Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
Thinking about Dying? (Revd Neville Watson) 24.2.2008
I want today to preach a sermon on death and the afterlife. If you want a text it would be the words that we have heard and will increasingly hear in the near future – the words of committal heard in almost every funeral service:” Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”. These are the words that I expect one of you to say as the casket containing my body disappears from sight at the crematorium, and to say it in the knowledge that I believe it to be true.

Having said that, let me immediately go on to say that I do not believe in the current conceptions of the afterlife. I do not believe in some kind of heavenly afterlife where we will all meet again and life will continue much the same as we now experience it. I shudder every time I hear someone saying in so called comfort that a loved one is waiting for them. I have no problems with the idea of heaven and hell. Berdyaev sums it up for me when he says “Man has a moral right to move towards God or away from God, to move towards love or away from love.” Heaven and hell are the ultimate destinations of the choice. Judgement is self judgment. “This is the judgment: the light is in the world and men prefer the darkness to the light”. Men and women have a moral right to move towards or away from the light. I have no problems with the idea of heaven and hell. It is the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell that I take issue with. I find them mind boggling, fanciful and ludicrous.

And let me make it quite clear that I am not denying the right of others to hold different views to me about death and the afterlife. As Morris West so aptly puts it: “I have long accepted that faith is a matter of not knowing”. None of us knows what happens after death. I have no great desire to convince you of the veracity of my ideas on death and the afterlife. I seek only to share them with you. I believe, however, that they are consistent with the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth who I believe reveals to us the truth about life and offers us fullness of life, otherwise know as eternal life - reminding you, of course, as I have said dozens of times in this place, that eternal life does not begin at death. It is a quality of life that begins now and is unaffected by death. This idea of eternal life is linked with Jesus of Nazareth. “Whoever believes in the Son possesses eternal life.” Let me say it as clearly and as strongly as I can Eternal life, life in all its fullness, is a quality of life that is linked to Jesus of Nazareth and it is unaffected by death .

Kerry Packer did us a great service before he died. Packer was Australia’s richest man and one of the most damning criticisms of the Howard era was that they gave Packer a State Funeral. This was a man who literally gambled millions while the poor sat at his gate. This was the man who had a private brothel for his own and his associate’s pleasure. What was it he said that I find so significant? Packer at one point suffered a heart attack and was clinically dead for a period. He was resuscitated and recounted his near death experience. “The good news is that there is no hell. The bad news is that there is no heaven. There is simply nothing.” I remember to this day my immediate reaction: “Well what did you expect?” and I stand by these words today. I do not judge Packer. I see in him too much of myself. All I am saying is that eternal life is linked with Jesus of Nazareth, is unaffected by death, and it stands in stark contradiction to life as we know it today – so much so that Jesus says it is like being born again.

My starting point then is that the Christian concept of death and the afterlife is very different to the cultural concepts of our day that either deny life after death or say that we automatically move to some kind of heaven where life goes on in much the same manner. Neither of these views constitute the Christian faith, or, to be more accurate, my understanding of the Christian faith

The Aim of this Sermon

Last week I heard an address by Waleed Aly in which he maintained that one of the problems that the Archbishop of Canterbury ran into with his remarks on Sharia law is that reporters are now so religiously illiterate that they didn’t understand what the Archbishop was talking about. This is true I fear of our generation as a whole, and people generally have no idea of the Christian concept of death. A friend of mine in Melbourne is writing a book on the Christian faith so that sometime in the future when the current atheism has run its course, someone may pick up his book and say “So that’s what the Christian faith is all about”.

Let me make it clear that I do not know what happens after death, and I am looking forward to the event with a degree of excitement – not as much as St Paul but nevertheless with a degree of excitement. But we do not know what happens after death and unless we recognise this, we haven’t faced up to death. I think I see the lights of home in the dark valley into which I must descend but they may be an illusion. I do not know what happens when we die. What I want to do is to express what I understand the Christian faith to say about death

Death has always fascinated humankind. It is the moment when time stands still and when we are faced with the ultimate questions of life. It raises the question of the meaning and purpose of life. Our ancestors seemed almost obsessed by it – Charles Dickens, with his death bed scenes, and hymn writers with countless hymns about the fires of hell and the joy of heaven. Today it is very different. We avoid the subject – the fact that each of us is going to die. The pendulum has swung away from an obsession with death to an avoidance of the fact that death is the horizon of every human and death is the one thing of which we can be certain – a fact that we were reminded of on Ash Wednesday as ashes were placed on our forehead with the words “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

During the week I picked up a copy of Rae Lindsay’s last book, and it fell open at a page on which these words were written: ”The threat of death – either your own or that of a loved one – is likely to lead to an existential crisis”. Little did she know that it would be her death that would create an existential crisis for many of us. The crisis is centred on the fact we feel we have never fully lived. What makes us struggle so desperately against the threat of becoming nothing is our failure to become anything. What made Jesus so distinctive was his aliveness. As we say in our communion service “He discerned the Spirit of life in the everyday”. The text which for me is the most sacred in the scriptures is “I have come that you might have life and have it in all its fullness.” The problem with our world today is that it is more dead than alive. The Christian faith really is a matter of life and death, here and now, and hereafter.

Over the centuries there have been many attempts to come to grips with the reality of death.

(1) Greeks, like Plato, spoke in terms of “the immortality of the soul” – as if there was a part of us that does not undergo death. In its extreme form the body is seen as a prison house of the soul and at death the soul is released. The idea of the immortality of the soul is probably the dominant view today and is the reason for the minimisation of the importance of death in our times. It is not the Christian view. The Christian view is that everything that we do and experience in the body is of immense significance. Here and now is the arena of life, not some ethereal life occupied by a so called soul.

(2) At the other end of the spectrum in the history of our thinking about death are the ideas of philosophers like Martin Heidegger. Death is the end of our existence. Life is finite and the fact of death is extremely important. “The contemplation of death is the key to authentic existence”. Death is the end of experience. Death is the end. This also is not the Christian view but it is far closer to it than the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul.

In between these two ends of the continuum there are many other approaches to death

(3) There is what can be called the biological or evolutionary view of death. Birth, decay and death constitute life. Death is a segment of life. Like everything else, we live and die and our aim in life is to perpetuate life before it ends. We are born to reproduce. Our purpose in life is fulfilled when we pass on biological life.

Such a view does not particularly impress me. I have seen too many bodies in Iraq to believe in “que sera, sera” – whatever will be will be. For me, meaning and purpose in life means far more than a one night stand in which seed is impregnated by sperm.

(4) There is also what I refer to as the contemporary cultural view of death. “He left the world a better place” is how it is usually expressed. A person whose life has been filled with value, whose life has been decent, law abiding and culturally acceptable sleeps serenely in death. Death then is the culmination of a value filled life. It is a typical post modern approach: keep open all possibilities and commit yourself to none. There is no attempt to define what is meant by “a better world” and funeral services consist of an assessment of the person’s life in terms of what the person achieved in his or her life. For me, that is an inadequate understanding of life and death and the reason why I have specifically requested that there be no eulogies on the occasion of my death. I don’t want my life to be identified with contemporary and cultural views of life. I want but a simple statement of the Christian concept of death.

The Christian Concept of Death

What then is this Christian concept of death which is so very different to the Greek the philosophical the biological and the cultural views of death I have just mentioned?

The Christian view of death starts with the Jewish understanding of a “living God” who is active within and identified with creation – God as the ground of our being. To this we add the conviction of a “loving God” revealed and attested to by Jesus of Nazareth who constitutes the human response to this “living and loving God.” Jesus message is in one sense quite simple: whatever value or worth our human existence may have does not reside in ourselves. It resides in our relationship with God, and our relationship with others. Relationship is the name of the game. This is, of course, the nature of religion. Express it how you will, define God as you like, religion is about relating to God.

And within the panoply of religions, including the religion of the rampant atheism that is so assertive today, lies the Christian religion: the assertion that the nature of God and our relationship to God and to our fellows was revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. What was revealed in Jesus of Nazareth? It was that the way we are to relate to God and neighbour is that of love. The Christian scriptures are full of it. “The first commandment is that you love the Lord your God. The second is that you shall love your neighbour as yourself” “God is love and he who loves is born of God and knows God.” I once asked on of Australia’s foremost theologians the question “What does it mean to love God?” He replied “How about this for starters? Let yourself be loved by God.” The Christian faith is about relating to God in love. Let’s be very clear about this. If you find everything else I say confusing remember these words “ The Christian faith is about relating to God – here and hereafter.”

How do we relate to God?

The key question then becomes “How do we relate to God?” It is a difficult question to answer because people relate to God in different ways. For some, nature represents the living touch of God. Some relate to God in the garden, some relate to God on a storm swept beach, some as the hold their first born child for the first times and some in the grief of the death of a loved one. But the trusted, the authorised, the most effective way of relating with God is the practice of prayer – and by prayer I do not mean such things as praying for rain. I am referring to what is known as contemplative prayer where in the silence we let God impact upon us. We desperately need to recover prayer from its banality, which is for me is epitomised in praying for rain. I find the idea of God turning on and off the taps of heavens quite ludicrous. It is a prostitution of prayer. Prayer is not a way of changing God’s mind on the weather. Prayer is about allowing ourselves to be loved, and loving our fellows who are equally loved by God and it goes to the heart of the Christian faith. It is about relating to the God who is love.

What has all this to do with death?

Let me restate the argument so far before making a startling assertion. The Christian faith is about relating to God and our fellows in love. Contemplative prayer is a way of relating to God. And here is a startling statement that sum it up for me – in the words of James Findlay. “Contemplative prayer is practising what it is like to be dead”. I find that a striking statement. “Contemplative prayer is practising what it is like to be dead”. I am not suggesting that contemplative prayer is the only way of establishing developing and enjoying our relationship with God. What I am saying is that the crucial factor in life is our relationship with God and that this is of eternal significance. Eternal life is the life that God imparts to us in love and is in no way limited by time. It is unaffected by death. “There is nothing in life or death, nothing in all creation, that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Christian faith is about relationships. Our relationship with God is of eternal significance. It is unaffected by death. As John puts it in his gospel: “This is eternal life to know God and Jesus Christ”. It is significant of course that the bible uses the word “to know” in reference to sexual intercourse, when the “two become one”. What John is talking about is relationship at the deepest level, becoming one with God. John’s gospel also speaks of it as abiding in Christ. “Abide in me as I abide in the Father” - relating in depth to God, the ground of our being, the life force within and among us seeking to bring fullness of life to us and our world.

Eternal life is not something that commences at death. It is a relationship with God, the ground of our being, which is established here and now and is unaffected by death. That is the meaning and significance of the resurrection. The relationship we enjoy with God, eternal life so called, is unaffected by death.

How then to sum up what I have been trying to say this morning. The words I gave to the young people to learn do it adequately. “God is love, and love is stronger than death”. God’s being is love and as we lay hold of that love, as we allow ourselves to be loved by God, so we lay hold of eternal life, a fullness of life that is not limited by the process of time. This is the good news of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the framework of the Christian faith. Death in scriptural terms is not just a matter of fact. It is a denial of life. The importance of our relationship to God and to our fellows and to our self is highlighted by death. These are the things of ultimate worth, not power, privilege and possessions. Death is important not as the end of power, privilege and possessions but insofar as it is the end of the Gods we have made of them.

How then should we approach death? It depends on what you worship – what you attribute worth to. If it is power, privilege and possessions then death constitutes the end of life. If your worship is the God of love who abides within us and to whom we relate in a myriad of ways we have nothing to fear. The quality of life we know as eternal life, the life that is linked to Jesus of Nazareth, is unaffected by death. Contemplative prayer is practising what it is like to be dead. God is love and love is stronger than death

I have been with many people when they are breathing their last but the one who remains so strongly in my memory was dear Joyce Oldmeadow. She was very low and signalled for me to bend close to her and very quietly she said “Prove it I cannot, deserve it I do not and if it be folly then so be it!” I knew exactly what she meant. They were words from Morris West’s book “From the Ridge” which we had reflected upon.

That is how I would like to die. Not knowing, but confident in the God of life whose love is unaffected by death.

Revd Neville Watson
24 February, 2008

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands