What good is a resurrected body? Why Easter needs the Ascension.

In my Father’s house are many rooms… And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:2-3

Today we celebrate one of the most central teachings of our faith; an idea equal with the messages of Christmas and Easter, and one that we confess every time a faithful follower of Jesus says the Creed: Jesus ascended into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and from there He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

In the official teachings of the Church – found in those essential beliefs laid out in the Prayer Book for us to read, learn, and share with the world around us – a lot hinges on the Ascension.  Yet, this major celebration and its message became largely ignored; not least because it was one of those celebrations, like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday that traditionally fell in the middle of the week on a Thursday, the 40th day after Easter, and as busy work schedules took over, it was lost in the mix.

The problem, though, is that Jesus’ ascension into heaven is absolutely central to understanding our faith.  No kidding: skipping Ascension is as if we decided that Christmas just didn’t matter anymore, or if we decided to skip preaching about Easter for a couple generations. 

Seriously: Christmas tells us that Jesus, God’s Son, was born and raised to share our humanity; Easter tells us that Jesus experienced death in a human body, and did what we couldn’t do for ourselves – conquering the grave, and making human flesh incorruptible, making it able to last forever.  And the Ascension tells us how that matters for you and me.

Think about it: Every time we gather to worship, we confess Christ’s resurrection.  But how does Jesus coming out of a tomb long ago and far away have any impact on your physical body?  If the resurrection isn’t just about spiritual thoughts and warm, happy feelings about a fuzzy afterlife – and it isn’t! – then how, exactly, does his body, raised to new life, have any impact on what happens to you, so that you and I no longer fear the grave?

These are essential questions that make your faith make sense… and, it’s the Ascension, the return of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, that holds it all together.

The Plan:

We all believe, one way or another, that God the Father created us so that we could share in the overflowing life and love of the Trinity: a relationship so profound that it creates and invites the creation to join in their endless life of joy.

And, we all believe, one way or another, that for love to be real, it has to be freely given and freely chosen; so God invited us to love him and become infused with his eternal life and the fire of eternal love, knowing full well that giving us that option to love him freely includes the possibility that we could reject that offer instead.  As humankind decided to trust itself and seek our own glory, we went the way of all things that trust in themselves: we found darkness and the grave, as the spark of life given at our creation became something that grows cold and flickers out, like a candle left unattended that hollows out the middle until the very flame that gave it purpose causes it to collapse and snuff itself out under the weight of the heavy walls it has built.

But, God, knowing that darkness and the grave was our choice to make, built a solution into the system.  This is the message of Christmas: God’s plan was to build a bridge, a ladder even. If Creator and creation, God and humankind, are separated by a chasm, by the steep walls built as our flame burned inward rather than sharing light with the world, then the solution could only be one who was fully God and fully man: one who could enter the deepest, godless pits of despair built by humanity, and yet, being God, had within himself the very flame and source of life that cannot be extinguished, even when the heavy walls of the grave collapsed in.

And that is the message of Easter: as those heavy, waxy walls of darkness and the grave closed in, they found not a weak, flickering flame as they always had before; they found a mighty, blazing torch, unending life itself, and the more the walls of death closed in, the more they were consumed and melted away.

Jesus rose from the grave, blasting a hole in the gates of death, and emerged from the tomb with our flesh, but now as it was meant to be when that choice was first given: our flesh no longer attempting to be self-sufficient inside the walls we have built; our flesh transformed into forever flesh, connected intimately to the source of life itself, now able to accept the invitation to share in that everlasting relationship of the God who created us for eternal life in an everlasting creation; an eternity without pain or grief, without tears and sadness, without wars or disease, where the lion and the lamb can lie together with satisfied appetites because they’re connected to the source of all that is.

So Jesus rose, but what impact can that have on me?

Well, that’s where the Ascension comes in. 

As we see even in Jesus, there’s not much use for “forever flesh” in a world that is still full of death and decay.  And, truly, in spite of our attempts to put off aging – expensive creams and gallons of hair dye – there comes a point when we must admit: who would want to live forever in a world based on self-isolation behind walls of greed?

Yes, we absolutely believe that God will restore creation; that, in his time – and it’s not for us to concern ourselves with the time or date – the time of God inviting the flickering flames of human life will one day come to an end, and whether it’s the opposite of a big bang as scientists speculate, or some other spectacular mystery as prophets have attempted to put into words, there comes a time when time stops – and then all is made new, but this time, without the possibility of the universal pain and regret: this time of making choices (and the painful consequences of making them) has ended.

Christ the Forerunner

And so, 40 days after Easter, Christ, showing us the first glimpses of what humanity will be like when the deadly walls we’ve built no longer have dominion over us, then takes that glorified, forever flesh out of a decaying world.  He returns to the right hand of the Father, to that original life-giving relationship of the Trinity, but, bringing our flesh, he has a mission:  “do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God, believe also in me”, he says.  “My Father’s house has many dwelling places… and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that where I am, you may be also.”  And, he adds, “you know the way to the place where I am going”.[1]

He, having brought our humanity into the presence of God, is preparing a place for us to be with him until that final day – guest rooms where we may wait in the palace of the King; not our eternal resting place, but where we will rest in peace and be satisfied until that time when all is made new, when our forever flesh finds a home in the kingdom that shall last forever.

And we know the way: when the walls of death close in, there’s the well-trodden path of stubbornly holding out until the weight of our own choices leads to destruction; or, knowing where to look, we see the way, the truth, and the life: Jesus reaching out and leading us through the hole that he blasted; a steep and narrow path, one that requires full reliance on the one who has walked it before, but one that leads to a peaceful rest, to the words “well done” being spoken over us as the door swings open, and the Father sees not the flickering flame of a weary life, but hears the Son saying “this is my brother; this is my sister, who now shares my flesh and blood”, as the Spirit clothes us and ushers us into the feast.

Think about it, every time you say the Creed.  He ascended into heaven: not to leave us, but to blaze a path and prepare a place for us.  And, even now, he’s at the Father’s right hand, waiting; and when I die, when you die, he reaches out, leads us in, presents us as his friends, and leads us to our rest, as we, too, await his coming in glory, that day when finally, clothed in his righteousness alone, our forever flesh meets our forever home, standing faultless before his throne.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.

[1] John 14:1-4

Who needs a Resurrection?

By God’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

As our Easter celebration continues through the 50 days of the Easter Season, today’s lessons give us an opportunity to reflect once more on what it means that our Lord – the Son of God who shared a human body just like ours – would rise from the dead, something, admittedly, very unlike how we have come to expect bodies to act.

After all, even the Lord’s closest companions, those who heard his teachings and saw his mighty works throughout his earthly ministry were shocked on that first Easter day.  Now, they had heard him speak first hand about his death and his promise to rise again; they had heard him speak about the temple – the dwelling place of God on earth – being destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days; they had heard him speak of the deliverance that comes for those who die to self and rise again in the waters of baptism… but even they, conditioned by every other human death ever experienced, walked sorrowing to the tomb to mourn, expecting a lifeless body in a sealed tomb.

And today, of course, we heard that gruesome, even embarrassing account of St. Thomas, that great missionary who took the Gospel East to India, who died for his faith in the Summer of the year 72, who was so shocked at the reports of his 10 closest friends that he demanded to reach out and stick his hand into the gaping wound in Jesus’ side before he would believe that the Son of God had risen from the grave. 

No, even for Jesus’ closest disciples, 1st century Jews who believed that bodies would one day be raised to new life, the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord were far from what their human experience would have led them to expect.

After all, if all the millions of bodies, all the billions who have died in human history stay dead, then what are the chances?  Why should this one body be any different? 

A Resurrected Body: Slim Odds.

Unless, of course, that’s the point.

Researchers tell us that, since about 50,000 BC, there have been 108 billion humans.[1]  If any one of those could have overcome that original sin, that original pride which caused us to miss the mark and land in the dust of the grave rather than in eternity sharing God’s endless life, then none of the events of Holy Week would have been necessary.  If there was any other way that we could overcome the grave, then the willing sacrifice of an innocent son is nothing short of horrific.  Or, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, if any other religion offers a solution to death and the grave; if any other philosophy or moral code can actually work, then a loving Father accepting the sacrifice of an innocent Son in order to adopt the guilty as sons and daughters is a horrific thought… that is, unless this 1 was different; unless we believe what we say and sing: that he only could unlock the gate and let us in.

Yes, when we stop to think about it – as we should from time to time – the glory, the Good News that we proclaim in Easter is that something unique happened in that body in which our flesh was joined to God.

Yes, the odds of a body being resurrected are 108 billion to 1. 

But, if we’re true to scripture read through the lenses of faithful tradition and God-given reason, that’s the point: Jesus is the first-fruits of something new; a new creation, the first new shoot springing up from that old stump, onto which we will be grafted if we choose to follow him.  1 in a billion or 1 in a hundred billion is all you need if that one is a new solution, a model, a prototype of what is to come.

And, at the same time, if 108 billion to 1 sound like slim odds for Easter, it’s worth remembering the faith that even modern science asks us to accept.  Secular scientists using the Drake equation tell us that the chances of intelligent life evolving on earth are about 40 trillion to 1, yet none of us doubt that we’re here, in spite of those far slimmer odds.   

No, bodies don’t usually rise from the dead, but it only takes one to chart a new course.  It only takes one tiny spark to ignite a wildfire, and in spite of the destruction a fire brings, it’s new life that springs on the other side.

What does it matter?

Jesus’ resurrection – his body not just resuscitated, but transformed and prepared for eternity – matters precisely because our faith proclaims that he is the firstfruits of a new crop: a branch onto which we have been grafted, joining our flesh to God’s endless life.

It matters, in short, because as we read this morning, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the Dead is our living hope. Our faith is not in good wishes for a better tomorrow, our faith is not that we can make ourselves better people and do some good in the world; our faith is that we have been made heirs to an inheritance, that we will receive life that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading – a life being kept, stored up with God until it is ready to be revealed at the last.[2]

For too long, churches have avoided the topic of resurrection precisely because of the slim odds.  The resurrection of a body isn’t something we see.  And certainly even the Gospels record quite candidly the astonishment of even the most faithful followers.

But if we leave out the resurrection, if we leave out that unique example of Christ as the prototype of God’s future plans, then we’re left without an answer for the hope that is in us, and perhaps even more importantly, we’re left without anything coherent to say about what happens when we die.

For many faithful churchgoers, we’ve come to a point where the most we can say about the death of even the most faithful Christian is, “well, they’re in a better place”.

But the Resurrection tells us that our faith isn’t about disembodied bliss enjoyed in the clouds; in fact, in spite of some of the familiar revival songs of the 1900s and the sentimental poems of sympathy cards, the Bible and even the Creeds are quite clear that Heaven is not our goal.  We don’t follow Jesus so we can “go to Heaven” when we die.

Rather, as Holy Week and Easter remind us, Jesus promises that those who ask for mercy will wait with him in Paradise, will wait in the many lodging places made ready in the Father’s house until that time when death and the grave are finally defeated, and as one generation passes to the next, we receive our inheritance of resurrected life as we, made like Christ, share in his reign over the new Creation, just as we were intended to have dominion over this world before we turned on God and each other.  

We believe in the resurrection of the body – that, as a totally unique event, Jesus returned from the grave with a body unlike any other – a body that bears the marks of suffering, the marks of obedience that make us who we are, but a body that does not tire, does not grow weary, that does not fight against our appetites or our will, and that is made like Him. 

In Easter we proclaim that, though we wear out, though we break down, though accidents and diseases happen, we do not fear the grave because we’ve seen the prototype, we’ve seen the revised plans for what we will be on the other side.

Or, as we read: “though you have not seen him, you love him; even though you do not see Jesus now, you believe in him and rejoice … for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls”.[3]

Souls created to inhabit bodies; bodies that are re-formed, purified, and strengthened as iron refined in a fire,[4] made ready not to play harps on the clouds, but to live, love, and serve in the perfect City of God, the New Jerusalem that is to come.  Bodies no longer of dust, but clothed with immortality, over which the grave has no power,[5] as the gates that were powerless against the Lord of Life are unable to hold those who share in that risen life by God’s mercy and grace.

Yes, the apostles would agree, resurrection is shocking!  But every great revolution starts somewhere, and every world-changing creation seems downright impossible at the start.

But, in spite of the odds, let’s be clear.  This is our faith: Christ rose, so we will rise;  Christ rose in his body, so we will rise in our bodies; Christ’s flesh, born of a woman, was clothed with immortality, as our feeble bodies will be remade imperishable; and in the meantime, the jaws of death being broken, he has prepared for us a place to wait, longing for that day[6] when we will reign with him as sons and daughters of the King.

This is our faith.

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen Indeed.  Alleluia.

[1] https://www.prb.org/howmanypeoplehaveeverlivedonearth/

[2] 1 Peter 1:3-5

[3] 1 Peter 3:8-9

[4] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 18:18

[5] 1 Cor 15:50-54

[6] That is, we can at least say that the martyrs await with longing rather than patiently or without a sense of time; there are differences of opinion as to whether martyros here refers to only those who died, or all “witnesses” whose blood was ultimately shed as the result of sin. 

Death is Conquered

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Yes, today is the day that we proclaim that even in a pandemic, even when things are not at all as we would want them to be, the truth remains: God loved the world so much that He sent His Son to die for us; and rising triumphantly from the grave, trampling down death by death, breaking the curse of our disobedience, and conquering the enemy, he opened the path for us to share in his eternal life.

…And this pandemic certainly has a way of putting things in perspective.

Yes, we’re getting tired of being cooped up.  Yes, we miss the pool, and the library, and the rink.  Yes, we miss dropping in on our neighbours.  Yes, we can’t wait for school to open again (and, if you’re trying to work from home with young kids, yes, we have a new appreciation for our teachers!).

Yes, some of us here today are anxious – those with weakened bodies who would suffer greatly if someone not following the rules brought this invisible enemy to your home.

Yes, some of us here today are grieving – and the pain of grief is real – as plans we had made: vacations, parties, dinner with grandparents and grandkids; and bigger plans like weddings, baby showers, and even funerals are cancelled, as we are confronted in a harsh way with the reality that so much, so much, is beyond our control.

Yet, the pandemic has a way of putting things in perspective. 

Sure, Easter is a time for turkey dinners with family.  Sure, it’s a time to buy flowers and send cards and celebrate eating a month’s worth of chocolate in a single morning.  Sure, it’s a time to celebrate the hope of new life and new beginnings.

But, at a time like this, the message of Easter becomes so much more focused: there is light shining in the darkness; and though the darkness is vast, though the light at times is hidden from view, we know that the darkness cannot and will not overcome the light, that light that enlightens all of us, whether or not we’re able to realize it, as times like these remind us all too well that, in spite of our plans, we’re not all powerful; we’re created.  We’re part of God’s grand design, and every day, every breath is a gift: as we’re reminded that we’re powerless even to plan our next vacation, let alone chart our own path for the future.

It’s about Relationship

You see, we were created for relationship.

We believe, our faith handed down from generation to generation tells us that, from before time began, the love – the life – of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was so great, so overflowing, that God called into being everything that is, He Created you and me, so that we could share in the eternal life of their relationship. 

That’s why we’re here.  That’s why we’re all here – because God wants to share his overflowing life with us in relationship with Him.

But, in that relationship, we children were unwilling to acknowledge the wisdom of our Father.  For us, even one simple rule made for our protection was too much for us.  From the beginning, we wanted to pretend that we’re the masters of our own destiny – that we’re the ones in control, that we’re the ones who make the plans and chart our own course.

…and it’s times like these that remind us just how little control we have.

But the Good News is that, while this world continues to ripple with the consequences of that disobedience, and every selfish, greedy, and prideful action since, Easter isn’t about flowers, chocolate, and bunnies.  Easter isn’t about hoping that we can try harder and maybe do better with a fresh start. 

Easter isn’t even about thinking fondly about an empty tomb in a far away place long ago.

Of course God, the source of life, rose from the dead.  That’s the easy part.  How could the source of life not rise?

No, the Good News of Easter is that God’s desire, God’s Will to share his unending life with his creation is so great that He would come as one of us to fix that one, ultimate reminder that we’re not in control: Death.  Death is that final proof that we’re not in charge.

But God wants to share his life with us so much that He was willingly swallowed by the jaws of death.  But as the grave closed around him, as darkness closed in as it would on any man, the source of life was revealed, the unquenchable light of life shone forth and broke the system.  The gates fell down, the chains fell off, and all those who died saw that death isn’t in control either.  As the Light of Life stood in the grave, there was a new option, a new path that we couldn’t forge by themselves: if we wanted, we could let those chains fall and follow God Himself on the path to life.

And, to do so, there was only one condition: we have to acknowledge that we were made to be in relationship with God.  We have to acknowledge, in the face of consequences beyond our control, in the face of consequences because of the actions of others, in the face of death itself, that He’s God, and we’re not; that God’s the Father, and if we share in Christ’s death by baptism, and follow with lives of repentance on that new path, then we will be sons and daughters, living in relationship, realizing that everything we have, all our strength and health, all that we work for, is dependant on his goodness toward us, and seeing that even the darkness of the grave is not a threat, but is the means through which our relationship with our Father is restored.

Even in dark times like this, because of this day we can stare the darkness in the face, and we can boldly proclaim the truth:

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Death took a body, and met God face to face.
Death took earth, and encountered Heaven.

Christ is risen, and Hell is overthrown!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.[1]

Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

[1] Adapted from the Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom

The Thin Veil that Clouds our Vision

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today the Church invites us to offer our bounden duty and service of prayer and praise to Almighty God, but with particular attention to those whom we love but see no longer.

Every one of us here has been touched by the death of a loved one, and while on the one hand the Church tells us that we are to rejoice in the knowledge that Christ overcame death and the grave, this day reminds us that grief – that sadness and even that deep longing that we feel in the pit of our stomach because of separation from those whom we love is not just legitimate, but is part and parcel of life in this fallen world, marred by sin and corruption.

That longing, that desire to remember those who have died, as painful as it sometimes might be, is actually a gift.  It’s a gift that points us through the pain to the deep reality that every one of us is created for immortality; that while our bodies perish and memories fade, life continues in the nearer presence of the merciful, righteous, and loving God, who alone is the source of life.

Life and Death

We live in a time that is more confused about life and death than ever before.  Confused by conflicting teachings mixed with shreds of science and fear of our own mortality, it seems many of us come to understand life and bodily death as infinitely separate, as categorically different manners of being.

In the eyes of the world around us we’ve come to believe that, once that last breath is drawn, existence itself is somehow cut off.  This plays out most clearly, and is most sad, in the language of our fellow Christians: perhaps we can speak plainly about the life of faith in Christ Jesus, and perhaps we can even speak plainly about the eternal life that comes after future judgment, but the Church has largely fallen subject to the wider culture, in being unable and unwilling to speak with confidence the truths that we proclaim at Easter: that Christ is risen, trampling down death by death, and winning victory over the grave. 

And, if that’s the case, if death is defeated, then our longings to be reunited with those we love are not wrong at all; instead, they’re a foretaste of the eternity that God is calling us to share.

You see, life and bodily death are not categorically different; they are not separated by some chasm of our imagination or even by eternity itself.

Rather, it’s quite the opposite.  Death and life are imminently close.  The veil between our mortality and eternity is infinitely thin, separated at all times, and for all people, by nothing more than a single breath.  There hereafter is not far off, but imminently close.

And, on this side of the veil, we see things dimly.

The Church, as a bride prepared to be united on that long-awaited day, looks to Christ, our loved ones, and our eternal home with vision obscured by the gauzy veil of time.

And, when that last breath, that last beat of temporality is ended, it’s not as though we close our eyes.  No, it’s quite the opposite.  With that last breath, the veil is lifted and it is then that we see fully what we have longed for, it’s then that we ourselves are fully known, and as partakes in the death and resurrection of Christ, it’s then that we are born to eternal life.

What of those who weren’t model Christians?

Of course, there remain hard questions, for the veil – though thin – is real.

We proclaim in our Creed the truth of resurrection and of judgment, and the hope of everlasting life.  But what of those fellow pilgrims through this fallen world for whom, for whatever reason, we don’t feel as though we can boldly claim the assurance of God’s forgiveness.  Those – perhaps even those we love dearly – who had real struggles and real failings; perhaps even hurting those around them.

In times like these, it is of the utmost importance that we remember that none of us earn God’s mercy through good deeds; none of us can earn eternal life.  All who are saved are saved by grace, by Christ who loved us first.

Of course, it’s God’s will that we would grow in the likeness of Christ in this life, that we would follow in the steps of Christ leading us to the new heaven and the new earth, to the very throne of God in the new Jerusalem.  But, lest we prove our own unworthiness, we must remember that, when that veil is lifted, we stand as equals inasmuch as we stand only by the grace of God.

And, of course, as Christ himself tells us, we are called to be faithful, but it’s the master – not us – who will weigh the faithfulness of the servants.  Some are entrusted with only a little with which to be faithful, while some are entrusted with much; whether we lived in faith from birth, or turned to Christ as adults, or whether a wretched soul reached for that extended hand of mercy as the darkness of death itself was falling over their eyes, the reward is not ours, but Christ’s, offered freely as we accept his invitation to share in the victory over death, the resurrection, and the ascension of the very Son of God.

Prayers for those we love but see no longer.

So, tonight, we remember the dead; but not just recalling the happy memories.  Tonight we remember them before God in our prayers and in our worship. 

We pray for them because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.[1]

True, when those we love pass through the veil, we see them no more; but that’s when the people of God, throughout history, have confidence that those who have gone before will be caught up with Christ, even those whose faith was unknown to us, or who received the gift of faith at the final hour like the criminal on the cross, who, even that day, was with Christ in paradise.[2]

And, by the mercy of God, we believe that the process of sanctification, the process of being healed and conformed to the image of God, does not end with the wearing out of this frail flesh.  Indeed, how sad would it be if, once the scars and weight of this sinful world are healed, and our vision is unclouded, and we can finally know things as they truly are, how sad would it be if we did not then have the opportunity to go from strength to strength as those redeemed by Christ, growing in grace and love to become more like Christ our Saviour.

Tonight we pray for ourselves, acknowledging our grief and pain, just as we trust that those saints who have gone before are interceding even now for all of us those who are still in their pilgrimage.  And, our prayers for the faithful departed are nothing short of us proclaiming our faith, and our assurance that Christ has destroyed the power of the grave, and has made us partakers through our baptism in that death and resurrection; that we, like them, are united with the whole people of God, so that we, too, may come to that unspeakable joy in that place where nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So let us proclaim that faith with true hope and full assurance for all who die in Christ, not in sadness, but as those who know that our merciful God has won the victory.

            May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.
            And may light perpetual shine upon them.  Amen.

[1] The Catechism of the 1979 BCP.

[2] For a fuller exploration, see N.T. Wright, For All the Saints: Remembering the Christians Departed (Morehouse, 2004).

What happens when we die?

This is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental of human questions.  Every culture, every society that has walked the earth has sought the answer to this question. 

Every person ever born has, at some point, felt the tug of the Holy Spirit drawing them toward the questions of eternity.  Every person has looked at the frailty of life, the loss of loved ones, the declining health of a parent, or the tragedy of a life cut short and, as we were created to do, we all look up and say “there must be more than this”.

What happens when we die?

That is the age-old question that unites all people; a question – a longing – that itself is a part of God’s revelation to us, as he created us for relationship with himself and has revealed his plan for our future through his covenant with Israel, through the prophets, and ultimately in the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Word made Flesh, our Lord.

There is much that has been said about what awaits us after death. 

We live in an age where, as the world grows ever smaller, we come into contact more and more with ideas from other times and places.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of giving us greater understanding, we find ourselves with a jumbled mess, where in the well-intentioned name of peaceful coexistence, our modern culture finds itself not more at peace, but caught up in whatever crisis finds itself trending on Twitter this week.  And the only framework we have left to decipher our fears and concerns is an inconsistent mixture of popular and positive ideas from here and there, ideas that sound good, but in their inconsistency, ultimately fail to answer our deepest questions as this jumble only succeeds in disrespecting and misrepresenting the very cultures and viewpoints they claim to include.

One friend of mine put it this way: replace the hard questions like “what happens when we die”, with what should be an easier question: “what kind of cookies should we make”.  In the past, we knew with confidence where we could find our recipe book, with the answers to the “cookie question”, tried and tested recipes that have been handed down in the family for generations. 

Today, though, it’s as though our eyes have been opened to the vast varieties of cookies possible, but instead of actually committing to any single recipe to try it out, our culture invites us to throw the parts that appeal to us from of all the recipes together into one. 

The obvious problem for anyone who has ever baked is that recipes exist for a reason: baking is a science as much as it is an art.  Recipes exist precisely because, no matter how nice the ideas might be on their own, you cannot simply throw shortbread, chocolate chips, oatmeal, ginger, molasses, peanut butter, dates, marshmallows, raisins, and lemon juice together in a bowl and hope for the best. 

To make a cookie, we need the recipe – a consistent recipe with all its parts, a tested recipe, where the ingredients work together to produce what was intended.

We wouldn’t bake cookies haphazardly.  Yet, for so many, that’s exactly how we attempt to answer the hard questions that life throws at us.

A Recipe

What happens when we die?

The Church, the Body of Christ and his messengers in the world, have been entrusted with a recipe – a tried and true recipe, handed down from one generation to the next.

If we were to read and study our scriptures faithfully, we would find that God has been revealing his plan for us from the beginning.

Unfortunately, and disgracefully, some leaders, claiming to work in the name of Christ and his Church, have hidden the answers to these questions for selfish purposes; it’s no secret that, at various times in human history, the Church has relied on fear of the flames of hell and the unbiblical image of an angry judge to scare people into submission instead of truly addressing that God-given longing for eternity.

What happens when we die?  I’m inviting us today to “stick to the recipe” handed down to us, and appreciate what it actually says as the answer to that question.

No cartoon pitchforks or wings and harps to be found.

The parable we heard today is the most extended teaching of Jesus specifically about what takes place after death. 

It’s a parable, meaning that it is an illustration specifically used for teaching those ideas that would be hard to grasp on their own.

In Luke 16, beginning at verse 19, we hear of two men. 

One is rich – well fed, very well dressed, lived for lavish parties and opportunities to enjoy and display his wealth.  He’s also safe and secure: we’re told his house has a gate, and we can imply from the context that also means he has gatekeepers among his several servants, the poorly paid workers who grow and process his food, who sew and mend his clothes, and who build the things in his house.

The other man is poor; not just living from paycheque to paycheque, but poor.  His name is Lazarus.  He’s suffering from an illness that cripples him and prevents him from working, and he’s now living on the street with the stray dogs as his only companions, but even they betray him as they gather the scraps from the rich man’s trash before Lazarus can get there himself.

Both die – but neither ceases to exist. 

As Christians, we believe that God created humankind for immortality.  That’s what we mean when we say that we were created in God’s Image, that his Likeness is imprinted on our souls.  We believe God created everything that is – and modern science shows us each day just how much more wonderful that creation is, with space extending beyond our wildest imagination, made up of particles so small that we only know they exist by their effects on the world around them. 

And, we believe that, out of that vast creation, God created us to be different – to exist in relationship with him, to have free will rather than raw instinct, so that we could experience the free giving and receiving of Love, which is God’s Nature. 

Both the rich man and Lazarus die – their bodies wear out – but that’s far from the end of the story.

As Christians, we confess every time we gather that we believe in the resurrection of the body.  We believe, as taught by the scriptures, that our bodies, and all creation, matters

This is one of those places where, especially in the modern era, some have been mixing ‘recipes’.  The resurrection of the body was counter cultural in Jesus’ time, and runs counter to the many Greek, Roman, or Eastern philosophies that reject the body and the earth as bad and of no worth.

As Christians, we don’t believe that. The Church doesn’t teach that.

We believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and that he called them “good”. 

We certainly don’t believe that good and evil are equal and opposite powers fighting for control – that’s anything but Christian!  No, rather, God is good.  The problem is not some equal force of “evil”; it’s disobedience and rebellion.

It was in using our free will to serve ourselves rather than return the love shown to us by God that the world became not ‘evil’, but fallen.  God made it and called it good, but disobedience caused it to be stained, corrupted.

Our hope – our eternal hope – is not that God would free us from our bodies and the world.  There are religions that teach that, but not Christianity.  Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is found in God’s promise to restore our bodies: that’s precisely why it’s essential that Jesus was raised from the dead with a renewed body. 

Our hope, as found in the scriptures, is in God’s promise not that we will end up in some disembodied spiritual realm, but that we will be made citizens of a renewed earth, one where those who have accepted Jesus’ offer as the remedy for our corruption, and who share in that resurrected body will live in relationship and communion with him and with each other.

And, until that time, we are told that our flesh rests in hope, and that for the faithful, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

Punishments or Justice?

The experience in the grave is very different for the rich man than for Lazarus.

Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson provides an image, and it’s one worth our attention.

There’s no little red devils with horns and hooves wielding pitchforks – in fact, you can search the scriptures all day long, and you won’t find them anywhere: that’s not what the Church teaches, and it’s not what the Bible says.

What we do see is this: the rich man in the grave (Hades, the place of the dead) is separated from Lazarus who rests in “paradise”, awaiting the last day and the resurrection.  And, the scriptural image is, at least for me, much more powerful than the cartoon devils given to us by false preachers.

The chasm – the walls of the cell, if you prefer – separating the two men are of the rich man’s own devising. 

The wall, the gap separating the rich man from the peace of paradise is the very wall that he himself constructed.

In his life, he did all in his power to separate himself from the plight of the poor.  He paraded around in his new clothes; he was so well fed that the food that he wasted or threw away would have been enough to feed those in need; he built a wall, in the name of safety and security, which also served to guard his eyes from having to face those in need around him. 

But, Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

The great divide that the rich man experiences after death is the reversal of the great divide that he inflicted on others in his life.

It’s not as though this is a punishment unfairly imposed by an angry god who keeps a tally of wrong deeds. 

No.  It’s simply justice.  We reap what we sow. 

We lock away and hoard our treasure now, we find ourselves locked away grasping to what has become worthless in the age to come. 

We celebrate and rejoice, or save and spend at the expense of our brother or sister, and as we hear in scripture, that love of money and the eagerness to become rich result only in wandering from the faith and piercing ourselves with many pains.

Those who take great comfort now, be warned.  “For blessed are those who mourn” now for injustice and wrong; because those who are comfortable, like the rich man, will watch as those who mourned shall be comforted.

Those who take great pride now, be warned: for you shall see the meek inherit the earth.

The Answer to the Question

What happens when we die?

We believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.

And as our bodies rest, our eyes are opened and we see the justice of God. 

But, it’s for us to decide, in this life, if we will be those who strive for God’s truth and justice now, who take up their cross and follow Jesus in spite of the persecutions we might face, and who will rest in peace. Or, if we are those who build, inherit, or benefit from walls that have been built, then justice demands that we experience life outside those walls in the age to come.

The rich man said “I beg you to send someone… I have a family, and they need to be warned so they won’t come into this place of torment”. 

No, came the answer. “They have been warned.  If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if one rises from the dead”.

None of us can earn paradise; we’ve all, every one of us, benefited from building chasms between rich and poor, friend and foe, between races and languages and nations. 

Our only hope, then, is to believe the message of the one who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


This sermon is consistent with how Christians from the Early Church interpreted this parable before the politics and polemics that led to and stemmed from the Reformation. It draws largely on St. John Chrysostom’s Four Discourses on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, particularly discourses 2 and 4.

The idea of “digging one’s own abyss” in interpreting this passage comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection (in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, CUA Press, vol. 58, pp. 232-234); St. Augustine emphasizes the idea of reaping what one sows, or the concept of the equal balance of the scales (“the measure you give is the measure you get”) in this passage in his Sermon on this parable (#367 in his collected works).

Numerous fathers of the Early Church (Justin Martyr, Clement/Pseudo-Clement, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, among others) are sources on the topic of the state of the righteous and unrighteous dead before the return of Christ and the general resurrection.

Anglican bishop and professor N.T. Wright has written extensively on the topic in recent years. His chapter “Purgatory, Paradise, and Hell” in Surprised by Hope (HarperOne, 2008) is a fascinating and accessible study.