Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Believe and Live
I'm not a big fan of the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. Also called "All Souls' Day," it's a religious observance rooted in the belief that we pray for those who have died so that they may find rest and peace in the afterlife. I don't buy it. I don't think that's how God works. I think God's love for us is independent of what we say or think or do. That's what "unconditional love"q1 means. But I do believe that our love for those who have died lives on, and I don't see any reason not to pray for them the way we pray for loved ones who are still alive. My prayers for you may not cure your disease, but they are a reminder that the love God has given us for each other is stronger than any illness. We don't pray for the dead so that their souls might leave purgatory and migrate to heaven. We pray for them because we miss them, because we love them still.
The curious thing about the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed is that it allows us to think and pray and encounter what we believe about death in the context of worship but at a time when we are not gathered for a funeral. The preface for the Eucharist is the same one we hear at funerals. The lessons we read are some of the same ones we hear at funerals. There is something powerful about remembering Christ's death and resurrection at a time when we consider our own mortality. But today, unlike at the funeral of one we love, we likely do not bring with us to the altar that immediate and overwhelming grief that limits our ability to hear and receive what God is always saying to us about life after death. It means we have a chance to come together and linger with one another near that threshold between this life and the next and look around and notice what we see.
The gospel lesson for today (John 5:24-27) is a curious and powerful way of expressing what we believe about life after death. Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life." We are familiar with the concept of salvation through faith. We believe, and thus we are saved. But I wonder how often we pay attention to what Jesus tells us to believe. And I wonder how often we notice what sort of difference that makes.
"Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me..." John's gospel account reflects a clearly structured theology that Jesus, God's Son, has been sent by God the Father to show and tell the world the truth of God. What Jesus says is what God says. If we recognize that Jesus' words are trustworthy and true, we must also recognize that what he says to us is what God says to us. As silly as it sounds, sometimes I think we lose sight of the fact that Jesus reveals to us who God is and what God wants and how God works. They aren't split. Jesus' compassion for the outcast, rescue of the lost, unreserved declaration of forgiveness are not in any way isolated from God's work. Believing in Jesus isn't just believing that his way of loving your enemy and welcoming the stranger is a good pattern for our lives. Believing in Jesus means believing that that is God's pattern for our lives--not just a good idea for us to bring to an otherwise crooked world but a description of the true reality of this world. That's how God works. We hear Jesus' words and, through him, believe God--we take God at his word, which is Jesus' word.
"Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life." Notice when eternal life starts--not when we die but when we believe. In other words, it starts now. Jesus could have used the future tense to describe the effect of eternal life--"Anyone who hears my words and believes him who sent me will have eternal life"--but he didn't. He says it's now. Once we believe God--that Jesus is what God is communicating with the world--we have already passed over from death to life. Doesn't that change the way we live in this life? Doesn't that change the way we approach our death?
This life is not merely a preparation for the life that awaits us. And death is not our ticket out of this world. As we pray in the proper preface for today, we believe that life is changed, not ended. The life that we live as those who belong to and with God begins here and now. We do not journey through this life working toward a destination that awaits us. We live this life already in the fold of God. We have already been set free from that which plagues us. We have already been released from judgment and fear. If we believe that the words that Jesus says--words of life and love and hope and freedom--really are who God is, then that belief takes hold of us today. It changes us now.
As I consider these words of Jesus, this is what I hear him saying to me today: "Stop living your life as if your death is what brings you closer to God. If you really believe that what Jesus said and did is who God is, then you're already there. Don't wait any longer to live as one who has passed from death to life." We are already free. We are already saved. We are already alive eternally. The time for living that eternal life is now. It's not waiting for us on the other side of death. It's here.