Sunday, December 2, 2012

The four last things 1: Death



May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Happy New Year! I always get a bit of a kick out of saying that on the first Sunday of Advent … the first day of our liturgical calendar … & I think it serves as an important reminder that even though as a Church we are 'in the world' we are always going to be slightly out of step with it … because as the people of God our ultimate aims and goals are different in many ways from the aims and goals of the world …

Because of that, during Advent, things are a little different for us than for the secular world. For them, this is the party season of Christmas … even if for many it is the 'holiday season' rather than Christmas-tide … and while we do indeed enjoy the lead up to the celebration of Christ's birth, for us it is also the time when we look forward to the time when he will come again – what is called the Parousia – and since that second coming will have cosmic consequences, it is something that we must prepare for … which is why Advent is a penitential season … less so perhaps than Lent, but penitential nonetheless … because when Christ comes again we will be faced with the reality of what we call the 'four last things- death and resurrection, judgement, heaven, & hell …

This is why it is traditional to preach on these things during this season … in order to help prepare ourselves for that time … it is a tradition that has gone out of fashion a little of late I think … for many reasons perhaps … we as a society are increasingly uncomfortable about talking about death … the idea of judgement is something of a bad word – after all to be judgmental is to be a bad person in the modern world … hell has been all but side-lined - how could a loving God send anyone to hell? So why talk about where no one is going? … and as for heaven, since since no one is going to hell, everyone must be going to heaven, so what more needs to be said?

But it is precisely because so much 'bad theology' has crept into our understanding of these things that we need to talk about them … judgement and hell are real … our Lord and Saviour himself told us about them … to ignore them is to put souls at risk … our souls & the souls of others ... and possibly the easiest way to fail to get to heaven is to believe that there is no possibility of not going there …

And so, let us begin with the cheerful subject of death. When Jesus comes again we know not the day nor the hour … it might be within the next five minutes … in which case you will be spared the rest of this series of sermons … but it might not be for two thousand years or more … we have no idea … the early Church thought it was something they would see within their own lifetimes … it was only gradually that they came to understand that Jesus meant it when he said no one could predict when he would come again … and so for most of us, like all those of generations past, it is likely that we will know death before the time of the Parousia …

So what is death? The theologian Karl Rahner called it an 'obscure event.' Why obscure, you might ask? Any one can tell you that death is the cessation of life … yet theologically that definition is of no use to us … when a plant or an animal dies it might be true to say that life has ceased … but for the human being that is not the case … because it is the Christian hope that life does not end with what this world calls death … and we have that hope because Christ himself assured us that this was true … one of the most popular readings at funerals is the one from St John's Gospel where Jesus tells his disciples that in his Father's house there are many mansion and that he is going there to prepare a place for us … death is not the end of life … it is merely the end of life as we know it …

And in fact it might be said that it is the defining act of a human life … certainly we know from a young age that we are going to die … alone of all living things we carry the knowledge with us all our lives that we are alive and our death is certain … and also we alone of all living things have God's own promise that death is not merely the grave but the beginning of something new … that it is through death we achieve the purpose for which we were born in the first place … we reach the point in our existence where it is possible for us to enter into God's presence … we were created to be happy with him for all eternity … and it is through death we have the possibility of entering  into that bliss …

But that does not mean that we should not fear death … it is natural to fear any major change … and it doesn't get much more major than this, to leave the only life that we have known … indeed, we know that Christ himself feared death … we have the witness of that fear from the Gospel accounts we call 'the agony in the Garden' … & we can take comfort from the fact that if Jesus was afraid than it is not wrong for us to be afraid …

But of course, we have a reason for fear that he does not … for even while we have his reassurance through his glorious Resurrection that our death will also be followed by a resurrection, unlike him our resurrection will be followed by judgement … a judgement that will be followed by one or two thing: heaven or hell.

And which we will ultimately face will be decided by how we have lived up to the moment of our death … something that we also do not know the day nor the hour of … which is why it means that if we live our lives in any other way than if we were to face death within the moment, then we are gambling in a game in which the stakes are incredibly high … eternal life versus eternal damnation … all eternity is on the table …

Which is why it is of vital importance to think of these things on every step of our Christian journey … and this holy & penitential season of Advent is the time when we as a Church set aside a time to dwell on them particularly … and it is not too much to take a few minutes out of the seemingly endless social events this season brings to think on things that are truly without end … so that with God's help we may live in such a way that in death we will see his face forever. Amen.

(sermon notes for the first Sunday of Advent)

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