On death and dying: “I am the Way”
May 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
This morning’s sermon. I blog these if enough people come and talk to me about them afterwards (which, because we’re from Yorkshire, we don’t normally do). So here goes…It was based on John 14. 1 – 14
I had a fascinating conversation this week with someone who researches people’s experiences of the death of those closest to them, and their bereavement and grieving. Her key reflection was that what clergy could bring into that situation, beyond planning and delivering the funeral service, was a framework where people could explore their beliefs and understandings of death and dying, and especially of what people thought had happened to their loved ones, and where they were. This was most crucial between the death and the funeral.
That conversation remains with me now because of this morning’s Gospel reading, from John 14. We clergy, who do lots of funerals, tend to forget that people don’t go to that many in their life time. This reading, the first six verses anyway, is the one I most often use at funerals. It speaks of God’s care for us beyond death, of God’s promise that those in Christ will have a room reserved, and that perhaps even those who have not been followers of God in their lifetime will also be looked after. There are, after all, ‘many rooms’. Jesus, speaking, as John has it, on the night before he dies, with impending doom all around, gives his followers a framework to understand what is about to happen – one which they clearly remembered because they wrote it all down.
At the centre is a statement, a question and an answer. Jesus tells the disciples that they have all the framework they need to face his death, the ultimate challenge. ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’ he says. ‘No‘, says Thomas. ‘If we don’t know where you are going, how on earth can we know the way.’ Jesus, as ever, changes the nature of the conversation. It’s not about what the way is and where it’s going, but who the way is and how we get there. ‘I am the way…’ Faced with the ultimate question, Jesus gives an answer which will only make sense because of their faith, not their certainty. ‘You still won’t be exactly clear about where I’m going. But you can be sure that the way there is me. Trust me.’
In funerals I do all I can to make this framework plain. I try to say that the Christian faith is about us being gathered, swept up in Christ into the life of God. As he, one man, incorporated all of humanity, so that his death was our death, so the risen Christ incorporates us too, so that his life is our life. If the face of death many people look for certainties, for something as tangible as possible about the fate, the continued life of their loved one who has died. People can take great comfort in words from beyond the grave, for example, and the use of clairvoyants and mediums. There is, to broaden it out, a great interest in ghosts – you only have to see the huge crowds on the York ghost walks which used to go past our house. I try to say that our thinking about death and new life is much deeper than that.
This is about faith. Faith that, because Jesus died and rose, and is fully and completely with God, we will be too. Indeed, part of our life is already with God now. In baptism we have already died and been raised with Christ. But where, and how, and what it’s like on the other side of death…well, I don’t know. I can only trust that the means of being with God, the way we travel, and the life we will life, is Christ. That’s it. Total and complete trust. The Bible speaks of us ‘resting’, ‘sleeping’ in death. That’s a state which is fully enclosed by God, like the best kind of sleep in the best kind of bed. And the Bible says that, in Christ, we will be raised, so that we see God face to face. I don’t know when and how that will be. But I can trust that it will happen, and I can trust that it is Jesus who will be the means and the road and the companion and the guide and the friend on the way, and the everlasting arms behind.
When Philip asked Jesus to reveal the Father to them, Jesus said he already had. In every moment with them, every word, every action, God was being made plain to them. They just had to open their eyes to see. It’s that openness which Jesus asks of us as we face the biggest question of all: what will happen to us when we die? Jesus says: the answer is here already. I am such a part of the Father and you are such a part of me that, in life and death, you will be with me, and I will never let you go.
Facing his death, and acknowledging their grief, Jesus says to his disciples ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled…’ As we face our death, and the death of those we love, there will of course be grief and loss and sadness and anger and guilt. I cry at many of the funerals I take, and I miss the people you miss. That’s OK. Jesus wept at death too. But under it all there is the hope and hope and trust, that eternally we can never be separated from God’s love. May we offer that hope to all who wonder about life and death. And that’s everyone, isn’t it?