There are several occupational hazards that go with being an ordained minister. Whenever people swear in your presence they immediately feel they have to apologize. The actors who play clergymen on TV shows are best described as wimpy, bookish nerds. And then there are all those questions you get regularly about the afterlife.
I can’t tell you how many people over the course of my career have asked me some variant of this question: “What happens to us when we die?” I don’t know how to say this politely, but the best answer is probably, “How would I know?” I can tell you what Christians hope happens when we die, but I cannot tell you what we know about life after death. No matter how worn out and frail I may look to you, I’m still alive. I haven’t died yet. I have no first-hand knowledge of what it is to die. I have met a few people who have had near-death experiences, and they talk very persuasively about how peaceful and transcendent they felt on the way out. But I haven’t had those experiences myself. So I cannot tell you what I know. I can only tell you what I hope.
With regard to the beyond, all of us live in a contradiction. We think and hope that there is more to life than the here and now, but we do not know what that “more” might be. Emily Dickinson, our great poet of faith and doubt, has a poem that gets at this conundrum. (#373)
This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond -
Invisible, as Music -
But positive, as Sound -
It beckons, and it baffles -
Philosophy, dont know -
And through a Riddle, at the last -
Sagacity, must go –
As Dickinson says, something calls to us from beyond this world. “It beckons, and it baffles.” It is invisible, as music. And we’ll only finally know it firsthand when we go through our own death at the last. We sense that a larger life is out there, and we desire assurance that it is available to us and to those we have lost. But all the pulpit thumping in the world will never satisfy our longing. Each will have to live with this riddle until we finally get the answer. As Emily Dickinson says,
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -
Strong Hallelujahs roll -
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul -
Something of this riddling curiosity about what might be next is on the minds of Jesus’s companions in this morning’s Gospel (Luke 24: 36b-48). The disciples are frightened when Jesus appears. Who wouldn’t be? They think they have seen a ghost or a disembodied spirit. The Greek word (pneuma) we translate “ghost” here can also be rendered as “spirit”. But the risen Jesus is not a spirit. He is a flesh-and-blood human being. When we talk about death or heaven in our popular culture or theology, we tend to think of a life beyond this one as something gaseous. But when Jesus appears to his friends he is not a translucent apparition. He is a concrete physical person. He shows them his hands. He shows them his feet. He eats a piece of broiled fish. They may think him a spirit, but he is a person with a body.
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have. . . . They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” What do we know about life after death? Very little. What do we hope about the resurrection? A fair amount. It all comes down to hands, feet, and a piece of broiled fish.
Why are hands, feet and, fish so important? They’re important because they stand for what we might call the earthly part of the resurrection. Popular culture has turned the afterlife into a kind of immediate transportation to the beyond. (“Beam me up, Scotty!”) But for real Christian faith the resurrection of Jesus has always symbolized more than his survival of death. It has always signified a new life. And not only a new life: Jesus’s resurrection stands for a whole new creation. In Jesus’s new and risen life, both spirit and body are renewed. His resurrection is not just about life after death. It signifies a new heaven and a new earth.
This hope for a new creation is deeply embedded in our scriptures. Our Bible tells us how, with Adam and Eve in the Garden, we blew it the first time around. The scriptures tell a sorry story of God’s attempt to transform human enmity, selfishness and sin into love, compassion, and faithfulness. The story culminates in our taking Jesus, the one who perfectly embodies God’s attributes, to the cross. But the story doesn’t end there. God will not let us rest in our sinfulness. Jesus comes back in a new and transformed life. God will not leave us to our own devices. God will not be stopped until everything and everyone is renewed. With Jesus and the empty tomb, God is enlisting us in a process that will heal all the pain and suffering and sin and death we know in this old creation and make us new people in the bargain.
As we do with so many other religious experiences, we make of resurrection too light a thing. We have personalized it, turning resurrection into an individualized consumer experience. “I’ll take one resurrection, please.” But resurrection is not only about you or me or the people we love. Resurrection is about a new heaven and a new earth. In raising Jesus, God has taken the first step in the remaking of creation. Not just Jesus and not only his friends, but the whole world is being renewed. When it is all over, creation will resemble what God originally intended. A new heaven and a new earth are on their way. Jesus’s new life is our first sign of this divine renewal of God’s world. If we only hope for our own individual survival, we are not hoping for enough. We need to start hoping for what God actually promises: a world that will reflect God’s love, justice, compassion, and mercy. We can be the new people who inhabit God’s new world. There is new and risen life for us, too. But only as the whole creation is renewed.
When I come down from the pulpit we will all stand together and say the Nicene Creed, one of the church’s primary faith statements. When we say it you’ll notice that there is nothing in there about going to heaven. Instead we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” I am sorry to say that I do not know what happens when we die. But the resurrection of Jesus gives me the courage to say that a new world is coming and that you and I can be part of that new world now. Resurrection is about body and spirit, heaven and earth. Jesus’s new life brings new life to all of us. It means, here and now, we are part of something that will transcend our losses and our fears and calls us to new, visionary, and courageous life.
We make of resurrection too light a thing. As long as we confine its meaning to “going to heaven when we die”, all the world’s suffering, injustice, and pain can continue unabated. As long as I will be OK, what’s the difference? But when we dare to allow Easter to expand to its fullness, resurrection takes on real implications for us in the here and now. When the disciples finally “got it” that Jesus was neither a spirit nor a ghost but a new creation, they didn’t go out and buy columbarium niches or cemetery plots. When the disciples finally got what Easter meant, they dropped what they were doing and began working to change the world. They spread the Gospel. They fed the hungry, cared for the sick, visited the prisoners, and gave up their own possessions to share what they had with the poor. Resurrection changed them, and it changed their world. Because they knew they would be part of God’s new creation they became fearless advocates for peace and compassion and love.
When asked, “What happens when we die?” I have no pat, easy answer. All I can do is point to Jesus who showed us his hands and his feet and ate a piece of broiled fish in our presence. Resurrection is more than life after death. It is about a new heaven and a new earth. It is about a new life today. “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Resurrection has implications. As we look for our resurrection, let us build God’s new world. The justice and peace we hope for in heaven can be true for everyone now on earth—including us. As we work together with God to bring on the new world we long for, we’ll know that, like Jesus, we are for once and all truly alive. Amen.