Heavenly Home: In Life and in Death
“Heavenly Home: In Life and in Death”
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 26, 2019
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's.
9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
John 14:1-7, 27
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
2 In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
4 And you know the way to the place where I am going."
5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"
6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Thanataphobia is the pathological fear of death. Many people fear death to some degree and for a variety of reasons. But thanataphobia, from the Greek words “thanatos,” meaning death, and “phobia,” meaning fear, is such an intense and prolonged fear of death that it interferes with everyday life and activities.
Every list I could find about how to overcome thanataphobia, or even run-of-the-mill fears about death, included consulting a religious leader. I have been with people standing on the threshold between life and death. I have talked with people about their hopes and fears. But I tried to imagine what I would say if a therapist called me up and said, “I need you to come help cure someone with a pathological fear of death.” It sounds like a rather tall order.
Fears about death tend to fall into several categories.
Some people fear losing their identity, their selfhood, their consciousness. We know how to define ourselves within mortal existence. Our thoughts and feelings, our relationships and dreams and desires, all make up the essence of who we know ourselves to be. And so the death of that – of whatever it is that makes us us - is a terrifying thought.
Another common fear about death is loss of control or agency. For some people, this comes in stages for years before we take our final breath, as we lose control of our bodies and our mental faculties. But the idea that we have no control over whether or not, or when and how, we die, is still difficult for many of us. We also don’t have any control or choice about what happens to us after we die. We may have hopes. We may do things to try to influence our post-mortem existence. But we have no certain assurance that we are in the driver’s seat when it comes to the afterlife.
Some people who feel like they do know what happens after death have good reason to fear it. If you believe in total oblivion, that there is ultimately nothing after death, we simply cease to exist, that can be a disquieting thought. If you believe in a hell where the wicked are eternally punished in all sorts of grotesque and painful ways, you might well fear that you could be sent there, perhaps for some minor or unconscious affront to God’s justice. Even if you believe in heaven, the idea of an eternal, disembodied existence, timeless and mysterious, may not be the most comforting thought. Like Louis’ friend, Ruby, you might fear heaven will be a bore.
Ultimately, many of us fear death simply because it is unknown. It is a place we have never been. Aside from the occasional near-death experience, folks don’t regularly go there and come back with photos of their trip. At the very least, fear of the unknown compounds our other fears about death.
After the Last Supper, Jesus announced, rather cryptically, that he was about to be glorified, and that he was going away soon. He spoke, as Jesus so often does in the gospel of John, in coded language. But he was speaking of his impending death. The disciples, per usual, were baffled and mystified and didn’t understand what he was talking about. They thought he was going on a trip and leaving them behind. Peter especially was bothered by this, declaring that he would follow Jesus anywhere, even if it was dangerous and meant laying down his life for Jesus. He was not afraid of death. Or so he thought.
Jesus tells Peter that he will deny Jesus three times tonight. Peter will not follow where Jesus is going. His fear of death will actually cause him to run as fast as he can in the other direction.
It is into this emotional turmoil that Jesus speaks the words we read today. Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid. This is part of what is called John’s Farewell Discourse. It’s that scene in the movie where the character knows they are dying, and so they say their farewells, make amends, share how they want to be remembered, and impart final advice. This is just what Jesus does in his discourse.
But he does something else that no other character in any other movie can do. He tells his disciples things about their own life after death that no other human knows. He addresses, head-on, their fears about death that could keep them from spreading his gospel.
For those whose hearts are troubled about the loss of identity and consciousness, Jesus says that he is preparing a place for them. A place for them to live as a conscious entity, a real and individual self. Scripture doesn’t paint us a picture of this dwelling place. The Greek word used here is a kind of temporary dwelling, maybe like a yurt or a Motel 8. It is a stop along the way to our resurrection existence in the new heaven and new earth. But there is a place, a destination, where we are going.
And, Jesus says, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. As Christians, our truest, most authentic, most meaningful identity is in Christ. When we are with Jesus, we are fully alive and true to ourselves. We will have to let go of all our false identities when we die. We will have to let go of all our false constructions of consciousness. But we will not be lost in a cosmic fusing of energies, relinquishing all sense of who we are.
Scripture tells us that God knows and loves us intimately as individuals. And Jesus is setting up individual rooms for us as we live in him now and in the life to come. As Paul says to the Christians in Rome, who are facing persecution and death: whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. We belong to God in Jesus Christ. Centering our identity in that sense of belonging to God will shape both how we live now and how we approach our death.
Some followers of Jesus, like Thomas, have troubled hearts because they fear they have no control or agency around death, they can’t chart their own path because we haven’t been given directions. Jesus says to them, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” If we want a roadmap to where Jesus is, where we can dwell with Christ in the fullness of life, Jesus provides it.
Some Christians use this text to bludgeon people into acceptance of exclusive belief in Jesus as a ticket to getting into heaven. But if that were the criteria, all of Jesus’ disciples would be on the outs in the afterlife. They may hear what Jesus is saying, but they certainly don’t understand it. For the sake of those poor, confused disciples, I certainly hope Jesus is not setting up a TSA-style scan to see if we believe the right things about him to dwell with him eternally.
Instead, I hope and believe that Jesus is saying that he is the model, the revelation, and the inspiration for our life now and our life eternal. Early Christians were known as people of the Way, people who followed the life and teachings of Jesus. They lived in community, they cared for the most vulnerable in their society, they preached good news, they healed people. Jesus’ life and ministry were the roadmap for their own, and they did their best to follow him.
Jesus also revealed the truth about God and God’s love for the creation. As the first chapter of John’s gospel declares: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Child, who is close to the heart of God, who has made God known. Jesus is the truth of all that he revealed about God, and that truth gives us assurance that God loves us now and always, God has a plan for our lives, now and always, and that we can trust God, now and always. We don’t have to be in control of our destiny after death. Jesus revealed that God has it sorted, and we’re going to be just fine because God is in charge of things.
Jesus is also the life that brought everything into being, the life that existed long before us and the life in whom we have hope for eternal life. In Christ is life – now and always. We can no more control when we die than we can control when we were born. Before we were born, we had life in Christ, and after we die, we will have life in Christ. We don’t have to choose it or earn it. That is just part of the deal.
Finally, there are those disciples whose hearts are troubled by what they think they know, and by what they don’t know. Philosophers like Socrates were not troubled by the idea of total oblivion after death because they would not be aware of it and they would be free from pain and suffering. The Jewish concept of Sheol was not really good or bad, just sort of a neutral land of rest. The visions of heaven and hell promoted by some Christians today don’t show up at all in the Hebrew scriptures. They are constructs from some of the sayings of Jesus and a lot of the apocalyptic imagery of John’s Revelation.
Jesus does refer occasionally throughout the gospel to rewards in heaven – for the persecuted and poor, primarily. But heavenly bliss for being a “good Christian” or a “good person” has no real scriptural precedent. The rooms promised to Jesus’ disciples are not a reward. They are a destination. A meet-up point. And they are not being prepared for the good, faithful disciples of Jesus. They are being prepared for the mixed-up, fearful, deserting disciples.
When one of our long-time church members in Michigan died, his family handed us a file folder containing all his notes about what he wanted for his funeral. The file was titled “TGU,” shorthand for “The Great Unknown.”
But not everything about the afterlife is unknown. Jesus doesn’t dispel every mystery about our life after death, but he does tell his disciples that they will be with him, and that means they will be with God. If we know Jesus, he says, we know God.
Christian writer Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, writes, “to live eternal life in the full and final sense is to be with God as Christ is with him, and with each other as Christ is with us.” The more we come to know God in Jesus Christ, the more we love our neighbors, the more familiar we will become with our heavenly home.
In the gospel of John, proximity of place is used as a metaphor for closeness of relationship. So when Jesus comes to take us to himself, he means we will be in close relationship with him, just as he is in relationship with God. So any metaphysical speculation about where heaven is, or whether or not there’s room for everybody there, or whether or not it will have swimming pools and ice cream, is dispelled in this understanding of location as relationship. We may love our earthly home, our earthly existence, but if home is where the heart is, as long as our hearts are with God, we will be home, now and always.
We didn’t do a lot of memorizing of scripture and confessions when I was a kid, but one requirement of my confirmation class was that we memorize the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. Now, this catechism was written to soothe tensions between Lutherans and other Reformers in the mid-16th century. So you would think it would be focused on sorting out the theological disagreements between these two groups. But instead, it centers on the theme of this first question, which is: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
What is your only comfort, in life and in death? We could answer this question in any number of ways. We could take comfort in the love of our family and friends. We could take comfort in our life’s achievements and accomplishments. We could take comfort in our financial stability and independence.
But the answer determined in Heidelberg over 400 years ago, in the midst of rancorous church conflict is this: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Our only comfort, in life and in death, is that we belong to God. To a God who loves and cares for us deeply and intimately. A God who assures us of eternal life.
And that comfort, that peace that Jesus offers his disciples, makes us wholeheartedly willing and ready to live for God.
So I think that overcoming our fear of death, whether pathological or not, is all about knowing why we’re alive in the first place. Jesus offers insight and inspiration, comfort and some clues about life after death. But all of that is given to us for the purpose of helping us live for Christ now.
Learning that the term for the pathological fear of death is “Thanataphobia” sent me on a little word hunt this week. That Greek word, “Thanatos,” sounded awfully familiar. In the newest Marvel Avengers movies, there is a character named Thanos. Don’t worry – no spoilers here. But Thanos is a bad guy, who wants to kill half the living things in the universe. I learned that there is some debate out there on the interwebs as to the origin of the name Thanos. Some claim that it derives from the Greek word for death, “thanatos,” which makes perfect sense, since he is a bringer of death. Others think it derives from the Greek word “athanasias” which means “immortal” or the opposite of death. This also makes sense, since the character is an immortal being known as a Titan. This is all very interesting and has nothing to do with today’s sermon.
Except that, it allowed me to hear, in the Greek language, that death and immortality, “thanatos” and “athanasias” are two sides of the same coin. In English, death and immortality sound nothing alike. Which is maybe why we draw such a stark dividing line between them. But to the earliest followers of Jesus, these words would have hung together. It would have made sense to them that, though we are subject to death, we are destined for immortality.
In life and in death, in “thanatos” and “athanasias,” we belong to God. Let us be willing and ready, then, to live for God. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Amen.