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A Sermon from Sherborne
A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 3 November 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
The story of the raising of Lazarus which we heard read just now [John 11. 32-44] has been called an ‘enacted parable’, and so it is. Jesus tells Martha “I am the resurrection and the life” – and in so doing tells us all that resurrection isn’t a doctrine, it’s a person. Here he is, standing in front of Martha, almost teasing her, challenging her to see beyond the mundane and the everyday into the inner significance of things; into the inner significance of Jesus himself. The people around them want Jesus to come and see the place where Lazarus is buried. He wants them to come and see the place where he will dwell in light and love and resurrection glory. In this enacted parable, the future bursts into the present. It is a foretaste of our resurrection in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Heaven. Christians don’t talk much about heaven these days, and I suspect seldom think about it. Like most people, we find it hard enough to remember what we are doing next week, let alone to think about eternity. And that’s a shame, because heaven is what we are made for. Heaven is where the road goes. Heaven is the destination that gives point and purpose to our whole journey through life. If you read the history of the Christian church in any century you will discover that the Christians who have done the most earthly good are precisely those who have been the most heavenly minded, who have had this other dimension in their lives, who know Jesus not as a dead hero but as a living Lord, who live in conscious fellowship with the saints in whose company we laud and magnify God’s Holy Name.
And if that all sounds a bit high-falutin’, let us come down to earth – literally. In the nature of things I attend more funerals than you do, and spend more time with the bereaved. I have taken many hundreds of funerals in the last 41 years, and I can tell you this, that there is all the difference in the world between a funeral where death is seen as the end, the final full-stop, and one where through all the sorrow and the distress there is an awareness of this other dimension, of our Christian hope, of life being lived more fully and more gloriously in the presence of God.
So why do I believe that heaven is our ultimate destination? After all, this wasn’t a belief man came to easily. There’s virtually no mention of eternal life in the Old Testament, and even by Jesus’ time only some of the teachers of Israel were prepared to accept it. But I believe in heaven, and I believe I’m going to heaven, because I believe in God.
If God set in motion a process which finally produced humankind, men and women made in the image of God and conscious of themselves and forever seeking the cause of their being, then I simply cannot believe that God would cut us off just as we are beginning to be aware of our spiritual nature, our potential for further growth, our conviction of value in the sight of God. The Bible even declares us, made in the image of God, to ‘be gods’ [cf John 10. 34]. So how can we, made in the image of the God of infinity, be finite? Yet a recent newspaper survey suggested that Christians these days don’t believe in heaven anymore; that the majority of churchgoers positively disbelieve in it. If that is true then, my brothers and sisters, it should not be. I believe, and I hope you believe, that one day I will see and you will see our Lord face to face, in that heavenly city where there is no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying nor pain, where God wipes away all tears from our eyes. I have taken too many funerals and seen death too often to believe that the coffin, or the casket of ashes, can contain the real person, the real personality – the person made in the image of God, with whom I have laughed or cried or argued or talked. You can’t put a personality – a soul – in a box, no, no matter how many bugles you have sounding the Last Post. Rather, as the last note of the Last Post dies away on earth, I believe the trumpets on the other side will be sounding Reveille.
A long time ago, a Canadian Bishop called Charles Brent asked the question “What is dying?”, and by way of an answer asked us to imagine ourselves down at the coast, looking out to sea:
I am standing on the sea shore. A ship sails and spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean. She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades on the horizon, and someone at my side says, ‘She’s gone.’ Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says, ‘’She’s gone’, there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up the glad shout, ‘There she comes.’ And that is dying.
And that is dying. And it means that the words of the great Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter – “I preached as a dying man to dying men, as never sure to preach again” – are neither sad nor depressing, but full of hope and assurance. And it is that hope which gives us perspective in this world, and shows the things of this world in their true value.
In the enacted parable of Lazarus, Jesus says to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” These are words spoken at every funeral service, and yet you will often hear them intoned so sadly and mournfully that they are robbed of their tremendous meaning. But for those of us who know that Jesus has defeated death, who know that for us death is behind us and only love ahead, they are the most triumphant expression of our faith, which brings home constantly the sense of the eternal. “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Which means that I can say, and you can say, with utter conviction and assurance: “Upon a life I did not live, upon a death I did not die, Another’s life, Another’s death, I stake my whole eternity.” And for that, thanks be to God.