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First Congregational Church
THE QUESTION OF CONTINUANCE
Job 144:14. "If a man die, shall he live again?"
| This is the day when
Christians of every kind and clime assemble in their places of worship
to think upon the question of immortality of the soul, particularly as
it is evidenced by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Before this off-the-trail sermon comes to a close, I will deal with the
perennial question of the immortality of the soul, seriously and in
orthodox terms. But since you have taken the strange step of
formally asking a centarian to preach from a wheel chair in the chancel
of a Gothic cathedral, I am going to deliver an unorthodox discourse - I
am first going to talk about ghosts, and I call to mind the comment of
that noted English intellectual, G. K. Chesterton. When asked if
he believed in ghosts, he said, "No. But I am afraid of
them." And I remind you that, according to Luke, when Jesus
appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, "they were
terrified, supposing that they had seen a ghost." (Phantasma
is the Greek word.) And lest you turn up your intellectual noses
at the superstition of believing in Ghosts, let me remind you that every
major American university has a department of psychic research, Harvard
being the most prestigious, and Duke having done the pioneer work.
Some years ago, Dr. Thelma Moss led her U.C.L.A. team to Messiah to
investigate a manifestation of ectoplasm.
The importance of the ghost in an Easter sermon is that the ghost is evidence of a low-grade immortality: the ghost isn't an angel and he/she isn't in heaven. In my own thinking, I do not use the term "ghost." I prefer the word "revenant," which is a French term meaning "one who returns." A ghost, therefore, is a human personality who has been somewhere and has come back to Earth for a time. The place where the "returner" has been is called "limbo," which simply means a borderland between heaven and earth. A learned Roman Catholic priest recently told me that as a result of the Great Council of Vatican II, the Church no longer uses the term "limbo." I still employ it to designate a state in which certain stubborn souls, who cling to Earth despite God's wish that they go on to a higher state. (God gives us the power of choice, remember; we are free moral agents. Even after mortal physical death, we can cling to Earth, and live in limbo, which I elect to call the "Half World"). To keep this complex homily as simple as possible, I am not dealing with the dark aspect of immortality we call Hell.
In a recent Church of Messiah Retreat, I lectured on Hell, and pointed out that we Congregationalists, preachers and lay people alike, never talk about Hell. In the Gospels, Jesus mentions it 68 times, and the best remembered and ghost-ridden sermon ever preached from an American pulpit was delivered by that towering Congregationalist, Jonathan Edwards in 1745, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," but I digress. I am talking about revenants - returners- and I have never read of anyone who has come back from Hell to tell us what it was like. Dante's "Inferno" is too complex to deal with here.
I return to my theme of visits from dwellers in the Limbo which I call the Half-World. And I do so with a word of explanation. My first experience of a world of returners came in a little church in Beverly, Massachusetts 86 years ago, when as a teen-ager. I had an aural evidence of a returner in a midnight experience. I cannot compress all that in a section of a sermon. I've got to get back to an orthodox Easter sermon, so I choose one final episode of returning. I am certain that there are those of you how have seen or heard a ghost, but it is usually shadowy or barely audible. That is because the returner is of limited personal strength.
But suppose we had a perfect and powerful returner like Jesus of Nazareth - could not He return wholly, and not as a feeble voice or a fleeting shadow? The Bible tells us that He could. Listen to the Gospel of Luke:
Luke 24:36-40: "And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. but they were terrified and afrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he aid unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do questions arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he showed his hands and his feet."
And in John's Gospel [John 20:24-29], Jesus lets doubting Thomas put his fingers in the wounds. The perfect person could perfectly return.
Now, then, to a more traditional treatment of the question of continuance. I believe in the continuance of life after death because I look at the totality of reality with the eye of faith, not the eye of reason. The eye of reason sees the terrifying neutrality of nature, that sends death and destruction to the good and the bad alike - the hurricanes that batter our coasts, the heat wave that recently killed 20,000 in India, the earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, wild fires and tornadoes - the dealers of death.
And when the eye of reason looks at biological life, it sees the shark, the cobra, the beasts of prey, of which the greatest is man. For in all the continents of the World in this bad time, man the predator, is at his bloody work. If we look at the World and its creatures with the eye of reason, the atheists are right.
But the eye of faith sees the totality of reality in a radically different way. "Faith," the Bible tells us, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," and because of faith, Easter is a day of song, joy, and of a good hope. Let's take a quick analytical look at faith. Faith is often a derived thing. Faith in somebody else's faith. For example, my faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not simply based on the fact that it actually happened; but because men and women who were wise and great (Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, Pascal, Teresa of Avila and the ministers of my boyhood churches) who believed that Jesus rose from the dead.
And I have found it a serious reality in my own pastoral experience that a significant number of my people believed because I believed. And with this I end this passage on the fact that, to a degree at least, faith is built on the faith of others.
There are, of course, other reasons why thoughtful people can say "Yes" to the question of continuance. At the Church of the Messiah I preached 25 consecutive Easter sermons, and not one was a repetition. Incidentally, of all the discourses I delivered on diverse subjects, the most asked-for sermon was titled, "Reincarnation, an Alternative Opinion." One basis for a reasoned belief in immortality is that the justice of God demands it. If He has given you an unjustified hard time in this mortal span, he owes you another life in which to square things up.
This is Easter, the day when Christ, by the mighty power of God, broke the bond of death and rose from the dead. It is a day of joy, song, and the good hope of Heaven. It is a joy so intense it cannot be expressed in the spoken word. It must be declared with a voice of singing - the sermon and the reading of the Good Book are not enough. So the great organs peal and thunder, the choir voices intricate anthems, and the people sing with delight the "Hymns Ancient and Modern," which declare the reality of the life everlasting. Mere meaning itself is not enough; it must be intensified and augmented by melody.
Easter, I have said, is a day of joy, song and the good hope of Heaven. I have spoken of the first two. I now deal with the third. What is Heaven like" What Earthly hopes does it fulfill? I find myself in the predicament of Bernard of Cluny as he with faith considered the infinite joys of Heaven:
And I frankly confess to you that I am not happy with the contemplation of the apocalyptic Heaven St. John saw on Patmos, his lonely isle of exile. John says that is a place with only 144,000 inhabitants. What of the teeming billions who have died since the World began and the uncountable billions yet to live and die? It is a city of stone with pearly gates and adorned with twelve kinds of precious gems, and its streets are paved with Gold (what? no good green grass?). It is a Heaven in which there is no sea, where "time shall be no more." It is a city of sterile stony glory, where (in popular fancy, angels twang interminably upon harps.) I could not be happy there.
But John has a better word (for me at least) in his first Epistle (I John 3:2) where he says that "even now we are the sons of God, but we shall be like Him. And I find it a great comfort to my soul to think that Heaven is a place where I can become more like Christ than I have been in this World of time and flesh. And I bid you rejoice, sons and daughters of your Heavenly Father, because among its multiple blessings, Heaven is a place where your interior Christ can grow toward perfect personhood.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, Father of our souls, on this happy day of joy and song, we bless Thee because we can say "Yes" to the question of continuance, and that "way beyond the blue" there is a happy land where we can live anew, and grow in grace toward a greater likeness to Thy Son, our Saviour. Amen. Amen.
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