The Great Mystery: November 5, 2017

November 5, 2017

Year A, All Saints                                                

1 John 3:1-3                                                                

            I would really like to have a little more information about the afterlife.  As a priest, I feel as though that is the kind of information that I should have.  It should have come with my degree. I was in seminary for 4 years.  It is what most people want to know.  Yet it remains one of the great mysteries, not only of the Christian faith, but the world.  Even those who do not believe in God have some curiosity about what comes next.  Unfortunately the Bible gives us very little information about what comes next.  This perplexes me. I understand why Jesus did not talk about it much before he died.  However, after his resurrection, you would think the disciples would have some pretty major questions…and just maybe that they would have written those answers down.

            We can make some assumptions about what comes next.  We know it will be good.  We know that Jesus will be there.  We know it will be a place where peace reigns.  It will be a community, a community of saints.  Some people think that if it is a community of saints, it is only the really good people, those with records of lots of good deeds and very few sins. Oscar Wilde famously said, “I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there.”   This comes from a misunderstanding of what a saint is.  A saint is not just the select few. The apostle Paul described saints as those who call on the name of Jesus Christ.  One of our favorite hymns at St. John’s says, “for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”  Therefore, while I cannot tell you much about the afterlife, I feel confident telling you that we can all be saints of God.

We are not the first Christians to wrestle with uncertainty about things to come.  There are a lot of assurances in the Bible and a lot of rules that are concrete.  But there are also moments when the authors of the Bible admit that they are a little murky on the details.  The apostle Paul, who had no shortage of confidence, admitted there was much he did not know.  He wrote, For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully…

I was reminded of this line when reading the first letter to John.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”  Even when this letter was written, mere decades after the death of Jesus, people were already questioning everything—wondering when Jesus was coming back again.  He was supposed to come back.  Most of the early Christians assumed it would be in their lifetime.  As the early Christians saw the first generation of Christians die, they started asking more pointed questions.  What is coming next and when is it coming?  John, like Paul, said, we don’t know all the answers.  We will one day, but not now.  Presumably, some people would have perceived that as an insufficient response.  Very few people want to hear, “I don’t know” when they ask an important question. But John also said something else.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”  What he explains at other points in the letter is that we know we are God’s children, because we are loved by God. 

We have a tendency in life, and in the church in particular, to talk a lot about the past and worry about the future.  We talk about what once was and what may or may not come.  It would seem that this is a church tradition going back 2000 years.  Otherwise, John would not have had to address it.  I can imagine it.  A few disciples, sitting around the table saying, “Remember when Jesus was here and thousands would show up to hear him speak.  There were so many people he had to get in a boat just to get away from the crowds.  Now we are lucky if we get 20 or 30.  What is going to happen if Jesus does not come back soon? No one will believe us anymore. There won’t be any Christians left.”

John was reminding these Christians that we don’t know what is coming next.  We can’t know.  “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”  In other words, we are his children now and one day, we will be just like Jesus.  When John was writing there was great uncertainty in the fledgling church. There was already a schism in the community.  Despite the small number of Christians, they were already fighting amongst themselves.  The future looked grim.

We are living in a time of rampant fear (some fear that is merited, and some that is not).  The future is terrifying. Thus when I read this text, about how we will one day be like Jesus— I cannot wrap my head around that.  It’s hard enough to imagine one Jesus, but a world where we all act like Jesus, it’s unfathomable. What I find a little more tangible is this, “We are children of God now.”  We are children of God not because of the good deeds we have done, or the bad things we have avoided.  We are children of God because God has loved us and will always love us. 

That does not mean that the past and future do not matter.  Obviously they are important.  However, if we accept love that God has freely bestowed and we begin to act like children of God right now, then we can start living for the future instead of fearing it.  We can honor the past without letting it imprison us.  We cannot just act like children of God, we have to be the children of God who see others as children of God.  Every person on this earth is a child of God. That person might not accept God’s love, but that does not mean they have ceased to be God’s children.  That does not mean that God has stopped loving God’s people.  God is relentless in his pursuit of us.  There is a lot we do not know. In the Episcopal Church, we embrace the mystery, but sometimes that can be exhausting.  Sometimes I want something concrete and sturdy.  It is days like this, All Saints Day, when I remember that I am that concrete and sturdy truth that God has created.  Each one of us here is evidence of God’s love. You may not always feel like that. I hope that this day can be a reminder not only to see God’s love in others, but in yourself as well.