St Cuthbert, Philbeach Gardens

21st December 2008

 

‘And the Life Everlasting, Amen

One often hears people today, even some Christians, say that they’re ‘not interested’ in what’s going to happen to them when they die. Such people would never say that they’re ‘not interested’ in their health or happiness. But the statements are similar. The only difference is that health and happiness affect us immediately, whereas death, for most of us, lies somewhere in the future. So everyone, in real terms has a vested interest in all three: if we ignore a lump in our neck, or an overdraft at the bank, or Heaven, they won’t just ‘go away’ or become less important.

There’s one simple question we should ask anyone who says ‘I’m not interested in life after death’. It’s this: exactly whose life are they so unconcerned about? Are they seriously claiming that they will stand beside the deathbed of someone they love and say, "Well, my dear, I don’t know what is going to happen to you and frankly I’m not interested"? We might at first admire someone who said they weren’t interested in their own future after death; but we’d feel only contempt for someone who took no interest in someone else’s welfare in this matter.

So we have a duty to be interested in the eternal future of others; but we also owe such a duty to ourselves as well. Those who neglect their own wellbeing are being as self-centred, and cause as much grief to their friends and relatives as someone who ignores the wellbeing of others

So let’s ask ourselves now why people today should claim (unthinkingly and untruthfully) to be uninterested in something which so obviously concerns both their welfare and interest.

The answer is quite simple. As humans we can only begin to understand the things eternal by comparing them with things we already know in this world. But the more rapidly and extensively our contemporary world is changing, the more likely it will be that those ideas which inspired people living hundreds, still less a thousand years ago, will mean much less to people of today.

For example, most people used to live (as many still do today), in a world where life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, So for them ideas of heaven based on cleanliness, wealth and plenty, ring all sorts of bells in their minds; but for you and me today where cleanliness, security, cheap food and long life have (until recently anyway) been taken for granted, they don’t resonate so clearly.

For us to appreciate what such images suggest to those suffering from cholera, terrorism or exploitation, we first have to put ourselves in the shoes of those lacking food, water and sanitation and then imagine what ideas of plenty, health and cleanliness would look like. They’d be things so wonderful that we might imagine heaven consisted of such things and little else beside.

In the affluent Western world, what we need to develop is a fresh set of image to motivate us and others to take an interest in the life eternal – not in order to replace the old images (because they will still continue to ‘speak to’ or ‘resonate with’ many people) but to supplement and place alongside the older images in order to speak more effectively to men and women of today.

So let me give you are just two ideas (of many such) which may resonate with those of us who find the traditional images of heaven and hell fail to ‘speak to us’ when they talk about white robes, golden thrones and the sound of harps on one hand, and burning fiery furnaces on the other.

Think about those two words which we hear so often today: fulfilment and frustration. If the ideas which these words suggest don’t ‘resonate’ with you, then don’t worry about them. There are many other possible images available, but not the time to consider them this morning.

Heaven means fulfilment: Here are three well-known texts which describe our true destiny:

"The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever"

"[God] has made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they rest in him"

"The glory of God is the living man; the end of man is the vision of God".

All three have ‘God’ at the centre. Without God nothing in this life or the next has much meaning. this tells us that all earthly joys are designed by God to be only appetisers or foretastes of what we can expect to enjoy in their fullness hereafter.

So let’s begin by persuading people to think about whatever gives them pleasure and satisfaction in this world. For one person that might be passing an examination; for another, winning a prize in an athletic competition; for yet another it may be writing the last page of a book; for yet another, taking part in an orchestral performance or a play in which everything "just goes right".

All of these experiences, and many others besides, bring with them this sense of fulfilment or achievement – but don’t forget those humbler, more ‘earthy’ things which also ‘mean so much’: getting married; giving birth to a child; especially the second-hand’ joy when our child or friend’s efforts are rewarded with success; besides the joy of us (or them) recovering from a serious illness.

Then let’s point out to them that such pleasures and satisfaction involve the fulfilment of God’s will for us and not our will for ourselves. Of course God’s will demands our co-operation, and that co-operation will mean that we shall find ourselves collectively rather than individually involved in working his purposes out – which means (not to put too fine a point on it) we have to come to terms with belonging to, and being, God’s Church on earth with all the frustrations and embarrassments that our involvement with such an imperfect and irritating organism involves.

Once people have developed their taste for heaven, it becomes relatively simple to explain what hell must be like. If heaven is understood as fulfilment, then hell must be frustration. This is not because God inflicts punishment on those who disobey his laws. That’s only one way of looking at it, though it’s a way that people would do well to pay heed to.

The truth of the matter is that if people want to shut God out of their lives they are perfectly free to do so. Those who do so will find eternity will an experience of everlasting boredom. Loneliness, failure and isolation will be its keynotes, and enmity and uncharitableness its currency. And if you want to know why anyone would choose this way of life knowingly, just remember that, like all bad things, hell is a creeping up of reality – like that potentially cancerous lump we considered earlier

So far as we know, we only have till the end of our life on this Earth to set our compass towards the Kingdom of Heaven. Today, whilst it is called today, is the time to begin doing so. Amen!

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