John 6:54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.
These rather graphic words of Jesus have all sorts of historical implications, from the misunderstanding by non-believers in the first century that Christians were cannibals to the Roman Catholic Church’s assertion that having communion equals salvation. “Ex-communication,” or being denied the sacrament, was tantamount to being condemned to hell. As interesting as all this is, I want to focus on the last half of this verse in this coming week’s Gospel lesson in the ongoing “bread of life” chapter. It comes up a lot in the life of a pastor.
The issue is nothing less than the “what happens to us when we die?” question. Is it, as most of us tend to talk about, that we go straight to heaven (or wherever we’re headed), or is it “soul sleep” from which Jesus will awaken us on the last day for the final judgment? The former is more comforting for those of us who have lost a loved one. “She’s finally in heaven with her husband,” or “I know he’s up there watching over us.” Hmmm….what kind of heaven would that be—one in which my deceased loved ones can see my pain and my shortcomings and my sin?
Though there are passages in scripture which imply that we experience heaven in fullness immediately upon our death, the overwhelming majority of scripture passage and of our funeral liturgy lean toward our sleeping in Christ: “Keep our brother……and at the last, raise him up.” “What,” you say? “Grandma might not be in heaven? She’s just nowhere or nothing maybe for thousands of years until Jesus comes back to judge her and all of us?” That is a disturbing thought for many of us. But that’s what Jesus says in John, and it’s what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: “Lo I tell you a mystery…we shall not all sleep….the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised imperishable.”
I don’t have a problem at all with soul sleep; in fact, I personally suspect that this is the way it is. When we are asleep, there is no sense of the passage of time, so if Grandma is awakened by the sound of the trumpet a thousand or more years from now, it will be for her as if she just closed her eyes in the sleep of death. For the dead who are raised, there will be no sense that any time has passed at all. It will seem “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” (also 1st Cor. 15) Besides, what could be more comforting than to be held securely in the arms of someone who loves us as we sleep?
Paul is right. It’s a mystery, and we just don’t know. One thing is for sure for people of faith. Sleeping or in the fullness of heaven, alive in this body or after this body has passed away, we are in Christ. This is at the heart of what we believe and proclaim as certain. We are promised that most fully in this life in the sacrament of communion. When we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, that is, incorporate his presence into our very being, then we are one with those who have gone before and even those yet to come who are also in Christ. This is Christ’s promise, our hope, and our comfort!
PRAYER: Gracious God, you held us in mystery before you knit us in our mother’s wombs, you hold us in this life, and you hold us when this life is over. Help us to worry less about what happens when we die, which is your job, and to focus more on how we live lives that glorify you, which is ours. Amen.