ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH APRIL 8, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
A MESSAGE FROM BEYOND
1 John 1:1 – 2:2; John 20: 19 – 31
Connor opens the newspaper and is shocked to see his own obituary. In a panic, he phones his friend and asks, “Sean, did you see the paper?! They say I died!” Sean replies, “Yes, I saw it! So, where you calling from?”
All of us wonder about the afterlife. Is there really a hell? For that matter, is there a heaven? What’s heaven like? Do we play harps or do we play hockey? What kind of body do we have? (I hope I have the body I did when I was 22). Will I see family and friends? Can we see what’s happening on earth? Will we want to? We wonder if our loved ones are there and if they’re happy. We look for signs – like a cheeseburger a woman hadn’t ordered but found in a take-out bag – her dead dog loved cheeseburgers, so she was sure the dog had put it in the bag. We long for a message or better still, one last conversation. If only we could make contact.
Concetta Bertoldi claims to be a medium who sees ghosts and speaks to the dead. She’s written a book to answer some of the typical questions she’s asked. What do we look like when we die? According to Bertoldi the dead don’t “have any physical appearance – we’re pure energy”. What do we do on the other side? We decide what heaven will be like for us and we do the things we enjoyed doing on earth. How we do this without a body, I don’t know. Do dead people see us? Yes. They see us in the bathroom, the bedroom and anywhere else we’d prefer not to be seen. “But who cares? They’re dead. Who’re they going to tell?” Basically, they look at us objectively and without judgement. “The dead are not peeping Toms; they don’t get a thrill out of watching us”. I wonder, if this heaven I’ve created is so wonderful and I can do everything I love, why would I be watching people, especially if I’m not interested. Do the dead enjoy eating and do they have sex? Her short answer is No. But what if eating, etc were the things you loved to do in this life? Personally, if I can create my own heaven I’d create a heaven where I can eat nothing but bad carbs and still have the body I had at 22. Much of what Bertoldi says isn’t consistent with the Bible or Christian theology. We believe the resurrected have individual, identifiable bodies. Who knows exactly what those bodies are like; the risen Jesus could walk through walls yet eat and be touched. Our bodies will be different, but still unique and tangible. Since heaven is God’s creation, we don’t create our own version of it. Worship will be the central activity, but I too like to think we’ll enjoy the best things of earth but that’s to be seen. The dead are pretty busy enjoying heaven, but if they do glance towards earth, like Christ, they’re filled with love for us, not indifference. Jesus said, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). What that means exactly I’m not sure. The Message reads, “After the dead are raised up, we’re past the marriage business. As it is with angels now, all our ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God”. However, scripture speaks of “a wedding banquet” so it’s probably safe to assume there will be food. Whatever it’s like it is more glorious than anything we can imagine. As Paul puts it our life here is “not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
Our curiosity about the after life has led to a fascination with stories of people who have been medically dead and come back to life – surely, they can tell us what it’s like over there. We are reassured by descriptions of light, of beauty and of peace. We find hope in their stories.
While I don’t doubt the stories these people tell, I wonder if and why we really need them. Do we, who are Christian – followers of the resurrected Christ – need any other sign? Isn’t Jesus enough? Or are we so much like Thomas that unless we touch his wounds we will still have doubts?
After the resurrected Jesus encountered Mary Magdalene in the cemetery garden, he made several appearances to other people. One eye witness, the Gospel writer John, tells of a time when the disciples were gathered behind locked doors. They were afraid of being tracked down and accused of stealing Jesus’ body or worshipping him as a King. With no way of entering, the risen Jesus, none-the-less appeared in front of them. He greeted them with the traditional Jewish greeting, “Shalom” or “peace to you”. Naturally they were over-joyed to see him. Jesus breathed on them and blessed them with his Spirit. Then he commissioned them to continue his work and encouraged them to practice a ministry of forgiveness. After which, he left as mysteriously as he came. One of the disciples, Thomas, had been away and missed Jesus’ visit. As his friends exuberantly recounted their afternoon with the risen Christ, Thomas doubted. He wanted proof. A sign. A message. A cheeseburger. He wanted to see Jesus for himself and touch his wounds before he’d buy it. He wanted reassurance.
Eight days later, his moment came. The disciples once again had the door locked when Jesus appeared among them. He invited Thomas to touch his wounds. The scripture doesn’t say if Thomas did that or not. Perhaps seeing Jesus with his own eyes was enough. Doubt evaporated, and faith emerged in it’s place. What do you think? Do you think Thomas sought out mediums, looked for signs, or took hope from the best seller: 4 Days Dead, My Time in the Tomb by Lazarus of Bethany? Somehow, I doubt it. For Thomas, Jesus was enough.
It’s true – Thomas had an advantage over us. He had his own personal moment with our resurrected Lord. If only we too could have seen and touched the resurrected Christ. What we witness ourselves is undeniable. The gospel writers repeatedly affirm their experience of Jesus after his resurrection. In his first letter, John states, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it…” (1John 1: 1 & 2). We must believe their story to find the same assurance. Jesus acknowledged it would be harder for us. As he said to Thomas, “So, you believe because you’ve seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing” (John 20:29). Our struggle to believe reminds me of Abraham’s comment in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. When the rich man begged Abraham to warn his brothers, Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead” (Luke 16: 31). What about us? God has given us not only the prophets and the disciples but someone we say we know has risen from the dead. Are we convinced, or are we needing something more? While eye witness accounts are enough to create faith, God is gracious. I believe the risen Christ is still able to be encountered today – not in flesh and blood, or a resurrected body but in other ways.
First, we find Christ in the Bible. In the scriptures a whole community of people witness to God’s plan of salvation and to the death and resurrection of Christ. If you want to be convinced and reassured of life after death, read the Bible and study the Bible with others. When we read it together, we gain insight from one another, but more than that, we are encouraged by the honest faith of others.
We find Christ at the Lord’s Table where the Holy Spirit unites with plain old bread and wine to spiritually (not literally or physically) changes those elements into the “body and blood” of Christ to our spirits. If you want to “touch” Jesus, if you want to be encouraged in your faith, then come to his table, remember his death and resurrection and be nourished and heartened by his presence there. Likewise, Christ is present in the act of Baptism when his Spirit cleanses us from sin, adopts us and fills us. In baptism, Jesus is present to us making us his own.
Christ is present in the Church. The Church is the spiritual Body of Christ in the world. (It’s not a building – buildings are meeting places for the Church). Just as a finger amputated from the body is useless and dead, so Christians who avoid the Body of Christ our dead. The Church is not a perfect body. We’re quite imperfect. Like Christ, we’re both wounded and resurrected. Yet Jesus promised, “when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” (Matthew 18: 20) If you want to touch the wounds of the risen Christ you need to worship and work with other Christians. We find Christ amid the Church.
And I do believe that from time to time God graces us with a mystical encounter with the risen Jesus. Jesus may appear in a dream, give us a message through another person’s comment, “speak” to us (not audibly) in our minds and hearts or through a synchronistic event. Jesus may be revealed while we pray, through a thought, through our imagination as we engage the scripture or through a metaphor. Jesus doesn’t need a medium to get through to us – he is with us always and sometimes we even bear witness to his presence.
I’ll end with the story of Patrik, a Swedish man who was raised Roman Catholic and rejected his faith at a young age. He became a scientist and was cynical although curious about spiritual things. As his life unfolded, he met a Hindu guru and followed him; one of his teachings was that Jesus is dead. Later, friends took him to a Bible School where he heard the gospel. That night his leg was healed. He knew he had encountered not a dead man, but the resurrected Jesus. He gave his life to Christ. He bought a boat and went to the Canary Islands where he met a number of people involved in the New Age Movement. Through his witness, he became the way for those people to experience the love of the risen Christ and the gospel. He became the channel through which others saw the living Jesus. Perhaps instead of seeking signs from heaven, we are called to “be” a living encounter with Jesus for others, so they will know the peace, assurance and hope that we have already been given because like the first disciples, “We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25)