This was a sermon I preached 2 years ago. My church community is once again going through a spate of bad news. Rama’s article reminded me of what I had shared then.
My heart has been weighed down by the many deaths experienced in our community in recent times. I thought it would be good to speak about it.
Let me read the text to you, from the New American Standard Bible.
Luke 23: 42-43
42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”
43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
When I was in my teens, everything about being a Christian captured my attention; the church was my community and as a young Christian I was learning everything for the first time. Those days I learned about evangelism, about gifts of the Holy Spirit, about mission and sacrifice, about the Word of God.
In my teens, faith is an exciting journey and there is much to learn.
During my university years and after that working as a full-time worker with varsity students, the fact that Christ came to give life, life abundantly, was what captured my heart and mind. The idea “To be truly spiritual is to be truly human” was something that appealed very much to me.
At the same time, I was introduced to, and explored, the Christian mind; not only that there are key characteristics that define the view that the Christian has towards the world of objects and ideas, but also the assertion that Christian thought should be rational and consonant with truth.
In my varsity days, what attracted me was that faith is life affirming, and intelligent.
Now, in my 60th year, and my 48th year as a Christian, the fact that Christ has conquered death is central to my faith, or to frame it nicely,
In these later years of life, I have come to see that central to my faith is that my destiny is paradise.
The first time I had to seriously consider death in terms of my faith was when I was asked to preach at a funeral. I was in my late 30s at the time. Just a short 5 minute sharing from Scripture but I had to think hard about what is the most meaningful truth I can share to this young woman whose mother had just passed away, and who had accepted Christ on her death bed. And this was the passage I set my heart on to share:
And Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
I didn’t want to bore everyone with my theology. I wanted this simple declaration by Jesus to imbue that moment of death with a much deeper meaning and a more glorious destiny.
This has stayed with me ever since. Today you shall be with Me in Paradise. What a wonderful certainty when you have to say goodbye to a loved one.
When my parents aged to the point where I could see their frailty, death once again came into my life. But for my parents, death was a friend. My father said to me, “My work is done.” And my mum many times told me that she wants her rest. And she meant her eternal rest. For them, there is nothing more that this life could offer, except weakness and pain. Because of their faith, death is a door, an opportunity, a final, wonderful blessing that they longed to embrace. And so when death came, I thanked God for his wonderful blessing.
This made me see that where we are now, what we call life, is mortal. Where Christ is, is paradise. There is a qualitative difference that Jesus emphasised in his statement: Today you will be with me in Paradise.
In conquering death, Christ does not promise us more of the same. He promises us a deeper, richer life.
Paradise to my mind is not just in terms of location, but also the quality of the life that will be ours to embrace. Our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our soul, will be made whole. How wonderful that must be. In this life we struggle with our frailties. In Paradise we glory in the marvelous and perfect handiwork of God.
CS Lewis alludes to this, calling us to think of the best fruit we have ever tasted: juicy, fresh, sweet, filling all our senses with a wonderful symphony of taste, smell and satisfaction. And then asking us to imagine what that fruit will be like when it is perfectly created as God intends, eaten by a person whose body is whole and perfect.
My brothers and sisters, heaven is a wonderful place. It is where the God of love reigns supreme, where Christ has gone to prepare a place for us all.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
Between this life and life after death, there is no comparison. There will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain; for the old order of things has passed away.
One day when I was having lunch with a couple, after one of the husband’s treatments in hospital, I shared with them this thought: You do what is necessary as a responsible steward of the life that God has given you. You avail yourself to what is available to treat your ailment. But you also embrace the core truth of your belief: that death is a blessing; a doorway into his Presence. You are not to be careless with life, but neither should you cling to it, as if what is behind the veil is something terrifying. Indeed, what is behind the veil is a wonderful life that God has redeemed for us through the sacrifice of His Son.
In other words, our faith calls us to live with no fear of death. Indeed, Christ has transformed death to a gateway to Paradise.
But in recent times, there are others who also act out of a lack of fear of death. These days suicide bombers are a common phenomena; but to my mind, their embrace of death is out of a despair of this life. And it is this despair that makes their freedom from death destructive. Their life has convinced them that nothing good can be achieved by life, and their only recourse to significance is to destroy. They have no love of life, and so they have no qualms in taking life away from others.
This is not what Christ sacrificed himself to give us. And so our theology is not to lead us to desire the hereafter to the point of not caring for the life in the here and now.
I come that you might have life, and have it abundantly, Jesus says.
Christ came not only to give us life in Paradise, he came that we might have abundant life here on earth. How is this so? We should not take this to mean that abundant life will be handed to us; rather, the riches of our glorious inheritance in Christ gives us the basis to pursue this life with abandon, with generosity, with all our heart, soul, mind and might, because we will never be poor again. Even if we go to the grave penniless, we gain heaven’s glory on the other side. What more if in this life we are a source of blessing to others and a cause for people to give glory to God! That truly is abundant life!
How has our view of death influenced our living?
One scene in the movie The Return of the King, as King Theoden leads his men into battle against the forces of the evil Sauron, in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, captures my imagination:
On the morning of March 10, 3019, the “Dawnless Day” began. Sauron sent forth a large mass of dark and foul clouds to cover the lands of Gondor. Sauron’s purpose was to spread fear and uncertainty among his enemies, as well as to aid his dark servants; it was said that dread was one of his greatest weapons. The forces of Mordor arrived on two fronts: the army of the Lord of The Nazgûl came forth from Minas Morgul, and the other up the river Anduin from Umbar; mainly the ships of the Corsairs with Haradrim and Easterlings. On March 14, 3019, the Siege of Gondor began, and on the morning of March 15, the Army of Rohan arrived with 6000 riders.
If you have seen the movie you know that this was a pivotal moment. Although badly outnumbered, the Fellowship of the Ring needed Rohan to fight and hold off Sauron long enough for reinforcement to arrive.
Theoden, having come out of the influence of his adviser Grima, or Wormtongue as he is commonly called, led his men into the decisive battle with the cry, “Death!”
Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
spear shall be shaken, shield shall be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now, ride! Ride for ruin and the world’s ending!
Death! Death! Death!
Watching that scene, it became crystal clear to me: when you embrace death and you do not fear it, it frees you to do what is right and good, leaving the outcome to God. The 3 friends of Daniel said to Nebuchadnezzar the king:
“Your Majesty, we will not try to defend ourselves. If the God whom we serve is able to save us from the blazing furnace and from your power, then he will. But even if he doesn’t, Your Majesty may be sure that we will not worship your god, and we will not bow down to the gold statue that you have set up.”
The fear of death clouds our judgement. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, death no longer has a hold on us.
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
Perhaps God may call some of us to a special ministry that demands the sacrifice of our life. But for most of us that is unlikely to be the case. But the call is still the same: Do we hoard our life for fear of losing it? Or do we spend it generously because after we have gone through this life, God is there with a glorious new life in Paradise.
When we live in the light of Paradise in the hereafter, we live in Paradise now.