March 14: To Reach Eternity

WELCOME to this post for Sunday, March 14, at Digby Baptist Church, Nova Scotia, Canada. Today, we are almost concluding our series: ‘Why Church?’ Read the whole service plan in the Bulletin here.

PRAYER of Approach: Saviour of all, we sing the songs of praise and adoration, we recite the scriptures that rejoice in Your presence. Now, test our motivation, reveal our desires, purify our goals in this hour. We come, worshipping for one single hour out of 168 this week. Show us again a glorious glimpse of Your Kindom. Inspire our hopes with things eternal. Make the lessons of the afterlife practical for this life now! Whenever our reasons for being here are weak or wrong, challenge us to rediscover worship of You, rediscover our Christian purpose, and rediscover what is possible among us, the Church, in Your name, Jesus. Teach us to pray. Our Father…  AMEN.

(1 Corinthians 15:35-58; Luke 16:19-31) J G White ~ 11 am, Sun, March 14, 2021, UBC Digby

I was in my late twenties before I heard, at a funeral, a sermon that preached this: the dead are not going to heaven, they are going to be resurrected, and live on the New Earth (under the New Heavens). I was a Baptist minister myself, pastor of three Churches, at this time. And this sermon was from a Johovah’s Witness funeral service!

At least they got that right. 

And it is right, though our pop culture, and even pop Christianity, keeps saying “when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.” 

I know, I know, it’s complicated. Maybe we get to spend some time, or eons, in heaven with Jesus, before the final Day, and our resurrection, to live on the New Earth. 

Why are people in the Christian Church? One last answer today: To Reach Eternity, the afterlife, heaven (whatever God gives us that we are calling heaven). Do many people in our province look to Christianity for answers to the life-after-death questions? And do we here have clear answers for them? Are we knowledgeable? Are we at peace with the answers? Are we articulate, good communicators?

Once more we looked to the story of Jesus from the evangelist named Luke. Dr. Luke today tells us Jesus’ very interesting parable of the rich man, unnamed, and the poor man, Lazarus. As some have said, it is a double-edged parable. First, there’s the reversal, so common in Luke, of the rich and the poor. Father Abraham says to the formerly rich fellow: Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. (L 16:25) 

Second, is the word of warning about, well, warnings. ‘Warn my brothers!’ pleads the man in flames. Abraham says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (L16:31) How very poignant this is to us now, as we read these words from the lips of Jesus. Jesus who has come back from the dead, resurrected, for the whole world.

I agree with the Bible scholars who do not see in this parable of Jesus a list of details that explain what heaven and hell are, and how they relate to each other. It is a parable to warn, once again, about the riches we store up for ourselves in this life. And it makes us think about how we get warned, or may want to warn others. 

There might be three things, at least, that people today still want to sort out about the afterlife. (1) What it will be like? (2) Is there more than one option after death? And (3) how to get there – to the best place, assuming there is one. Folks look for clues about this everywhere. From everyday experience. From extraordinary and miraculous experiences (such as near death experiences). From science (research) and philosophy (thinking). From spiritual authorities (revealed truth). And maybe the arts (creative and inspiring things).

Within Christianity, we make strong use of the Bible: revealed truth, a spiritual authority. This snippet – Jesus’ parable of the rich and the poor man dying – we ponder what it shows us about the afterlife? We don’t usually imagine going down to sit by Father Abraham, do we? Unless we sing something like “Rocka my soul in the bosom of Abraham / Oh, rocka my soul!” A study of the Bible and the afterlife will show some progress, some evolution through time of how the Hebrews thought of it all. What they understood kept changing. 

Another rich snippet of scripture today was that piece from 1 Corinthians 15, the Resurrection Chapter. I had us hear a bit that – no surprise here – has traditionally been read at Christian funerals. All about the natural body, and the spiritual body. Part of a human soul, a complete person, is the body. I think the one and only time we acknowledge this with our words is when we speak of ‘souls lost at sea.’ 

So Paul goes on at some length here, as we heard, about the natural body and the spiritual body. Like a seed and the plant that grows from the seed: it’s great imagery. This was all written down in Greek, a couple thousand years ago, and is a challenge to put into English words today. The Jerusalem Bible translation does a good job here. Such as with verse 44. If the soul has its own embodiment, so does the spirit have its own embodiment. 

Perhaps my own daydreaming, from time to time, of me in the afterlife being a disembodied spirit, thinner than a ghost, is not very biblical. Whether we understand or agree with every teaching in the Bible, it is worth knowing when we are with it and when we are not. 

Now then, let’s take a little quiz. Five questions, multiple choice. The AFTERLIFE Bible QUIZ.

  1. To get to heaven, individuals must do this:
    1. Stop sinning.
    2. Have faith in the grace of God, thru Jesus.
    3. Be worthy enough to get in.
    4. Be good enough to get in. 
  2. Jesus taught this:
    1. Those who know God & Jesus get eternal life
    2. Those who believe the Son of God get e. l. 
    3. Those who eat Jesus’ body & blood get e. l.
    4. All of the above.
  3. The final goal of a Christian after death is:
    1. Life in heaven.
    2. Death in hell.
    3. Burial in the earth.
    4. Life on a new earth.
  4. The New Testament does not teach this:
    1. Resurrection requires burial, not cremation.
    2. Resurrection from death came thru a human.
    3. Our resurrection happens when Jesus returns.
    4. Resurrection happens to the good & the evil.
  5. Jesus did not teach which of the following:
    1. There is no marriage in the eternal Kingdom.
    2. There is no crying in the eternal Kingdom.
    3. There is no dying in the eternal Kingdom.
    4. There is no body in the eternal Kingdom.

I could have worked on another five questions, on things like, the Bible does not teach that a human soul is immortal, or, what we are judged on in the final judgment. But this was enough, enough to illustrate that what we sometimes say about scripture and Christian teaching is occasionally askew and not really biblical. 

We are in another time of reformation in Christianity. There are big changes in our religion across the world, in our lifetimes. The ways we shift in our thinking with the scriptures and our 2000 years of tradition are important. 

It is important that we pay attention to what we know, and what we are sharing with the world around us. And if we change our minds about some things, or think we have learned something new about God and us and the afterlife, we admit it is new. That we changed our mind. That we learned a new lesson. We are always to be learning. And even the big groups of Christianity globally can be learning and changing together. Does not the Holy Spirit guide us? To be guided means we are moving, going somewhere. 

So, let us pay close attention to where we get our answers. How we built our world-view, our own philosophy of life after death. It is sometimes in our conversations: at a Bible Study, in the Funeral Parlour, in a cemetery. Let’s keep up our conversations with the Bible. And with our Saviour – Christ crucified, who is ALIVE. He promised the Spirit, the Advocate, to be with us and continue His teaching.

So, we have got to the end of my sermon series. Why Church? Why the Christian Church? 

To Study & Learn
To Save & Be Saved
To Obey
For Healing & Miracles
For Spiritual Experiences
To Do Good & Be Good
To Explain Life & Death
To Reach Eternity

I ask again, why are you here, in the pews? Reading or watching the sermon at home? Why still a member in good standing, perhaps? What reasons are most important?

In the bulletin you see a chart, of sorts, with six other categories. These are basic streams within our Faith. These Six Traditions in Christianity come right out of the life of Jesus, our Master and Saviour:

Holiness: the virtuous life
Charismatic: the Spirit-empowered life
Contemplative: the prayer-filled life
Social Justice: the compassionate life
Evangelical: the Word-centered life
Incarnational: the sacramental life

Look at the chart printed in the bulletin; estimate where you are in each area on the wheel spokes. Put a mark at those points, then connect the dots from spoke to spoke to form a ring around the hub. 

What are your strengths, as a spiritual being? What are your reasons for being in a church, a local spiritual community? What are not big parts of your life?

Consider also those who are not worshippers, not churchgoers. Watch for how they still may be following Jesus. How they pray or study or worship or contemplate or serve sacrificially. How is it Christ is sometimes using them on His team, with us. 

And how shall He take them, with us, into Eternity?

PRAYER after the Sermon: Eternal and everlasting God, the things we want and hope for in the afterlife fill our imaginations. You have inspired us, by Your Word, yes. We also have the theories of the centuries to draw upon. Be our Teacher still, as time marches on. Arise, O Holy Spirit, among us, when we face a loss, when we remember the saints and sinners who are gone, when we come to our own death. In the name of Jesus, who conquered the grave, give us grace to have faith when we do not have all the answers. AMEN.

QUIZ Answer Key

  1. To get to heaven, individuals must do this: b. Have faith in the grace of God, thru Jesus. (Eph 2:8)
  2. Jesus taught this: d. All of the above. (John 17:3; John 3:36; John 6:54)
  3. The final goal of a Christian after death is: d. Life on a new earth. (2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1)
  4. The New Testament does not teach this: a. Resurrection requires burial, not cremation. (1 Cor 15:53)
  5. Jesus did not teach which of the following: d. There is no body in the afterlife. (Rom 8:23; 1 Cor 15:44)

EsCape Split

Psalm 146; Luke 16:19-31)
Sun, Sept 25, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White


Robert Frost: The Road Less Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

We face many forks in the road, from day to day. And the destination changes because of the way. Today we heard another parable of Jesus. A story of two people who did not seem to have many choices. But watch closely for the way of escape.
The story of the Rich Man, unnamed, and Lazarus, the poor man. Is the parable about riches and poverty? Jesus says much about money and the misuse thereof. As we read through Luke’s Gospel, the stories come one after another about: counting the cost before starting a building project, a lost coin that gets found, a prodigal son who wastes his inheritance, a dishonest manager who acts shrewdly when he gets fired. Today, from chapter sixteen, Jesus tells this parable about a tremendously rich man and a desperately poor man. They both die, and things are quite reversed for them in the afterlife.
When hiking the Cape Split trail the destination is the Cape. The top of the rocky cliffs, overlooking the ocean. Overlooking another piece of land separated by a tremendous gorge or crevasse. Beyond that there is another island of rock separated by a dramatic gap, a split in the North Mountain. And beyond that more rocky outcroppings down on the beach where the raging tides sweep by and roar for much of the day, every day and night.
It is named Cape Split for the great splits in the magnificent peninsula of stone. Standing on top, at the end of the trail, one looks out across a great gulf that is fixed between your sod, and the turf of a large rock pinnacle that is inhabited only by grasses and gulls. There is no possible way for a person to cross to the other side, across that split.
We are told there is a great gap in our world, a great gap between the rich and the poor. Do you see it? How can we escape this split?
I heard Jean Vanier interviewed again, for the radio program Ideas. I heard him tell his anecdote of seeing the deep divide between rich and poor on a visit to Chile, years ago. Vanier speaks of “crossing the road.” So, he got to Chile. His driver picked him up at the airport to go to Santiago. The driver, like many a taxi drive, is a natural tour guide. he said, as they went down the road, “on the left, all the slum areas. On the right, all the houses of rich people, protected by police and military.” He said, “Nobody crosses the road. Everybody is frightened. The rich are frightened, the poor are frightened; everybody is frightened.” (video: “Become Weaker,” The Work of the People)
The gap is great. And if we think we are someone in the middle, our Master asks us to see who we really side with. Who we want to be, and be with.
Reading Jesus’ story, we see the rich man, the poor man named Lazarus, Father Abraham, and the five brothers of the rich man, mentioned at the end. Where do you fit in the story? Are you the poor man? No, no, not quite so desperate as that. Are you the unnamed rich man? No, of course not, we say! So, do we tend to side with those in need, or those who are prosperous? What would Jesus do? We hear these parables Jesus told; what did Jesus do?
Or are we like the five brothers of the rich man? Still alive, and needing to be warned so they don’t end up like their tortured brother in the flames of Hades. It may be that our God is still getting through to us, while we seek riches instead of sharing, in this world of 7 billion humans. While we seek comfort and security – and luxury – within this creation, a planet that is groaning with the pains of pollution and consumption and extinction. While we seek self-help and self-sufficiency in a world where we need a Saviour for our souls and bodies.
Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed.
Is the parable about eternal geography?
Jesus’ parable paints the dramatic picture of a man burning in hell’s flames, looking away and seeing another man, peacefully in the company of the great ancestor Abraham. The man in Hades even gets to talk, across the chasm, with Father Abraham. But there is no way to cross the gap.
Many a hearer of Jesus’ story has wondered what details we can glean about the afterlife here. Is there really fire burning in Hell? Can you glimpse heaven from those flames? Can those in everlasting bliss look down and see those who are being eternally tormented? Or is Lazarus waiting with Abraham for the final resurrection, and Paradise actually comes later?
It is easy to have our own ideas about all this. Me, for instance, I prefer to think that when we enter heaven by God’s grace, we won’t be troubled with being able to look down upon the troubles of earth, not to mention Hades.
It’s like hiking Cape Split last week: it was foggy all day. From the beach at the base of the great cliffs and craggy rocks, we could just see the top enshrouded with fog. Once we got around to the top of those ___ m cliffs, we could not see down to the beach at all. Could barely see the flat pinnacle of stone right in front of us, separated by a great gap.
One thing I would suggest. Jesus told this vivid parable within the language and understanding of His hearers. We Christians today don’t talk about dying and going to be with Father Abraham, but that is how the ancient Jews pictured what could happen at death. And perhaps it was easier for them, 2000 years ago, to think of all who had died being rather close together – some suffering terribly, and some at peace – separated by a great gulf.
The Jewish understanding of what happens after death is not a simple story. The whole Old Testament saga gives a variety of teachings, and their understanding evolves through the ages. By the time we get to Jesus, there clearly were disagreements among Jews about the afterlife.
It seems clear that our Master is telling, here, that the next life is connected to how we live this life. In this instance, it is related to luxurious rich living, and deadly poverty. So perhaps the point of the parable is not to explain what happens when we die, but what our living now can be like.
I have five brothers… warn them!
So, is the parable about warnings? Heeding warnings and warning others? Yes.
‘A word to the wise is sufficient,’ my father would often say, when we kids were young. Yet, so often, we are not wise, and need to be told again and again. Do you heed every warning you are given?
When hiking to Cape Split there are signs posted along the way. DANGER. Eroding, unstable cliffs. Stay on the trail. Keep pets on leash. Safety is your responsibility. And we locals hear in the news, from year to year, of those who get into trouble on the cliffs and the beach below. A few rescue operations happen each year, a occasionally the sad recovery of a body. And the new signs on this trail will no more prevent accidents and foolhardiness than the signs and guards at Peggy’s Cove. Another warning? Another sign? Put up a fence? There can only be so many warnings.
And so it was for the rich man burning up in Jesus’ story. When he cannot be helped, even with a drop of water to ease his torment, he pleads for his living brothers to be warned.
What does Father Abraham say? They’ve got Moses and the Prophets. What does that mean? They have the Scriptures. They already have the warnings.
‘But you go and warn them… please!’
No, says Abraham, even if someone rose up from the grave, that would not convince people.
We know all about what happens to our Jesus who was telling this story. The power and poignancy of this ‘punch line’ was not lost when Luke wrote this whole thing down later. In real life, not just in a story, Jesus comes back to life from the grave. And sure enough, even He, risen from the dead, is not believed by everyone.
Might it be that we get confirmation from Jesus that we are following Him? And we are assured of our walk with Him when we are inspired to do as God does. A life of following the way described in Psalm 146. The Eternal frees those who are imprisoned; makes the blind see; lifts up those whose backs are bend in labour; cherishes those who do what is right; looks after those who journey; takes care of the orphan and the widow. This became Jesus’ ministry… and it becomes ours too.
Escape the split between rich and poor in this life.
Escape the terrible justice of the afterlife: the punishments from which Christ can save us.
Escape these both by heeding the warnings of scripture, and of Jesus Himself, who is alive and well after death and destruction. Alleluia! Amen.

The Hardest Parable

(1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13)

Sun, Sept 18, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Only our third week on Parables of Jesus in Luke, and we get to what Fr. Richard Capon called ‘The Hardest Parable.’  Jesus’ story of the dishonest manager.  I have spent a week meandering through this parable, and the comments that follow it, here in Luke 16.  I have not been able to sort it out. Jesus confuses me!

Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves.

If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?

You cannot serve both God and money.

After a while I thought of having a dialogue sermon with you… a conversation, questions and answers.  But I realized that was cheating, taking the lazy route.  It would probably be better for me to offer a dialogue sermon some week when I feel I have lots to say, have lots I know, and plenty of answers.  

After a 9 km hike yesterday – along rugged seashore and amid peaceful woods, one acquaintance who met me at the Point Prim lighthouse asked if my sermon today would be about wandering long in the woods and finding one’s way to The Lighthouse? No.

So I have wandered thru the commentaries of many a scholar, explaining this parable.  A few perspectives on the story are appealing.  Yet I still feel unsure which path I want to take, what destination I prefer, what the Spirit is saying to the Churches today with this bit of the Word.  

It has also been a heavy week of pastoral care and concern for me.  Been on the phone a lot with some folks in various messes that are a tangle to sort out.  Not to mention the usual illnesses and losses that are besetting some of our people right now.  Blazing a trail through the woods is ‘a walk in the park’ compared with finding a good path in our lives.  And at least as tricky as this hardest of Jesus’ parables.

What is the point of the parable? We may well ask.  Is the ‘moral’ one of the four or five endings here, in Luke 16?  In this Jesus story, is the point: 1 be more shrewd in your dealings?  Or, 2 make friends of unscrupulous accountants.  Or, 3 be faithful with a little and you can be faithful with a lot.  Or, 4 you can’t serve God and riches.  

There are many lessons here from Jesus, but what comes from the parable itself?  

Yesterday, twenty people starting out to walk from the Point Prim lighthouse could have each asked, ‘why am I setting out on this hike?’  There would be many answers.  None of them started the journey thinking it would be pointless.  

In our day to day lives, there are many times to ask: Why did this happen to me?  To them?  What is the point of this problem that came along?  Or of this opportunity that I took?  Or the decision I made back there?  

If Jesus’ little stories get people wondering, ‘what is the point,’ so He will also come alongside us when we ask about our own life journey.  And when we cannot see the purpose of a certain chapter in life, Christ may speak to us and say, as the people in Jeremiah’s day were told,  For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (J 29:11)

The parable of the dishonest manager.  Hmmm…

Who is the good guy in the story? Who is the bad guy?  The rich man – is he good and his manager bad?  Or is the sneaky, shrewd manager the good guy?  Maybe even the debtors and the good folks in the parable?

Robert Capon’s comments on this Jesus’ parable are remarkable.  He goes so far to suggest that this sneaky steward, who gives the debtors big breaks on the bills they owe, is a Christ figure in the story.  It is a parable of grace, for the manager sort-of dies and rises from the dead – he is fired, but then is praised.  In his ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ he raises others with him – the debtors are blessed.  And the manager is a crook, like Jesus, who did not follow all the rules and died for it.  

Well, who am I to declare this the best interpretation of Luke 16:1-10?  But it would be nice to know… who is a good guy in this parable, and who is bad?

So too in our personal lives.  In many circumstances we put a lot of energy into: Who is to blame?  Who really did what?  Why did he or she do what was done?  What punishment and result?  

I have wondered a lot this past week about two couples I know who are split up and separated at this moment – in very different ways.  In both of the two situations there have been ongoing problems.  The problems are complex.  The stories are long and convoluted.  The upset now is tremendous for these people.  And the future quite uncertain in both cases.  My heart is so concerned for each of these four people.

Who did what?  Where do we pin the blame?  Do we pick sides, and if we don’t how do we bless both?   

Perhaps the words of the apostle Paul to Timothy come into play here.  We let go of judgments and do our best for each person.  Because: God desires that everyone be saved and come to know the truth.  The one to blame God wants to save.  The one who was harmed God wants to save.  The innocent bystanders and the bad betrayers… sometimes there is a bit of both in everyone.  

The parable of the shrewd steward… What is our response to the story?  What do we do now?  Jesus has told us the parable.  Now what?  Is the ball in our court?  And how do we play along now?  

One of the Bible scholars I read talked about this story getting at the urgency of discipleship.  I guess this is about the urgency of having one’s mismanagement of life suddenly found out – and we had better do something about it, quick!  I don’t know.  That idea does not inspire me very much.

How do we respond to our story?  To the real life story around us?  What do I say?  What do I do?  What do I choose?  How do I deal with this?

Changes comes along for us like the thickening plot of a novel.  We turn the page, and must face a new challenge.  Last week, Myra’s mother Edith died, after a time of illness.  Myra and family must enter this new chapter, as they give thanks for their mother and express their sadness.  

Last week, Carolyn’s mother Avis got the call to move from her apartment into Tideview Terrace.   Another big transition for a senior.  Avis seems to have handled it with grace and such a positive attitude.  

Jesus told parables to challenge people to respond.  

And the parable of the dishonest manager gets me wondering… Can we go back and try again?  Figure out another way?  When the steward is caught in his mismanagement, he thinks quickly on his feet, and does something to change the course of his life.  As one Bible study book asked, when he cut people’s bills by 50% or 20%, was he simply giving up his own commission?  Or was he keeping secret from the debtors his being fired by his boss?  Again, I wish some wise book would just come out and tell me what this parable of Jesus means! 🙂

I will simply have to keep going back to Luke 16 for the rest of my life.  Listen to Jesus repeat this story again and again.  Sit with the Holy Spirit, and with my own experience.  And wonder.  

So it is in my life and yours.  We discover, by the grace of Jesus, ways we can go back and revisit, pray, counsel, cope, forgive, and so forth.  The troublesome chapters, the strange stories from our lives… Jesus can go back in time with us and reach into them.  There can be a second chance.  And this blesses our present, and our future days.  

Maybe the ‘hardest parable’ is the story of your life or my life.  

Because we actually live it!  It is not just a tale told to guide us.

Life is complicated; the path is not always clear before us.

Who is right and who is wrong, in all the scenarios of our living?  This ain’t clear…  to us.

What is the meaning of our life story?  

Does it have a happy ending?

If Christ has anything to do with it, He means it for good.  Your life and mine.  And what was failure He can redeem and create success.  

Here is a little story, a parable, by an old preacher, long gone.  A story about an old-fashioned man named Safed, and his wife, Ketura…  (Barton, pp. 139-141)