A Sermon based upon John 14:1-3, 15-21, 25-29
Happy Mother’s Day! It was two years ago on this day that my Mother, Dodi Lance, passed from living a good life here to enter eternal life hereafter. The joy my Mom had on that last Mother’s Day (with her grand-daughter visiting from Kalamazoo, and a nice lunch with friends at The Black Sheep, after a lively worship service here) gives me joy to recall two years later. I imagine her in heaven, dancing with my Dad! One day we will be reunited, the circle unbroken.
Jesus said in the Gospel of John: “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms… I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)
Those words are very familiar and very comforting. Jesus said them to his disciples (his friends) on the occasion of his Last Supper with them – their last really intimate time together, without the crowds – just before they went out to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he was arrested. Apparently, Jesus wanted to comfort his disciples for their loss before it even happened. In fact, the final sentence of today’s reading is explicit: “And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” (John 14:29)
For that reason, I decided to talk about “life after death” this morning. (!) It doesn’t hurt to give some thought on our good days (such as today: Mother’s Day!) -- on lovely days like today, on healthy, heady, happy days – it doesn’t hurt to give some thought to what we imagine life may be like when our loved ones go away. When they die… Or when we ourselves die… (My, oh my!)
Last month, the magazine “The Christian Century” (April 24, 2019, page 9) printed “The Top Ten euphemisms for death from the Legacy.com obituary website. They are: passed away, went to be with his/her Lord, went home, departed, entered eternal rest, was called home, left this world, succumbed, lost his/her battle, slipped away.” That’s how we avoid speaking about “death”.
When the sadness and suddenness of a death confronts us, it is hard to know what to think, what to do, what to say. So, if we are going to think about life-after-death, it is helpful to already have echoes of comforting words playing though our minds… Words such as Jesus said about “preparing a place for you… and I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” And further: “Peace, I leave with you. My peace I give to you…” (John 14:27)
The last time I was in this pulpit was Easter Sunday morning. The text for that day was when Jesus surprised his disciples by appearing to them on that Easter evening -- two days after he had died and been buried! -- and his first words were: “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19) He then showed them his nail-scarred hands and his wounded side. Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:21) Eight days later, when the disciple Thomas was with them, Jesus again came and stood among them, and once again he said: “Peace be with you.” (John 20:26) … I think I see a pattern here!
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said to them a second time in today’s reading, “and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it takes place, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” (John 14: 27-29)
Jesus was trying to prepare his followers for the shock of his arrest and execution… the loss and grief they would feel when he was taken from them. He wanted them to be ready for the future… with confidence to carry on. Our choir put it like this in today’s anthem: “Christ is risen. Christ is living.
Dry your tears, be unafraid! Death and darkness could not hold him,
nor the tomb in which he lay. Do not look among the dead for one who lives forever-more. Tell the world that Christ is risen; make it known he goes before.(!) If the Lord had never risen, we’d have nothing to believe. But his promise can be trusted: “You will live because I live.” …
Death has lost its sting and terror… Death has lost its old dominion.
Let the world rejoice and shout: Christ the first-born of the living gives us life and leads us out.” (words by Fred Kaan, music by Larry Shackley, 1974)
Jesus speaks to his disciples of “going to” the Father, who is greater than he is (John 14:28), but he also speaks of being “in” the Father: “In a little while,” says Jesus, “the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (John 14:19-20)
“You are in me, and I am in you.” There is probably no more intimate experience than that! So intertwined, so inter-dependent, that one “feels” the other “from the inside out” (as it were). “You are in me,” said Jesus to his disciples, “and I am in you.” In my opinion, that is what heaven will feel like.
To underscore that intimacy -- and to keep the relationship vital with his followers here on earth -- Jesus says that he will “ask the Father to give you another Counselor to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive (because it neither sees him nor knows him). You know him, because he dwells with you, and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)
So, if Jesus is to be believed: He is in us, and the Holy Spirit is in us, and all of that is in God the Father. It’s talk like that that can be kind-of mysterious, puzzling. (!) And I suppose it’s that way (initially) for a lot of folks: we can’t “receive” what we cannot see. Or, said differently: what we see is what we believe. If we can’t see something, feel it, wrap our arms around it; if we can’t measure it, weigh it, take its picture… we think that maybe it just doesn’t exist!
I suspect one reason some folks have a hard time imagining “heaven” hereafter, or life-after-death, is because we can’t see it, nor “know” it for real. In a moment, I’ll share some thoughts from Mitch Albom’s book “the next person you meet in heaven” (Harper-Collins: NY, 2018), which is the sequel to his best-selling novel from 15 years ago, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”. He imagines an interactive after-life in which “life lessons” are learned from others who have gone before us.
But before I take us into literal fiction, I’d like us to stay with the historical Jesus a moment longer. He said that He is in us, and the Holy Spirit is in us, and all of that is in God the Father. That seems quite “abstract” to me. As I said: If we can’t see something -- if we can’t measure it, weigh it, take its picture -- we might think that it doesn’t exist!
The fact is, the world saw Jesus for thirty-three years or so; but it hasn’t seen him for some 2,000 years since then! Where has he gone? Did he evaporate like a drop of water on a hot stone? No… Jesus’ Spirit – his Way, his Truth, his teachings, his attitudes, his behaviors – have kept on coming; have kept on growing, spreading, even in his physical absence! Perhaps even MORE SO since his absence. (!) Since Jesus is no longer “incarnate” (en-fleshed, incorporated) in a single human body, his Spirit has access to all. (!)
Jesus’ way of life and his views of God and humanity – that impulse to serve others and to glorify God that came into such clear focus through the life of the Man from Nazareth – have been passed on to his disciples, and to their disciples for 80-90 generations now… even to us in Alpena today! The “Counselor” that Jesus promised would be with us forever – the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees it nor knows it – dwells with you (& me) in you (& me)!
I believe that this was Jesus’ intentional design before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost: namely, Jesus is in God (already, and he knows it!), the disciples are in Jesus, and Jesus is in them. (!) Let me make it even simpler : This whole “Spirit” thing is God making sure that Jesus is always with us -- in this world (where we need him) and in the next -- as he promised.
The next life… in the world to come, life-after-death, heaven, the hereafter, eternal life… People have used different terms for speaking about what they imagine happens when a person dies. The simplest idea is to think there is nothing more. “Dead is dead; we’re out like a light. Buried and gone.”
That is not Jesus’ opinion, of course; nor has it been Christian doctrine. The resurrection of Jesus is an indelible marker that there is more to come! The person who had life, which appears to us to have ended… while utterly unresponsive in this world may not be extinct after all in God’s eternal realm.
Three years ago, I showed a series of popular movies that imagine heaven and the afterlife, and we discussed them. Among those films were: “Heaven is for Real” about a kindergartener who was pronounced clinically dead, but who actually revived and later told his Dad about Jesus in heaven; “What Dreams May Come” starring the late, great actor Robin Williams, in a modernized version of Dante’s Inferno. Last year, we watched and dicussed William Paul Young’s “The Shack” … another interpretation of how Eternal life intersects with Earthly life to make things right.
Fifteen years ago, Detroit author Mitch Albom wrote “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”, and we watched the film version of his novel, in which “Eddie” the Maintenance man at Ruby Pier dies while saving the life of a little girl, Annie.
Last year, Mitch Albom wrote a sequel, in which we follow young Annie’s life as she grows up, gets married, and then (after only one night of marital bliss) a tragic balloon accident takes her life and that of her beloved groom…  (!) Or so it appears… As was made popular in the Kiefer Sutherland movie “Flatliners”, there are occasions in which a human body has been unresponsive -- starved for oxygen, and without a heart-beat – in other words, clinically dead -- and then resuscitated, returning to life with tales of “near death” experiences.
The Rev. Bob Case, our Pastor Emeritus, and I are planning to hold a couple of study and discussion sessions on the topic of near-death experiences. Here is how Bob describes it:
“This is my 50th year in pastoral ministry, starting as a licensed minister in 1969. (He was ordained in 1972.) During that time I’ve heard reported by parishioners – and experienced myself – what can be called “anamolies” or experiences that do not fit reality as we normally understand it.
“One that stands out is what’s termed “the Near-Death Experience” – these are experiences people have when the brain is not functioning. About 20% of people who have cardiac arrest have such an experience. The Division of Perceptual Studies in the Psychiatric Department of the University of Virginia has scientifically studied these issues for 50 years. … (Bob wirtes) I have been reading about, and studying, these strange occurences for the last two years. I have read several well-written books on both sides of the issue, and listened to a number of lectures on recent research on the mind after death, or other strange occurrences.
“During my ministry, and as a Hospice Chaplain, (again, this is Bob Case speaking), things that I called coincidences, or simply ignored, have piled up.” We would like to know if there is any interest in having a discussion group to meet two or three times on this topic. Please let me know if you’re interested.
Without giving away too much of the plot, I’d like to quote Mitch Albom at this time:
When people suffer a near-death experience, they often say, “My whole life flashed before my eyes.” Scientists have even studied this phenomenon, aware that certain brain cortices can suffer hypoxia and blood loss, which, during a great trauma, might trigger a release of memories.
But science only knows what it knows. And because it lacks an understanding of the ‘next’ world, it cannot explain that the flash before your eyes is actually a ‘peek behind the curtain’ of heaven, where your life and the lives of all you’ve touched are on the same plane, so that seeing one memory is the same as seeing them all.
On the day of Annie’s accident, at the moment of her greatest danger, Eddie, the maintenance man at Ruby Pier, made a split-second decision: to dive across the platform of Freddy’s Free Fall and shove Annie away from a falling cart. What flashed before his eyes, just before his death, was every interaction he’d had on earth.
Now, here in heaven, with her fingers pressed against his, Annie saw them, too. (pages 162-163)
Earlier in the book, Annie caught a glimpse of Eddie among the guests at her wedding. There was something familiar about the old maintenance man, but she had blocked her memories of the accident so long ago. Mitch Albom writes: “At certain moments, when death is close, the veils pull back between this world and the next. Heaven and earth overlay. When they do, it is possible to glimpse certain souls already departed. … You can see them awaiting your arrival. … And they can see you coming.” (page 14)
During Annie’s journey into heaven, she meets five souls from her past, each one with a specific life lesson to teach her. This idea may be Mitch Albom’s way of mirroring what Jesus says to his disciples: “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:25-26) These encounters from Annie’s past “remind her” of parts of her life that she had either de-valued or dismissed as “mistakes”.
The third person Annie met was her Mother. Here’s how Mitch Albom put it: In the blue river of the afterlife, [Annie’s mother] Lorraine cupped her hands and lifted water up, watching it pour through her fingers.
“This is your heaven?” Annie asked.
“Isn’t it beautiful? I wanted serenity, after all the conflicts of my life. Here I enjoy a calm I never knew on Earth.”
“And you’ve been waiting for me all this time?”
“What’s time between a mother and her daughter? Never too much, never enough.”
“Mom?” “Yes?” “We fought a lot.”
“I know.” She took Annie’s left hand and guided it into the water. “But is that all you remember?”
Annie felt her fingers floating and her mind doing the same. In the water’s reflection she saw only loving scenes from her childhood, countless memories, her mother kissing her good-night, unwrapping a new toy, plopping whipped cream on pancakes, putting Annie on her first bicycle, stitching a ripped dress, sharing a tube of lipstick, pushing a button to find Annie’s favorite radio station. It was as if someone unlocked a vault and all these fond recollections could be examined at once.
“Why didn’t I feel this before?” she whispered.
“Because we embrace our scars more than our healing,” Lorraine said. “We can recall the exact day we got hurt, but who remembers the day the wound was gone?” (unquote, pages 148-149) The book is about “remembering”.
While I recognize that a novel like this is literal fiction, my spirit resonates with Mitch Albom’s sensitivities and his compassionate speculations. I can imagine a heaven like the one he depicts, in which all of our significant relationships are restored -- made more whole, because (from God’s all-seeing perspective, and because we are in God) they are more fully understood -- without the limitations of physical mortality getting in the way.
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus. “You believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms… I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.”
Thanks be to God for this promise -- and for our eternal reunion, in Jesus’ name.
 Albom, Mitch “the next person you meet in heaven” (Harper-Collins: NY, 2018)