t* really quite dead is very ancient, and has been the cause of notions like the underworld, ghosts and ancestor-worship. It survives these days in one prevalent form to which the bereaved turn – namely, Spiritualism [* Manuscript says “are”, but I think my amendment must be correct – SJC]
Sadly, Spiritualism believes that the dead survive without any real regard for morality or religion. In this way of thinking, survival seems a fact of death, there is no sense of glory, essentially life goes on much the same as before.
What comfort can you find, then, if Spiritualism seems to depend upon mediums, and telepathy, or impressions which fade like the smile on the Cheshire Cat? In which heaven is described like a celestial holiday camp, with no sense of a life infinitely superior to our own little days.
I think first that the reality of death must be accepted. When we are here, death is not. When death is here, we are not. OK. But… is death the end?
No, will say the unthinking Christian, haven’t we the promise of eternal life? Yes, we have. Eternal Life is central to the New Testament. But it says: “this is eternal life – to know God as revealed in Jesus Christ and in the fellowship of the Spirit.” Something which starts, in fact, at Baptism and not at the moment of death.
The New Testament doesn’t rest upon anything going on from this life to another, it doesn’t depend upon proofs of survival. “Though one rose from the dead,” said Jesus in the story of Dives and Lazarus, “yet will they not believe.”
If the Christian accepts the inevitability of death, then what is its significance? Well, our belief in the life of the world to come must be grounded upon our present experience. This Christian belief is not the same as a belief in the natural immortality of the soul. We believe in the life to come not because man is what he is, but because God is what He is. God is love, and it is this love that assures us that all things which really matter are in his hands.
I said just now that our belief in the world to come must be grounded in our experience of this one, but – and this is important – we cannot draw from this experience inferences of what this life will be like.
So long as heaven is conceived as a compensation for the failures and ills of earth, as relief from the miseries of this sinful world, we shall be constructing for ourselves our own heavens and the dangers of exclusivism can result.
“We are the chosen few,
All other will be damned;
There’s no room in heaven for you,
We can’t have heaven crammed.”
It’s almost a way of telling God the kind of heaven we want him to make for us, rather than accepting that which he provides.
We have this certainty, though, that God lies on the other side of death as he lies on this side of it.
A Christian’s life is grounded in a love that will not let him go, and neither life nor death, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, is able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
It is this quality of love – love is stronger than death, neither can the floods overwhelm it – which is the strength in the belief of the Communion of Saints. We love those of our fellows on earth and continue to love them when they die. They, being caught up into that greater love which God has for us all, continue to love us. They shall be like God because they shall see him as he is.
And so will you and me.