Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent (1 December 2013) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent (1 December 2013) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison discusses death and says that it is love and relationships that give our life meaning in the face of death.

In 1975 a psychologist called Ralph Moody published a book called Life after Life which popularised the study of Near Death Experiences, which are visions reported by some people who’d had heart attacks or other life-threatening conditions and survived. Typically a person feels they leave their body, go down a tunnel, see a bright light, encounter a heavenly being, and get sent back. If you’ve seen the last Harry Potter film or read novels like The Lovely Bones, you’ll be familiar with the scenario.

This has become our quasi-scientific story for what happens after death: quasi- because it’s not scientific, since science has nothing to say about the objective reality of these visions, some of which can be disturbing rather than peaceful. But it also seems that many people who have had these experiences are changed by them in positive ways; and that’s an interesting kind of evidence in itself. For as far as science is concerned, when your body dies, you die, you as it were go to sleep and don’t ever wake up, and that’s an end of you.

Why are there pyramids in Egypt? they were seen as stairways to heaven for the kings. Why is there an army of terracotta statues buried in Xian in China? To fight for the emperor in the next world. Why do the rich built great monuments like the Taj Mahal? Because human beings want to live on, to continue: having a go at life which then ends in nothing seems so ultimately pointless.

Every human culture has its story of what will happen when we die, from the earliest ritual burials to the contemporary survivors of near-death experiences. And the stories we tell about death shape the way we live our lives.

And so: what is ourstory about death? What do you think happens when you die, and how does it affect the way you live? There are a lot of stories to choose from: not many suggest that our conscious personal self continues beyond the moment at which body and soul dis-integrate in death.

If you think that when we die we simply go to sleep and there is no individual survival of death, then you make the most of what you want to do today; whether it’s being kind or being selfish doesn’t actually matter. The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible looks at life from this perspective: ‘eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’.

Surprisingly, the Jewish scriptures aren’t interested in life after death. What matters is the tribe, the community, and the individual enables the community to thrive by being obedient to God. But all that is left after a person dies are the ashes of the soul, the remains of a personality, located in a place called Sheol or Hades where there is no awareness of God or of the living. The afterlife of the individual doesn’t matter: it’s in the corporate memory of the living that your name will continue, and remembering names of important men was a key task for the religious community, as books of the Bible show.

There are other stories. Some think that at death we somehow merge back into the world: as one poem puts it, ‘I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sunlight on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain…’

But who is the ‘I’ in this statement? The person that once lived is not conscious or communicating or aware. The idea of reincarnation also means that the individual personality is lost at death, because it’s only the impersonal basic essence of a human being that continues: if you’ve been reincarnated in many lives, and had many different personalities which you can’t carry from one life to the next, then who or what actually are ‘you’ at all?

The scattering of the Jewish people in the sixth century BC led to an acceptance by some of the idea of resurrection: the belief that each individual matters to God, and that dead people will be resurrected, with their soul given a new body and then judged by God for their deeds, the dead going to hell and the righteous going to heaven – concepts I’ll be talking about in the coming weeks.

To use a picture from the world of computers, it’s as if when we die the hardware of who we are breaks down, but our software goes into storage to be run again on a new and upgraded body. God holds our identity, our software, and guarantees our ongoing integrity.

The Christian story makes the audacious claim that Jesus Christ has already experienced death and resurrection, and lives now a re-embodied life of a different quality, what we call eternal life – life which we can begin now by becoming what St Paul calls ‘members of the body of Christ’, those who have already begun the journey into eternity through our baptism into the risen life of Christ in God.

I’ve been a priest for well over 30 years. I’ve taken hundreds of funerals, been at the bedsides of many dying people including my own relatives, listened to thousands of bereaved family and friends. What comes across as most important isn’t how we survive death, but the strength of our desire to continue our relationships of love.

What gives our lives meaning in the face of death? It’s not possessions, it’s not honours or achievements which are soon forgotten: it’s being loved and cherished, and it’s loving others. It’s not quantity of life while we live that matters, or living for ever that counts: it’s the quality of our love and relationships.

That’s why for me the Christian vision of life and death is so powerful. It’s not about doing the right thing in order to live forever in heaven, and avoid going to hell. The Gospel message calls us to respond to the love of God in Jesus Christ, to be joined in relationship with Christ, so that when our turn comes to die, we go through death with Jesus Christ our friend, and we spend eternity with him and those who love him. We can continue and grow in our relationships with those we love, not in some general and vague way after death, but by meeting them in Christ: in the love of God will our loves be found. If you long for those whom you love and see no longer, then learn to love God in Christ, and you will find there the family and friends whom you love and grieve for.

In that surprising way the Christian faith has, the first person to discover what it meant to ‘die in Christ’ wasn’t an apostle or saint: it was a murderer. The condemned man hanging next to Jesus on a cross asks Jesus to remember him after death, and Jesus says that they will be together that day ‘in Paradise’: Sheol, Hades, Paradise, where we go when we die, is not to be feared as a place of forgetting, but is a place where God is too, where we can rest in Christ until the day of resurrection.

Our gospel reading this morning ended on a note of urgency, because we don’t know when through death we will meet with God in Jesus Christ. But St Paul said 2000 years ago: ‘For me, living is Christ, and dying is gain’. For him, each moment was a nearer death experience…

The way to be ready for death is to live each day in relationship with Christ, so that when we go from here we will be coming home to one we already know, to the love of God in Christ.