Saturday, March 18, 2006

What Happens When We Die

In our readings from I Corinthians, this week and next, Paul talks about death, about the reality of death for the followers of Jesus. That is what I want to talk about this morning -- about death, about our dying and about our dyings. I want to talk, first, about what happens when we die and what Scripture says. And then I want to talk about our dying and our dyings in a broader context.

So, first, what happens when we die? What can we expect when we die? From all the research and from most of the recounting of near-death experiences, we can expect calm, serenity, light and, perhaps, a welcoming presence to guild us across the threshold into our new life.

A friend of mine, Jim, who had a temporary death, or near-death experience, told me that it was all light and peace. He said, "Tom, I may be afraid of a lot of things, but there is one thing I am not afraid of anymore -- and that's death." And Jim was a rough character: in fact, if anyone I've ever known had reason to fear what death might bring. . . it was Jim. What we can expect is calm. Serenity, light, and a welcoming presence to guide us.

What the Scripture says is this: in our Baptism, we are joined with the risen Christ. That is where our reality (our being) is rooted -- in the resurrected Christ. After Baptism, we don't belong to this order any more. As St. Paul writes, we are in, but not of the world. That is the basis of almost everything about the Christian faith. We are in. but not of the world. So our identity, our home is not changed by physical death. We remain Christ's. We continue in another dimension. We belong to Christ in life and we belong to him in death, though in another dimension of life.

Second, there will be a resurrection of the Body. There is nothing in the Christian Scriptures about "immortality of the soul." It is resurrection of the body. We will be persons, recognizable persons -- just as the Risen Christ was recognized and known by his friends. We will not be amorphous souls, all kind of blended in with one another. We will be embodied persons.

What will we be like? This is what John writes: "Beloved we are now God's children, but it is not yet clear what we shall become. We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is." (I John 3:1-2)

The healing, the compassion, the commitment, the beauty and power and love of life and living that we know in Jesus -- that is what we grow into, that is what life will be like. "If you want to know what our new life will be like," says the Bible, "look at the Lord telling the stories, holding the children, eating and drinking and trading stories with his friends, that bursting in of life upon life -- that is what, that is who it will be like." Serenity? Identity? Joy. How can we face our dying? The first emotion most of us feel as we face our dying is fear. To fear. . . for us to fear the process of dying is natural, just as it was natural for Jesus. We speak of the Agony in the Garden and that was true. There was deep, deep agony in the heart of Jesus as he faced his death. But that was not all . . .and that is not all of it.

There comes a time for many people in their dying when they decide to let go . . .to let go of life and begin that process of transformation into resurrection. It's like allowing yourself to be carried, simply, in the arms of God. It is such a blessing to come to that point where we simply let go . .and allow ourselves to be borne by the loving hands of God.

For others, dying is dominated by a struggle to stay alive, a determination to fight death as though death were really an enemy. So there is a holding on at any and all expense.
There is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "A time to live and a time to die." And it is important for us to know which time it is. My father knew: I have told many of you about the time when my father, living in Wickenburg, Arizona, was very sick. He had been living in near constant pain for several years and was very weak. He and I were out walking in the desert when we spotted a large group of buzzards circling overhead. My father looked up at them, raised his by then emaciated fist at them and shook it, shouting, "Not yet, you sons of bitches! Not yet!!!"
He was not ready to die. He was not ready to let go of anything.

There is a time to live and a time to die and, for us, the necessity to know which time it is.
And there are other kinds of dying, just as important. . . maybe more important than our physical dying. Life is, in reality, a series of dyings. When we go off to school for the first time, life is changed. . . and we have died to something. When we do off to school for the first time, when we begin middle school, high school, college -- if the transition is to be a healthy one, life is changed and there is a dying. . .as well as a rebirthing.

The same is true with a change in jobs, a change in the size of our families, changing in housing, living, change in anything. There are deaths to experience, to live through. When we marry, we promise to forsake all others. That does not mean just the old boy friends and girl friends, but anything and everything that might threaten the life and the intimacy of the marriage.

Life is not a continuum, but a series of deaths. The heart of our belief, as Christians, is that we can let go and entrust our lives to God. The basic creed of the world is backwards. The world's creed is, "First you live and then you die." The Christian faith reverses that: "First you die, then you live." That is the rhythm of our lives.

I see it so often in those of you who, through one thing or another, have come face to face with your own dying, physical death, or the death of a part your life. There is, so often, then, a commitment to life on a whole other level, a whole other level of life and intimacy and grace. What that involves is a letting go and entrusting ourselves to God and to the process of resurrection. . .in this life. . . or in the life to come.

We were so fortunate to celebrate just that at our Annual Meeting as we stood to applaud Charles Schriver for his courage in living a resurrected life. . .among the living. And Charles is not alone: he is a visible symbol of what God is doing in all of our lives.

We do not belong to the expectations or the limitations of this world. We do not belong to beatitudes or the precepts of this world. We have been, we are being born into another order. First, you die . . . then you live. That process of moving into the light. Always there is that opportunity, always we have that choice. Bless us, dear God, in all our living and in our dyings.

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