Luke 20:27-38; Philippians 1:20-30
In the last paragraph of award-winning author Jane Smiley’s book entitled Early Warning, her second volume of The Last Hundred Years trilogy, she describes the problem of a man’s life with these poignant words: “The problem he had not solved, or even known existed, was how quickly it passed, every joke, every embrace, every babyhood and childhood, every moment of thinking that he had things figured for good, and also every moment, just like this one, when his spirits lifted.”
These words remind us of what the Psalmist declares in the 90th Psalm: “our years come to an end like a sigh…they are soon gone and we fly away.”
Aging, death and dying are part of being human. They are part of the natural order of things. We begin aging from the moment we are born. Death comes eventually to us all.
And yet, though aging and dying are natural and inevitable, they are commonly denied and resisted. Youth is idolized in our culture. Staying young, doing everything to delay aging and the prospect of decline and death, has become a billion-dollar business and the pursuit of millions of us baby-boomers. As respected surgeon, professor and best-selling author Atul Gawande puts it in his book, Being Mortal, “People naturally prefer to avoid the subject of their decrepitude. There have been dozens of best selling books on aging, but they tend to have titles such as Younger Next Year, The Fountain of Youth, Ageless, or (he concludes) -my favorite- The Sexy Years.”
In contrast to our culture of youth and denial of death, Christian teaching does not blind us from the realities of the natural order of aging and human mortality. Instead, our faith empowers us to make our experience of aging and dying a more humane and meaningful one. In fact, regardless of our age or stage of living, for the follower of Jesus, the key question is not, “how can I live longer, but how can I live better?”
This concern for living better is reflected in the Scripture passage we read from Philippians when Paul wrote: “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” And he goes on with these words: “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” It was from a dark prison cell that Paul wrote these words to his friends at the church in Philippi. While we do not know all the specifics of the struggles Paul experienced, it is clear that he was suffering both physically and emotionally. We know that Paul was confined in prison and that he missed the companionship and support of his friends in Philippi.
Somehow Paul knew that these friends in the church were also suffering and he had gotten word that they were not supporting each other as well as they might. That is why he shared with them his prayer that they might with him stand firm in faith and work together in love. It is also why he reminded them of their hope in Christ of a future in the life to come without pain and suffering. Paul desired that his friends live in this hope and that their shared hope might inspire them to live better by standing together in faith and love.
Supporting one another and sharing a vision of hope are also the keys to survival described by Nelson Mandela when he wrote of his dark years in prison in South Africa. He wrote, “The challenge for every prisoner, particularly every political prisoner, is how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs… Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve… It would be very hard if not impossible for one man alone to resist. I do not know that I could have done it had I been alone. But the authorities’ greatest mistake was keeping us together, for together our determination was reinforced. We supported each other and gained strength from each other. Whatever we knew, whatever we learned, we shared, and by sharing we multiplied whatever courage we had individually.” Mandela goes on to write of the hope that helped him survive, “I never thought that a life sentence truly meant life and that I would die behind bars…I always knew that someday I would once again feel the grass under my feet and walk in the sunshine as a free man…There were many dark moments when my faith… was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair.”
We consider people like Nelson Mandela saints. Their example of faith and their work to create a better world inspire us all. Yet, returning to Paul’s letter to the church we can note that he addresses it to “all the saints” and later he describes all of the members of the congregation as those who are “shining like stars in the world.” His words remind me of the little story of the girl who wondered what a saint might be. One day her mother took her to a great cathedral to see the gorgeous stain-glass windows with characters in scenes from the Bible. When the little girl saw the beauty of it all, she exclaimed, “Now I know what saints are! They are people who let the light shine through!”
Each one of us can live better, can live as saints, when we have the light of eternal hope shining through us.
Like the Apostle Paul in his letter, in our gospel lesson we see that, Jesus also offers hope for living better now through a vision of a better life to come. When the religious leaders known as the Sadducees came to Jesus their intention was not to learn from him but to discredit Jesus for his belief in the life to come. Like today’s skeptics, the Sadducees did not believe that human life existed beyond the grave. And so, as Brian McClaren puts it in his book We Make the Road by Walking, they “tried to trap Jesus by bringing up a conflict between moral sense and belief in the afterlife. “If there is life after death,” they asked, “does that mean that a woman who was widowed seven times in this life will have seven husbands in the next?” McClaren continues, “You can almost see them smirking, thinking themselves very clever for stumping the rabbi. In response, Jesus said that to God, all who ever lived are alive…In that light, death is merely a doorway, a passage from one way of living in God’s presence in the present to another way of living in God’s presence-in the open space of unseized possibility we call the future.”
In the gospel lesson Jesus compares our existence in the life to come to that of the angels and calls us children of the resurrection. His point is that while we will still be fundamentally human, like himself in his resurrected body, we will no longer have the limitations of our human bodies nor will our relationships be confined to the ways of our life on earth. As McClaren describes it – the life to come will be another way of living in God’s presence.
Taking this one step further, Paul in his letter refers to dying as something to be gained, as something even better than we experience here on earth. For Paul, our greatest hope and joy is to more fully and freely experience the powerful presence and overwhelming love of God. We are assured by the picture of the life to come in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, that when God dwells with us in our eternal home, there will be “no more mourning, and crying and pain will be no more.” That is exactly what Paul yearns for when he writes, “For me living is Christ and dying is gain…my desire is to depart and be with Christ for that is far better.”
Living in hope, we can live better. As theologian Harvey Cox put it, “hope is that virtue that sees the past and the present in light of a future horizon.” This past week we suffered the most severe heat of the summer. Imagine how much harder for us it would have been if this heat wave would have continued with no forecast or hope of relief in sight? I know that my spirit was encouraged by the promise of better weather by this weekend. As humans, we live better when we share a vision of hope for a better future.
Lacking a hopeful vision of the future is what makes it so difficult for many young people today in our nation and around the world. Unlike generations before them, today’s youth are members of a generation that no longer shares the belief that life will be better for them than it has been for their parents’ generation. As people of faith, it is our privilege and responsibility to not only provide future generations with a vision of hope, but to support them in developing their gifts and creating a world where this vision can become reality. The Christian vision of a better life after death is not just to comfort us as we age, but it is a model of what we are to work for on earth now. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is our prayer for a better future and our pledge to work for that better life in the here and now. As we work together to make a better future for all God’s children we are empowered by the vision of hope provided by our faith.
The power of having a hopeful vision was illustrated by a woman by the name of Florence Chadwick who back in 1952 attempted to swim 26 miles from the coast of California to Catalina Island. After 15 hours a heavy fog began to block her view and she became disoriented and discouraged and gave up. To her great disappointment, she learned that she had quit just 1 mile short of her destination. Two months later Chadwick tried a second time to swim to Catalina Island from the coast. Again a thick fog settled in, but this time she reached her destination, becoming the first woman to swim the Catalina Channel. When asked what made the difference, Chadwick said that she kept an image of the shoreline in her mind even when she couldn’t see it.
Like Chadwick, our view of a better future can get blocked by clouds of doubt and discouragement.
Whether in our living or in our dying we will find strength in keeping in our mind’s eye the vision of a hopeful future with God. While the problems of life can cloud our vision, we have the opportunity to see our final destination with the eyes of faith. So may we, by living in hope, build better lives on this earth even as we look forward to the life to come. Amen!