You might be aware that Penrith cemetery is on a hill overlooking the fells amongst which we live and following the funeral of an elderly gentleman there many years ago I got into conversation with his family. I just happened to say “This is a lovely spot isn’t it?” when someone replied “Oh yes, we chose it because we know he`ll enjoy the view”.
Now, I wouldn`t for a moment either mock or criticise someone who is grieving…. but in the what we call the `cold light of day` it is I think fair to observe that we do, in the face of death, find ourselves saying the strangest (and sometimes funniest) things. For instance, a lot of the words and phrases we use are designed we believe, to be reassuring and to soften its impact… So for example we talk of someone `passing away`…. and curiously, `looking down on us`. Indeed many of the expressions we us to describe where we think our loved ones are now resemble a broad field filled with all manner of hope-filled phrases which illustrate the effects of confusion, wishful-thinking and an often unbearable sorrow.
Again, it isn`t my intention this morning to mock anyone but I want this morning to reflect a little on this need we have (in the most basic sense) to somehow make sense of it all. There`s nothing new in this of course. There are few of us here who won`t have stood by a grave like Mary (in that reading we have just heard) (John 20.1-18) and wept with bewilderment. And she, of course is an example of someone who spoke without thinking; who blurted out a passionate promise to carry away a body all by herself… really not aware of what she was saying. But there comes an interesting moment in her meeting with Jesus. You might notice she reaches out and is told not to hold onto him. Although he was the same Jesus it`s clear that something significant had changed. Jesus talks curiously of ”Ascending to the Father”
Now, we can put aside for a moment any attempt to unpack what that `Ascending to the Father` might mean for the sake of pointing out how basically Mary was being asked to lift her horizons. She now had to see Jesus against a much bigger canvas; as one who was more than the Rabbi, the teacher she had come to know and love and follow around Galilee. Now she had to see him against the backdrop of God`s purposes for the world. In other words there was more going on here than her (quite understandable) grief and shock at seeing him again. His resurrection was the sign that something far bigger had changed.
In one of his letters St. Paul writes to a group of Christians going through the same things as ourselves and he told them: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4.13). Paul understands their sorrow and their …..how can we put it, “flailing around”, trying to make sense of things but he goes on to point out that we will only find ourselves on the right road when we see ourselves and our loved ones who have died against this same backdrop…. this same account of what God has done for the world in and through Jesus.
Now, when one says this kind of thing the immediate assumption which many people make is to assume … “OK, to that means Jesus: died and rose again; and so there`s life after death`. So sign up for the Christian faith, keep your nose relatively clean and you might as we put it “GET INTO Heaven`”. My point is that there is enough of a grain of truth here to ensure that we get the wrong end of the stick. Because that`s how you end up with a Christianity which is all privatised and self-concerned; it`s about what someone rather caustically referred to as “Fire insurance” and it implies that this “Getting to heaven” is our chief preoccupation.
This is why we need to take our first reading this morning a little more seriously (Rev. 21.1-7) because this is St. John`s account of what we actually believe to be the goal of it all: He gives us a picture not of the `end of the world` but the renewal and transformation of all things. Not so much `us going to heaven`(into God`s space)` but `Heaven (God`s space) coming down to earth`.
Let`s try to make this clearer. One of my favourite anecdotes is the report in one of the newspapers which told of the doubtless computer-generated letter which came from the Department of Work & Pensions. It read: “Dear Sir, We write to inform you that the Benefits you have been receiving have been cancelled since we understand that you are deceased. Should your circumstances change please feel free to reply”.
What we call the Gospel (the good news) is the announcement that `circumstances have changed`. In Jesus Christ God has shown up. He has announced and shown us what he calls the Kingdom of God… `what life looks like when God is God`.
We`re told that in Christ, `God was reconciling the world to himself`. That on the cross he not only demonstrated his love but dealt with our sin- our alienation from God and the distorted way of living from which we can`t extricate ourselves. He is not so much a `good example` as a Saviour. He promises us a new start and a new heart…. the strength of His Spirit to live as a new humanity. He calls us into a community (the Church) which has the task of announcing…. that everything has changed…. that we are under our new and rightful management.
In other words if we aren`t to be flailing around and vaguely ridiculous when trying to speak about death then remember to focus on this bigger picture of what Jesus has done.… this change in our circumstances; this way of understanding the world. Despite the distorted choices people continue to make the Lord calls us to draw everyone to the light of his forgiveness and mercy and into His way of living IN the world. This is what our Baptism marks. We have to remember that one of the themes running through the New Testament is that the days of ignorance are past. God is not a matter of speculation. He is not a matter of opinion and He would not have anyone grieve who has no hope. We don`t need to wishfully conjure up words and phrases to describe what`s going on when someone dies.
Scripture tells us they have gone to their rest ….. and we can be confident of that. What matters for now is the `big picture`. They and we await the judgement, the coming of Christ and the culmination of all that our God is doing in putting His world to rights. This is our comfort in sorrow… and this is the source of our hope. You see our Christian hope does not rest in, if you will `the mechanics` of how we can individually as it were `get to heaven` and it`s not guesswork either. Our hope is founded in what God has done in Jesus and you and I are now called to play our part in announcing that our circumstances have changed.