Death & the Life Eternal

A sermon by Trevor Donnelly

2 Kings 2.1-14; Galatians 5.1-25; Luke 9.51-62



As most of you know, my father died very recently.  I wondered if I should mention it in my sermon, and risk getting emotional (and we are Anglicans, so that would be terrible!) or should I ignore it and maybe that would be the ‘elephant in the room’ (this is a big building, we could probably fit an elephant in here without too much trouble, in fact an elephant would be less conspicuous than an emotional Vicar!).

     While I was trying to make up my mind I came to Morning Prayer, and had a reading all about toil and death.  I went home and listened to one of my favourite radio programmes, The Infinite Monkey Cage (with Professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince who discuss scientific issues of the day) the title of this weeks show “What is death?”  I thought I’d look at the set readings for today for something life-affirming and cheering: our readings begin with the death of Elijah (Margaret talked about this last week) and then the young man who wanted to bury his father! I thought I could look at what was current in the news for sermon inspiration, and found the top story to be Nelson Mandela nearing the end of his long and inspiring life.

     So  my first sermon after some ‘compassionate leave’ following the death of my father, which in turn followed a stretch of compassionate leave earlier in the year after the death of my mother is all about death!

     I am reminded of the words that Oscar Wilde put into the mouth of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent… may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”?

     You are not quite sure if it’s ok to laugh at that!  Well I think it is.  At the end, my father was lying on his bed, not able to talk.  I was on one side of the bed, my brother, Glenn, on the other.  My father tried to say something.

     “Do you want the blanket off?”  I asked.

     He shook his head.

     “Are you too warm?”  Asked my brother.

     He shook his head.

     I tried “Are you too cold?”

     He shook his head.

     Glenn said, “Do you need some pain relief?”

     He shook his head.

     “Do you want the window open?”

     “Are you thirsty?”

     Then I noticed the corners of my father’s mouth start to lift, and his shoulders start to shake.

     “Hang on,” I said, “are you laughing at us?”

     And he was!  Even at the end, in the frustrations of not being able to communicate there was laughter.  There were tears too at times – but laughter to the end.

     When we turn to our readings today we find a distinct lack of humour or gentleness.  A man wants to follow Jesus, but first wants to bury his father.  Jesus says ‘let the dead bury the dead.’  As someone who has just taken several weeks off to bury his father, Jesus words seem unbearably harsh.

     Scholars debate this story – it seems too cruel to be literal.  Jesus was all about teaching love – it does not seem very loving to leave a dead relative unburied in order to go off on a teaching trip.  Indeed the 10 Commandments insist on honouring your father and mother.  Was Jesus using hyperbole, exaggerating his demands to make a point?

     Or was, as some have suggested, the father not dead yet (some have even suggested that his father was perfectly well) and the young man putting ordinary family commitments ahead of following Jesus…  ‘One day,’ said the young man, ‘when my father is not around to be shocked, I will follow you.’

     Jesus was clear that the demands of the life of faith should be central to our lives, and if our families try to prevent us from expressing our faith we may need to choose faith over family ties.  But I simply cannot believe Jesus would be that harsh to a grieving man.

     From my recent experiences in Belfast I have encountered a lot of religious comfort.  None of the chaplains who visited the hospice or the minister who took the funeral quoted this story.  What I did hear, however, were much more traditional religious beliefs than I am used to.  I have talked to Presbyterian chaplains and the Baptist minister who conducted my father’s funeral.  All spoke with great certainty about heaven.  To them faith was primarily about finding a way to survive death.  This certainty and version of faith is something I cannot share.

     I’m a liberal, and I find it hard to believe in miracles, and surely the greatest of all miracles is surviving death.  I find it hard to accept the idea of life-after-death.

      Perhaps my problem is that I have a bit of an obsession with science.  I find it hard to believe things that cannot be scientifically proven, or at least scientifically investigated.

     Heaven seems too-good-to-be-true.  We want to believe that we will see our loved ones again, so we chose to believe it, not because it is true, or even likely, but because the alternative is too gloomy and depressing.

     How can heaven fit into a reductionist, scientific world-view?  Some people find comfort in Einstein’s theory of relativity.  Einstein, in a letter to a bereaved friend, wrote: “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”  Einstein tried to comfort his grieving friend with the belief that being separated from someone by time was really like being separated from them by distance.  The past still exists, and so our dead loved ones still exist; it’s just that we, poor linear creatures of time, cannot step back in time to visit them.

     (This was a serious attempt at comfort, he was not trying to be humorous.)

     Einstein does not propose ‘heaven’ just that the past is not lost.

     Can other scientists offer us any hope?  I have said that an afterlife seems very unlikely, but one thing that science tell us, especially quantum science, is that the extremely unlikely can also be true.

     John Polkinghorne is both a theologian and a scientist and has had many different thoughts on life after death, including the only explanation that could satisfy my rationalist tendancies.  As a scientist Polkinghorne explained that our thoughts are basically ‘software’ in the ‘hardware of our brain.’  So basically our brain is like a computer and ‘who we are,’ our ‘soul,’ is a bit like Microsoft Office.  It’s not quite the same as a computer because the way we think forms neural connections and how we run the software helps shape the hardware (but, in computing terms, an emulator could overcome this).

     Polkinhourne suggested that if God knows us in our entirety then every neuron could exist in God’s memory, and have continued life in God’s memory after we die.  God’s memory would be a virtual world – indistinguishable from a physical world.  Maybe this world is simply God’s imagination, if you are God there is no telling what your mind can do…!

     It’s a neat idea, but I can’t say it answers all my questions or is fully satisfying.  The truth is that I don’t know what happens after we die.

     The Bible is vague about the afterlife, it speaks in poetry and metaphor.  Sometimes it speaks of ‘the grave’ is a land of shadows beneath the earth; sometimes you can reach heaven by flying off in a chariot or building a huge tower…

     The best and truest answers to all our questions about eternal life is found in the reading I have not mentioned yet.  In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians he describes the ultimate goal and reward of the life of faith:

     The fruit of the Spirit “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

     Our faith is not about what happens after we die.  Jesus clearly believed in life after death, but that was a tiny part of his teaching, which was almost all about how we life this life, the one life that we can be certain of.

     And when we die?  Who knows?  We will be in the hands of God, and there is no better place to be. 

     I want to see my parents again, but the better way to honour them is to try and keep alive the best of their values in my own life: faith, kindness, humour (humour even in the face of death).

     Or as St. Paul puts it, let our life and our faith be about “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

     I close with a prayer:  O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shadows lengthen, the evening comes, the busy world lies hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then Lord, in your mercy grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.  Amen.

Published by tadonnelly

Priest, Campaigner for Inclusion & Horror Writer. As a Priest I'm Vicar of the Church of the Ascension, Blackheath and Holy Trinity, Deptford. ( ) I edit the Newsletter of Inclusive Church ( ) I am the author of the international best(ish)-selling Wild Strawberry Trilogy ( available in paperback or digital download from Amazon )

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