Preparing for Christmas with a prayer from Karl Barth

Finish

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent my pastor picked this prayer from Karl Barth as part of the prayers of the people for this morning. Barth wrote it in the middle of the last century, but it struck me as eerily contemporary. It helped me sort out some of what I need to do to prepare for Christmas, and so in that spirit, I share it with you:

Lord, our God and Father, give to many, to all, and to us as well, that we may celebrate Christmas like this: that in complete thankfulness, utter humility and then complete joy and confidence we may come to the One whom you have sent, and in whom you yourself have come to us. Clean out the many things in us that now that the hour has come have become impossible for us, can no longer belong to us, may, must, and will fall away from us, by virtue of your Son, our Lord and Savior, entering into our midst and creating order.

Have mercy on all of those who either do not yet or do not fully know you and your kingdom, who perhaps once knew everything and have either forgotten, misunderstood or even denied it! Have mercy on all of humankind, who today are once again especially plagued, threatened and haunted by so much foolishness. Enlighten the thoughts of those in both the East and the West, the South and the North who are in power and who, as appears to be the case, are today in complete confusion and despair. Give the rulers and representatives of the people, the judges, teachers, and bureaucrats, give even the media in our homeland the insight and sobriety that are necessary for their responsible work. Place the right, necessary and helpful words on the lips of those who have to preach during this Christmas Season, and open then also the ears and hearts of those who hear them. Comfort and encourage those who are sick, both in body and spirit, in hospitals, as well as prisoners, and those who are distressed, abandoned or despairing. Help them with what alone can truly help them and all of us: the clarity of your Word and the quiet work of your Holy Spirit.

We thank you that we are permitted to know that we do not pray and will never pray to you in vain. We thank you that you have let your light rise, that it shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will not overcome it. We thank you that you are our God and that we may be called your people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

(Photo: R. L. Floyd, 2015)

“He will come like child.” Rowan Williams’ “Advent Calendar”

Last fall's leaf

I have long been an admirer of the estimable Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, since the time I saw him give an awkward, brilliant, and humble paper in 1989 in Oxford. Since then I have read with profit his thoughtful theological books and essays. But I just learned that he also has written poetry. I came across this fine Advent poem today. It is from his first collection of poems: After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994), and is now available in The Poems of Rowan Williams’ (Oxford, 2002 and Grand Rapids MI, 2004).

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

© Rowan Williams

(Photo by R. L. Floyd, 2015, “Autumn leaf after the rainstorm,” Ashuwillticook  Rail Trail, Lanesborough, MA.)

“Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise”

Wonder

“Finish, then, Thy new creation!”

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”— Romans 8: 22-23

The Advent hope recognizes that there is something unfinished about God’s creation. In today’s passage Paul employs the metaphor of childbirth, the “whole creation groaning in labor pains,” to describe the ongoing process of creation.

Our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith testifies to the two calls of God, the original creation (‘God calls the worlds into being”), and the new creation in Jesus Christ (“God calls us into the church”).

It is humbling to imagine that we have some part to play in the completion of God’s work, in our lives, in our communities, and on this earth we share with all God’s other creatures.

The Advent hope invites us to actively share in the reconciling, restoring, healing and saving activity of the living God. Such hope points to a promised future when the whole creation will finally be completed, a vision captured by the last verse of the great Charles Wesley hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling:”

“Finish, then, Thy new creation;

Pure and spotless let us be.

Let us see Thy great salvation

Perfectly restored in Thee;

Changed from glory into glory,

Till in Heav’n we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before Thee,

Lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Prayer: O Creator God, let your work be our work, as we long for the promised day when you will bring it to completion, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

(This is my devotional for today from “Wonder” the 2015 Advent Devotional from the United Church of Christ’s Stillspeaking Writers’ Group. Photo: The Pilgrim Press, 2015)

 

Ruminations on Advent

Advent dog

“There is something beautiful and mysterious about Advent, but there is, at the same time, something unsettling, darkly anxious, almost threatening about it. The Advent mood is hard to put into words. It is often captured better by its hymns, which are often dark and brooding, sung in a minor key.

The scripture lessons for Advent set the tone with their continued prophetic calls for repentance, the dire warnings to “wait and watch,” the urgency of preparation for what is coming. We hear about those who are unprepared for God, tenants who are surprised by the sudden appearance of their long-absent landlord, sleepy bridesmaids waiting with their empty oil-lamps for the bridegroom to come.” (Excerpt from “Rejoice! Rejoice! A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent”)

Over the years I have posted many of my Advent rumination and reflections. I have gathered up some of them here:

The Christmas Tree in the Passing Lane

“A Chorus of Trees” (Video)

Anticipation: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Rejoice! Rejoice! A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

“God With Us” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

And here is the hymn I wrote for Advent in 2000, after 9/11:

“In Such Sad Times We Look Ahead” A Hymn for Advent

(Photo by R.L. Floyd, 2014. The dog is Onyx, our grand-dog.)

“A Chorus of Trees”

“Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming” –Psalm 96: 12, 13.

“What are these excitable trees singing and clapping about? They are celebrating the coming of God, a coming worth getting excited about, full of promise for the restoration, judging, cleansing and healing of all things. And this coming will not be only for people and nations, but for all that belongs to the Creator, “the whole earth and everything in it. Which means that our Advent hope for the coming of God is not a private “spiritual” matter, but a hope of quite cosmic proportions.” (From “Tear Open the Heavens” Advent Devotion 2014. The United Church of Christ)

This devotional of mine for December 22  from the UCC Advent Devotionals was made into a very moving YOUTUBE video. Thanks to Katherine Schofield for this. I tried to put the eschatology back into Advent, and I think she captured it.

The Christmas Tree in the Passing Lane: A Reflection on Advent

winter scene 3

On Saturday we drove home from my brother’s house in Maine where we had celebrated Thanksgiving with our family, or at least the part of it that could make it this year.

It was a calm and friendly few days. We ate some turkey and tucked into various lovely pies. There were numerous board games that lasted into the wee hours, and, yes (I won’t deny it) we watched a football game or two.

It had snowed enough during Wednesday’s storm that we were able to do some good snowshoeing on Friday at a local forest preserve. All in all, it was a good Thanksgiving.

I was especially aware that this year we had much to be thankful for. Somehow “the simple fact of being together made the time holy.” (From my Daily Devotional for Thanksgiving, to read it all go here.)

I often find the season from Thanksgiving to the New Year to be a wistful and bittersweet time. When I was a young minister I became aware what a sad time it was for many of my older congregants, who remembered happier, healthier times, when they and their families were young.

I understand that better now, as my own children are grown, and many of the original participants in my early holiday memories are gone.

The church is often wiser than we are in how it marks the time. A good example of this is the season of Advent, which captures the mood of the darkening days with its texts of waiting and hoping and its hymns in minor keys.

The expectation that the holidays will be better and brighter than our ordinary time can be a burden that weighs us down. I think some of the excessive consumerism we see this time of year is our attempt to keep the long dark days at bay. But there are some things money can’t buy, even at full price, such as health and wholeness, faith, hope and love.

On the way home the day was sunny with a high blue sky, and the traffic on the Maine Turnpike wasn’t nearly as heavy as on the way up in the storm.

As we crossed the river into New Hampshire, there was a freshly cut Christmas tree in the middle of the left-hand lane that had fallen off the roof of someone’s car. It made me suddenly sad, December sad. It must be time for Advent, I thought, and the next day it was.

Good, I thought, I need a little Advent.

 

(Photo by R. L. Floyd. “Black Brook Preserve, Windham Maine Land Trust.”)

“God With Us” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Joseph and the angelIn Luke’s gospel it is Mary who is front and center in the story of the nativity of Jesus, and in our minds I think that is where she stays.  But in Matthew we get more of a glimpse of Joseph.  Joseph is a shadowy figure in the pages of scripture; he is introduced in the genealogy as the “husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”  We see him in this story about Jesus’ birth and again briefly in the events of Jesus’ childhood, the circumcision at the temple, the flight to Egypt to escape Herod, and in a small story about Jesus as a twelve year old when he gets separated from his parents on a trip to Jerusalem and turns up at the temple, teaching the elders. Then Joseph disappears from the story, except for references to Jesus as the carpenter’s son.

But though Joseph seems to be what is called a supporting character, without him the drama of salvation could not have taken place, and I would submit that that is just the way God works, with supporting characters who appear for a little bit and do what needs to be done and then disappear from the story. But they are always a part of the story and the story wouldn’t be complete without them.

And it seems safe to say that without Joseph, Jesus could never have become who he became.  Joseph must have played an important forming and nurturing part in the life of Jesus.  There has been much speculation about Jesus’ upbringing in the carpenter shop in Nazareth.  The scriptures tell us nothing, but if Joseph lived until Jesus was at least twelve, as Matthew indicates, then Joseph becomes the primary male role model for the young Jesus.

One noted scholar speculates that Mary and Joseph were from the ranks of the humble and pious multitudes, the kind of people who loved God and maintained the law as best they could, but without the means to carry it out to the letter in all its intricacy.  If this is true it would go far in explaining Jesus’ attack on the Pharisaic understanding of religion and his quest for a new freedom to live for God.

In any case, in the story of Jesus’ birth Joseph is most remarkable in the way he responded to this crisis in his life. The young woman to whom he is betrothed is found to be pregnant. This is more than a matter of divorce, the law demands her life by stoning for adultery, for betrothal carried the weight of marriage in those days. So Joseph dismissing her quietly to avoid public disgrace was an act of integrity. But what is even more remarkable is that when he has this strange dream, in which an angel of the Lord appears to him and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit, he believes the angel and does what the angel said to do.

The angel said something else about this child: they are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins, and that all this fulfills what Isaiah had written: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Let me invite you to consider this Christmas the statement that God is with us.  Consider that God is with us not just in high moments of religious insight, in worship and in prayer, or some mystical moment when all seems clear, but rather in the ordinary events that befall us in this life.

One of the implications of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is that God is no longer remote, but is with us in ordinary life and that our story is inextricably wrapped up with God’s story. There is more to it than that to be sure; there is a cross as well as a cradle and we need Easter to interpret Christmas, and perhaps Pentecost to interpret them both for without the Holy Spirit it all becomes just a story from long ago that can touch the heart, but not change the life.

But God is with us now, because of Jesus Christ. We can see his human face and know that there is something of him in the other human faces we see. God is with us in our exalted moments of joy, when we get glimpses of the joy God wants for us.  Perhaps a sunset does it for you, or a sunrise (I’m told they are pretty.)  Or perhaps watching a child at play, or a fresh snowfall.

I saw a fine movie this week called “A River Runs Through It” in which fly-fishing becomes the entranceway into a realm of pure awe and wonder in the midst of some very tragic human life.  To know that our story and God’s story touch and intertwine can transfigure some pretty ordinary stuff into something special. Perhaps it is only as story that we understand our lives, which otherwise remain rather elusive.

In “A River Runs through It” the writer’s father, who is a minister, asks him a question that made Norman wonder if he understood his father at all “You like to tell true stories, don’t you? he asked, and I answered, “Yes, I like to tell stories that are true.”  Then he asked, “After you have finished your true stories some time, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?  Only then will you understand what happened and why.  It is those we live with and love and should know that elude us.”

So it is that our own personal stories may only be understood in the light of this vaster story that begins at the moment of creation and will end in glory in God’s own good time and finds its center around two poor Palestinian peasants wondering what the birth of this child might mean.  That the angel promised that the child means “God is with us” must have addressed their perplexity as it can address ours.

For it means God is with us not just in those fleeting moments of joy, but in moments of confusion and despair, of faithlessness and doubt, the kind that comes to all of us at one time or another.  Emmanuel means God is with us as we try to get our minds around what happened on a Monday night in a neighboring community, as we struggle to understand the incomprehensible fact that an eighteen year old boy walked into a sporting goods store in our community and legally bought an assault rifle and used it to kill people.  The God of Good Friday who is also the God of Christmas was with us as Wayne Lo began killing people, and the first tear that was shed at Simon’s Rock was God’s tear, not only for the dead and wounded and their families but for a world which still makes such moments possible.

So “God with us” is not the stuff of Kodak commercial sentimentality; it means God really with us in all the grandeur and misery of human life, in Bosnia and India and Somalia and the homeless mean streets of our cities as well as by the Christmas tree in the warmth of our living room. The mystery of the Incarnation puts God right in the thick of it all.  For God did not stay remote, high above the heavens, but ventured into the precarious life of an infant born into a marginal family in a precarious political situation.  That should give us pause from turning the Christian religion into something ethereal and apart from human life.  As Frederick Buechner remarked wryly, “One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.”

This Christmas I invite you to discover God in the everyday ebb and flow of your life, in the ones you love as well as the ones who drive you up a wall, in your moments of consternation as well as in your high moments of joy.  Take the time this Christmas to take it all in.  If you spend all your time in frenzied preparation, you may just not be paying attention, and miss the time of your visitation, and never learn, as Joseph did, what supporting role you are called to play in this great big story of which our story is valued as an important part by the God who, whatever else he may be, is most assuredly with us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I preached this sermon at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Congregational, twenty years ago this week, December 20, 1992, after a gun slaying at a school, in nearby Simon’s Rock College on December 14. I posted this after the Sandy Hook School slayings in Newtown, CT, which were on the 20th anniversary to the day. Lord have mercy.

Christian Teachings about Life after Death: A Pastor Ruminates

stream 2I have been asked to speak about “Christian teachings about the after-life.” This is final installment in a series of helpful presentations on preparing for death. There have been presentations on wills and bequests, end of life care, grieving and the like. And once again Max (Stackhouse) has asked me to bat clean-up and talk about theology.

One of my friends in the church said to me last week, “Oh, your talk is theology, so it won’t be practical.” She was kidding, I think, but let me respond to her remark by suggesting that a theology about death and what comes after it may be the most practical aspect of all for the Christian preparing for death. It is a shame how theology has come to have a bad name, even in the church.

Because theology is not some specialty for professional theologians, but simply the way we talk about God. That is what theology means, the logos of the theos, the word about God. And everybody has a theology, at least implicitly, so the more we can make it examined and explicit the more chance we will get it better rather than worse.

So right off the bat let me suggest a better title for what I hope to do here. I much prefer the phrase “life after death” to the term “afterlife,” because I think the former rightly expresses the Christian belief in the reality of death, while the latter can obscure the boundary between death and whatever comes after it.

I want to explore with you four ideas or concepts: 1. The reality of death, 2. Immortality of the soul, 3. Resurrection of the body, and 4. Eternal Life. Finally, I want to summarize the features of an adequate Christian theology of life after death, and the promises of the Gospel that are our hope in the face of death.

1.The Reality of Death

The first concept to ponder is the reality of death.  Some of the earliest thinking about death in the Bible is about its not only ending one’s natural life, but also severing our relationship with God. For Israel human purpose was to praise God, and death put an end to it. This relational view was visualized in spatial terms, so that places like Sheol and “the Pit” were places far from God.

Christianity inherited this relational view of life with God, and sees death as its cessation and the opposite of the fullness of life that God intends for us. So unlike some other religions that view death as an illusion or an escape, for Christians, death is real, as are the sense of loss and grief that accompany death, which are also real and nothing to ashamed of or denied. I have said at countless funerals: “There is nothing unchristian about grief; Jesus himself cried at the grave of his friend Lazarus.”

Moreover, Jesus himself died, and his own death provides a template for thinking about this. The creeds say quite simply, “He died and was buried.”

So accepting the reality of death is an important first step in thinking about it properly as Christians. In my nearly forty years of ministry I sometimes counseled people who wanted to deny or blunt this reality. People often asked for much-loved sentimental poems to be read at the funeral. I would gently suggest something more appropriate, but I was pastorally sensitive enough to allow their selection to be read if they insisted, knowing that I would get up and say something quite contradictory in my homily.

Let me give you some examples of poems that deny or minimize the reality of death, and I apologize in advance if these are your favorites.

Here’s a line from A. L. Frinks’ the Rose Beyond the Wall:

“Shall claim of death cause us to grieve
And make our courage faint and fall?
Nay! Let us faith and hope receive–
The rose still grows beyond the wall,”

Another and even better known poem about death is James Whitcomb Riley’s Consolatio:

“I cannot say, and will not say
that he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
he has wandered into an unknown land.”

“We do not sorrow as those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13), but we do sorrow. So while as Christians we have much more to say than death is real, it is where we must start, reminding ourselves that Jesus, in his human nature, really did die, as all human beings do.

To make this point I once began an Easter sermon years ago by saying that “On Good Friday Jesus was as dead as a doornail.” I wasn’t trying to be shocking, but I was surprised by how many people took offense to this statement.

I know something of death. Both my parents died too young, I have worked in a funeral home, been an EMT, and a minister for nearly four decades. I have been present at many deaths, and each time I have been struck by how clear the line is between the living and the dead. And yet everything I know about death is on this side of it, as it is for us all. But  one thing I do know about death: it is real.

So if the first theme is the reality of death, how shall we properly think and talk about what comes after?

2. Immortality of the Soul.

One very prevalent idea of life after death is immortality of the soul. I would like to explore this popular idea with you, and show you why it is an inadequate view for Christians, admitting that in my early years it was my own view.

Let me share something about that with you. My own theology of death and what comes after it was shaped, at least in part, by my childhood bedtime prayer, a somewhat terrifying one from the New England Primer:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but in my child’s imagination I had adopted a somewhat Platonic dualism about the human person, separating body and soul into the perishable and imperishable.

My own children, at the insistence of my wife, had a more sanitized version of that prayer that didn’t get them pondering sudden death in the nighttime. Whether they are better off for this is open for discussion. But in my own early thought-processes I figured that if such a sad event as my childhood death did take place, it would only be my physical body, and this invisible spiritual thing “the soul” would go swiftly to God. This is the essence of the idea of immortality of the soul.

I was taken aback to be told that this view, while widely held, was not particularly Christian. I learned in seminary that the Hebrew word translated as “soul,” nephesh, more rightly means “self,” in other words, the whole person.  Harrell Beck, my wonderful Old Testament professor, liked to say that your fingernails are as much a part of your soul as any other part, which is to say human selves are embodied. Or as I like to think of it: we don’t have a body so much as we are a body.

It is from the Greeks, and especially from Plato, that we get the notion of a disembodied soul housed in a physical body, an idea that still clings to many Christian ideas about an afterlife.

These ideas were ambient in the ancient Near East and in the Hellenistic world in which the New Testament was written, and they lived in uneasy tension with the more holistic Hebraic views of personhood. We even get a whiff of Greek dualism in the New Testament, such as in First Corinthians, one of the undisputed letters of Paul. He writes in 1 Corinthians 5:1:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

So if the disembodied immortal soul flying away from the perishable body is not the Christian theology of life after death, how are we to think about it?

3. The Resurrection of the Dead

Resurrection of the dead is the cardinal Christian idea of life after death. It is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, which pervades all New Testament thinking. In Jesus’ resurrection God has vindicated the humiliated and crucified Jesus, and begun the eschatological process of the salvation of humanity and the world, a process to be completed at the end of history, when Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.

This distinguishes Christian theology from other views that see life after death as something intrinsic to the human person. Resurrection of the dead, on the other hand, is about the discontinuity between life and life after death. The rupture of death is overcome only from God’s side by God’s action. So resurrection of the dead is not resuscitation, but a new creation analogous to the first creation. It is not resurrection of the flesh, but resurrection of the body, a new kind of life that we can only guess at. When Paul  speculated on what kind of body we would have in the new life he employed the oxymoron “spiritual body” to refer to what form are we raised.

There are clues to this mystery in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. After Jesus is raised he appears to the disciples in bodily form; he is the same, but also transfigured in some way. The accounts contain mysteries: sometimes he is recognized, but other times he is not, as in the road to Emmaus story, when the disciples only know him when he breaks bread. Yet he still bears the marks of the Roman nails in his hands and feet.

However we want to take these narratives they point to the consistent conclusion that the new life postmortem is embodied life.  The Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead is a theological interpretation based on the death and raising of Jesus. The expectation of a resurrected body also emphasizes the continuity of personality and the integrity of personhood. I said that Christian views stress discontinuity between life and life after death, but here we see continuity of personality after death. So we have both discontinuity and continuity as the person really dies, but in the new life is the same person as before death, although changed. So it is not some spiritual part of you that lives the new kind of life; it is you, embodied and recognizable to God as you. This contrasts to various views of a disembodied postmortem existence, such as immortality of the soul and reincarnation.

It is important to remind ourselves that, while we are not surprised by the claim of Jesus’ resurrection and have difficulty with the idea of a general resurrection, for the people at the time of Jesus death it was just the opposite. A general resurrection vindicating Israel involving a Davidic messiah or the Son of Man was part of the general religious imagination. The resurrection of an individual however was not, which is why the raising of Jesus was understood as the beginning of the eschaton, the final reckoning, restoration and vindication of God and his faithful. We hear this in the language of Jesus being the first-fruits and the forerunner.

The raising of Jesus then is the primary theological template by which all things are measured, including death and life after death. Consistently in the New Testament death is viewed through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In 75 places in the New Testament the principle Greek adjective that means “dead,” nekros, is the object of either egeiro “to awaken” or anastasis, “to raise.

This raising from the dead makes Christianity an Easter faith, and so the Christian sees death in Easter light. Because Jesus is raised we too will be raised with him. This is a far different idea than immortality of the soul. Let us take a few moments to contrast them.

The great scholar Oscar Cullmann wrote an important book in 1956 called Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead in which he starkly contrasted these two views. Some of his critics have complained that he contrasted them too sharply. They may be right, but the book remains an important one for understanding the predominant Christian views.

Cullmann’s thesis is, and I quote, “The widely accepted idea of ‘The immortality of the soul’ is one of the greatest misunderstandings of Christianity. The concept of death and resurrection is anchored in the Christ-event, and hence is incompatible with the Greek belief in immortality.”

Cullmann deftly illustrates his point by looking at the death of Socrates in contrast to the death of Jesus. He writes:

The death of Socrates (as described by Plato) is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of sense. Death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies — this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form.

Cullmann then turns to the death of Jesus:

In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The Synoptic Evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report. Jesus begins ‘to tremble and be distressed’, writes Mark (14:33). ‘My soul is troubled, even to death.’ . . .

In Luke 12:50 it is completely impossible to explain away the ‘distress’ in the face of death, and also in view of the fact that Jesus is abandoned by God on the Cross [Mark 15:34], it is not possible to explain the Gethsemane scene except through this distress at the prospect of being abandoned by God, an abandonment which will be the work of Death, God’s great enemy.)Jesus is afraid, though not as a coward would be of the men who will kill Him, still less of the pain and grief which precede death. He is afraid in the face of death itself. Death for Him is not something divine : it is something dreadful. . . .

Here (in Jesus’ death) is nothing of the composure of Socrates, who met death peacefully as a friend. To be sure, Jesus already knows the task which has been given Him: to suffer death; and He has already spoken the words: ‘I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how distressed (or afraid) I am until it is accomplished’ (Luke 19:50). Now, when God’s enemy stands before Him, He cries to God, whose omnipotence He knows: ‘All things are possible with thee; let this cup pass from me’ (Mark 14:36). And when He concludes, ‘Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt’, this does not mean that at the last He, like Socrates, regards death as the friend, the liberator. No, He means only this: If this greatest of all terrors, death, must befall Me according to Thy will, then I submit to this horror. Jesus knows that in itself, because death is the enemy of God, to die means to be utterly forsaken. Therefore He cries to God; in face of this enemy of God He does not want to be alone. He wants to remain as closely tied to God as He has been throughout His whole earthly life. For whoever is in the hands of death is no longer in the hands of God, but in the hands of God’s enemy. (Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead)

Here Cullmann has eloquently expressed the New Testament view of death as the enemy of God. For another example we can turn to Paul, who calls death “the last enemy.” Because death in the New Testament is not merely the end of biological life, it is also a power that insinuates itself into our living of these days. I’ll say more about this now as we turn to the idea of eternal life.

4. Eternal Life.

The final concept I want to explore is eternal life. One of the problems we have as moderns in understanding the world of the New Testament is its conception of time. There is a persistent eschatology that sees events both in the present and the future. Theologians refer to this as “the already and the not yet.”

Advent is a good time to talk about this, for while we have too often boiled Advent down to merely preparing for celebrating the birth of Christ, it is also a season of anticipating Christ’s second coming.

We see this in the memorial acclamations of many Christian liturgies: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. ”

Eternal life is one of those concepts that sits in an eschatological frame, or to put it another way, has an “already but not yet” quality about it. In early Christian preaching Jesus is said to offer eternal life to his followers, not just post-mortem, but now before death. In John 5:24, for example, Jesus says. “The one who hears my word . . . has eternal life: he does not come unto judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

But this realized aspect of eternal life does not take away from the reality of death, and the promise is that eternal life in its fullness lies on the other side of the resurrection.

The words said at many graveside committal services speak of “the resurrection to eternal life.” For example, this one from the Book of Common Prayer:

“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty
God our brother or sister N.; and we commit his or her body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Notice the reality of death here expressed in the ashes and dust.

As I mentioned earlier, death in the New Testament is more than the final cessation of biological life, but also a power that can insinuate itself into our living. In some sense the realized eternal life in Christ is the opposite of the power of death, which Christ defeated by his cross and resurrection.

And eternal life is not an individualistic state. Eternal life is life with Christ and in Christ and by extension a life in community, in the church, which is his body. Many contemporary speculations about life after death are very individualistic, but the Christian hope is a corporate and communal hope, the hope to join the communion of saints.

There is a wonderful sermon by Jonathan Edwards, the second pastor of this church, on 1 Corinthians 13: 8-10, called Heaven is a World of Love in which Edwards explores the metaphor of the communion of saints as a heavenly choir.

How many of you know it? (No hands) I wish it were better known because it is a better example of the essential Edwards than the terrifying Enfield sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which everybody seems to know.

In Heaven is a World of Love Edwards begins by beautifully describing heaven and all its social arrangements, and in so doing puts forth a protest against the social arrangements that we know so well on earth; for in Edward’s heaven there is no pride or jealously, there is decency and wisdom, and an equal prosperity among all. He says, “Love (poured out from God) resides and reigns in every heart there.” And then he says: “Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together employed wholly in praising God.” So life after death is life in community.

5. What then can we say about life after death?

Having said all this, and leaving much more out in my brief time today, what can the Christian cling to in the theologies of life after death? I’ll sum up my main points:

  • Christians understand life after death through the lens of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
  • For the Christian, death is not an illusion or an escape, but a reality. Death is God’s enemy, yet God has overcome it through the cross and the raising of Jesus from the dead.
  • Life after death is not intrinsic to the human person, but a gift of God in the raising of Jesus Christ.
  • Life after death is bodily life with continuity of personality and integrity of personhood. It is not a part of you that lives the new life, but you.
  • Life after death is relational and communal, where we join in the communion of saints across all times and places.
  • Life after death is relational and imagined  as spatial, nearer or farther to God.
  • The purpose of life after death is for the praise of God. In the words of the Shorter Catechism, “The chief end of men and women is to love God and enjoy him forever.”
  • Both the living and the dead live between the times, in “the already but not yet” between the first and second coming, as we wait with the church on earth and the church in heaven for the Day when Christ comes in glory at the consummation of all things.

The basis for all this is, of course, faith in the God we know here and now, the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  In Don Hammond’s (the outgoing interim pastor) graceful ministry among us he has said again and again in a variety of ways something like this, “Whoever you are, whatever you have done, know that you are truly and forever loved.”

The Christian hope for this life and the next is rooted in this Gospel truth about the love of God, that God’s grace is greater than our sin, that God’s love is stronger than anything else in the world, even death, the last enemy, which God defeated on the cross.

There are numerous eloquent witnesses to this love in the New Testament, but none is better than this by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and I will close with it:

If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

I delivered this paper at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, MA on December 9, 2012, the Second Sunday of Advent.

“Anticipation”: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Sandy“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and glory.” (Luke 21:25-36)

In this passage the world is being shaken loose. It occurs to me that the upheavals described in apocalyptic texts like this one are very much like the language of creation only in reverse. In the first chapter of Genesis God calls things into being one after the other and pronounces them good. The sun and moon, the earth and waters, and all the living things are summoned into life by God’s creative Word. A world takes shape.

But in our Gospel today that world is shaken to its foundations. The secure, predictable world we have come to know and rely upon is threatened and can no longer be relied upon.  The primordial chaos that the original creation turned back, now threatens to break loose upon the world. Then at the very climax of the distress the Son of Man appears in power and glory.

Those early Christians who heard these words in the New Testament period no doubt heard them as reassuring words. Words that expressed the faith that although the world around them was up for grabs and insecure Christ was still in charge and coming soon.

Isaac Watts expresses the mood of this passage in this hymn:

“Deep are his counsels, and unknown,
But grace and truth support his throne;
Through gloomy clouds his ways surround,
Justice is their eternal ground.

In robes of judgement, lo! he comes,
Shakes the wide earth and cleaves the tombs;
Before him burns devouring fire;
the mountains melt, the seas retire.”

Although we may not share the world view of first century Christians let me suggest that their description of a world where everything is being shaken loose can speak to our own sense of insecurity in a world whose foundations are shaken.

How many of us have felt the secure world we knew was being shaken to its foundations?  Our life is a perpetual series of change. We move, we gain or lose a job, we marry,  have a child, someone we love gets sick or dies, a relationship ends, things change.  In truth we live among flux and change all the time. It is not always cataclysmic change, but change nevertheless.

Last spring I was coming back from my Princeton program and I stopped in Bergen County, New Jersey to visit the little town I grew up in. The small old  church looked very much the same as when I left over forty years ago, but much else had changed. The house I grew up with was torn down shortly after I left, but there were also new roads and developments, and as I drove around I got disoriented sometimes by the changes. The town that exists in my own mind and the town that exists now bear some resemblance, but are not quite the same town, just as I am not the eighteen year old who left that town so many years ago.

There was an obituary this week for someone who worked at The Busy Bee, a Pittsfield restaurant that I have heard about, but was long gone even when I got here in 1982, displaced by the misguided urban renewal of the nineteen sixties, the same plan that took away the much missed train station on Depot Street. Folksinger Dave Mallet sings a song that laments these losses:

“I  miss Main Street, where everyone knew you by name,
I miss Main Street, O how this little town change.
It’s all part of progress, changing the old, for the new.
I miss Main Street, What in the world is this world coming to?”

The point is that the security of the familiar is an illusion of time, and in time we eventually all come to know the feeling of a world that no longer feels secure.

Advent invites us to consider what there is of abiding security in the face of the shaking of the foundations. What can be counted on in a world where everything is shaken loose? Listen to the witness of Psalm 46:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

We need such a word of hope and reassurance. It is too easy sometimes for us  to become fearful and insecure in the face of the world’s changes. Things will change, of that we can be sure, although the changes are often as unpredictable as the results of the recent election.

There was a good slogan on the sign board at Zion’s Lutheran Church this past week. It said:  “Election results: God Reigns!” That is just right. isn’t it?

Advent reminds us that God comes to us not only at the end of time, but also from time to time, in gentle visitations that we may miss for our preoccupation with making a secure world apart from him.

The Advent word is not just a word of reassurance, but also a word of judgement, a word of challenge and an invitation to change. There are things about all of us that need shaking to the foundations, and surely things in our society that could well be shaken loose to make the world a more just and Godly place.

Our attempts to find security can be idols. There are idols of race and clan and class that tempt us to find security there. There can be a fearful clinging to a secure past which is not open to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.

A world where the solidities we have counted on are shaken loose offers us the opportunity for new life, new hope, and new faith in the God who comes to meet us even as the foundations are shaking.

The language of Advent is the language of anticipation for God’s new future. It is not a future we can make for ourselves. It may be something we can not readily see or even imagine. Through thick and thin, through trying times and good times,  faith waits and watches, alert for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

(I preached this sermon on December 3, 2000 at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

There is something beautiful and mysterious about Advent, but there is, at the same time, something unsettling, darkly anxious, almost threatening about it. The Advent mood is hard to put into words. It is often captured better by its hymns, which are often dark and brooding, sung in a minor key.

The scripture lessons for Advent set the tone with their continued prophetic calls for repentance, the dire warnings to “wait and watch,” the urgency of preparation for what is coming. We hear about those who are unprepared for God, tenants who are surprised by the sudden appearance of their long-absent landlord, sleepy bridesmaids waiting with their empty oil-lamps for the bridegroom to come.

In short, it’s an expectant season, a season of being primed and pumped, and there is a nervous edge to the waiting. Lauren Winner, in her charming book Girl Meets God says of Advent, “The waiting is meant to be a little anxious. I picture Jane Austen heroines. They never are quite sure that their intended will come.”

But the Advent mood undergoes a dramatic change today, on this Third Sunday of Advent. The lessons lose their menace and begin to dance a bit. Suddenly, the warnings turn into promises. We hear of deserts blossoming, the seas exulting, and the trees of the field clapping their hands, so that if there were one word to capture the new mood it would have to be joy!

Traditionally this Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for joy, and it is a day for rejoicing.

But perhaps some of you don’t feel like rejoicing. Perhaps your own mood is more like the rest of Advent, darker, more anxious, somewhat unsettled, for any number of reasons, not least of which might be the state of the world.

The news of the world is always a distressed word, a word full of sadness and anger, a word tinged with fear and heavy with regret. Perhaps that is why the darker mood of the Advent season speaks to us at times more authentically than its more joyous mood. Because the news of the world in which we live is so often itself such a dark unsettled word.

Whether we recognize it or not we come to church to hear a counter-Word. We come burdened by our occupations and pre-occupations, weighed down by both the demands of daily living and the larger societal and global worries that clamor for our attention. We often think we have things pretty much figured out, but there are nagging areas of uncertainty about our fate and future.

We come perhaps unsure how reliable even the words we hear in church might be. The New Yorker last week had a cartoon in which a man is shaking hands with a minister at the door of a church.  “Good sermon, Reverend,” he says, “but that God stuff is pretty far-fetched.”

Yes, it is. To the ears of the world the Good News often sounds like too-good-to be-true news. And a weekly hour’s religious interlude away from the world’s worries may not be enough to get us ready for rejoicing.

Nevertheless, on this Third Sunday in Advent we are admonished to rejoice. And in its wisdom the church has placed this rejoicing season in the midst of the heavier Advent mood, has placed today’s major key joyfulness amid the plaintive longing of the rest of the season, whose words are not words of hope and promise so much as words of warning, dire words that leave us judged.

And you can see the transition in today’s Old Testament lesson, which starts out in the usual Advent minor key in the first chapters.

But then listen to these words from Chapter three:
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;

“Shout, O Israel!
“Rejoice and exult with all your heart,

O daughter Jerusalem!

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you . . .

“The Lord your God is in your midst,

“He will rejoice over you with gladness

“He will renew you in his love;

“He will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.”

So how does the story get from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3, from judgment to mercy; from wrath to tender forgiveness; from fear to rejoicing, from death to life?

The answer is that the God who comes to be our judge is the same God who comes to be our Savior. This is what holds the waiting and rejoicing moods of Advent together.

God has taken the sentence that we deserve and has taken it upon himself. In Christ our judgment has been removed and the enemy has been turned away at the gates. We can rejoice as prisoners who have received a stay of execution. The Good News is like a governor’s pardon that arrives by the last post.

Such a reprieve is cause for rejoicing. Those who would have been given over to death by the word of the law are now brought to life by the life-giving word of the Gospel. God turns our death into life, our shame into praise. No wonder St. Paul commands us to rejoice!

But the rejoicing is not just on our part. We are not the only ones rejoicing this Advent. God rejoices along with those whose sentence he has overturned. Even God sings,

Because God is a lover and invites us to love him in return. The Christian story is above all a love story. It is not about something called religion, but it is all about the love God has for us. God wants us for himself. He wants us as lovers. This is the God who heals and saves, the God who gives meaning and hope to the downcast and new life to the dead. This is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father, the God worth waiting for, and working for, and praying to and rejoicing with.

This is the God that our ancestors have worshipped in this building since 1853 and in two previous meetinghouses on this site going back to 1764. This is the God we pray will bring many to himself in this place in the years to come, so that in this place 150 years from now people, will hear the Good News of his love.

And so we rejoice and sing.

The Reverend Dr. Richard L. Floyd.
A sermon given at First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on
December 14, 2003.