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What Happens When We Die
March 24, 1996

JOHN 11:1-45

"I'm not afraid to die," quipped Woody Allen. "I just don't want to be there when it happens." What happens when we die? Centuries before Christ, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote, "Now death is the most terrible of things; for it is the end." Oh, the mystery and wonder of the Christian faith which dares to proclaim: death is not the most terrible of things.

Death is not the worst option, the worst alternative. There are many alternatives worse than death, like being comatose and kept alive by machines; or agonizing in pain caused by cancer, alleviated only by morphine. In the times of persecution, Christian martyrs firmly believed that death was preferred to denying Christ.

Contrary to Aristotle, death is not the most terrible of things, nor is death the end. Revelation 21:4, Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. In the lesson read this morning, Jesus affirmed, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." Death is not the end! Linda Hanick wrote about her daughter, Erica, who came into this world blind. Later, grave medical problems developed. Erica was almost four when it became clear she was dying. Jack and Linda, Erica's parents, kept vigil at her hospital bedside, their prayers for her healing gradually becoming prayers for wisdom and acceptance.

Then Jack said, "Linda, we should do more than pray to God about Erica. We need to talk to Erica about God." Erica was afraid, afraid of dying. She seemed to be holding on to her parents because they were the surest love she knew.

Cupping her tiny hands, they told her that God's love was so much greater than theirs, and that she had to let go-- let go of the hospital room, her bed, even them. "Where you are going is a safe place, more beautiful and full of love than anything you've ever known," they told her.

In Linda's mind she saw Erica running, skipping over emerald grass through fields of rainbow-colored flowers. Her golden hair blazed in the sunlight. Her voice was laughter, and her eyes were like the sky, cloudless and blue. She was no longer blind.

Linda was about to share her vision with Jack when Jack said, "You know, I just had the strongest image. I saw Erica, so vividly, skipping and running across a field of beautiful flowers. She was laughing and her eyes were clear and blue as the sky." Together, simultaneously they shared a vision that death is not the end.

Death is not the worst option. Death is not the end. But, death is inevitable, and preparations need to be made. When death seems imminent, it needs to be discussed in honesty and compassion. The person dying deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, and deserves the right to discuss his/her death with loved ones. It will be a painful discussion, but it will also be a glorious discussion. You will find it a blessing, a rich, beautiful time in which to say goodbye; and an opportunity to make sure the arrangements you make are what your loved one wants. To assist in this process, forms have been prepared, and are available for you to pick up from the cabinets at the rear of the sanctuary.

Death is inevitable, even your own. Have you signed a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care so that a loved one can make medical decisions for you if you are unable? Have you made plans as to what happens when you die? Will your body be buried or cremated? Have you made a will, or will the government decide who gets what? Have you remembered your church in your will? Consider the Endowment Fund where interest from your bequest will continue doing God's work in your name in perpetuity. How would you like to be remembered by your church? When people look through the Memorial Book in the narthex and they come to your name, with what in the church would you like to be identified? And, the most important question of all, are you ready to meet God?

Sisters and brothers, it is my privilege this morning, it is my joy this morning to tell you, to proclaim to you that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe in him will never die. Coming to terms with death begins with understanding the role, the place of death in the process we call life. What is death? What does it mean that we who believe in Christ will never die? What happens when we die?

The event we call death, when the body ceases to function, is a doorway from the natural world into the spiritual world. This doesn't mean that we have no contact with the spiritual world while we are yet in the natural world. In fact, we enter the kingdom of God, the spiritual world, through baptism. When we believe in Christ, and trust in Christ for our salvation, we enter the spiritual world which is also called eternal life. We get a taste, a glimpse of heaven. Spiritual world, kingdom of God, eternal life, and heaven are all synonymous and used interchangeably. When we go through the doorway called death, we are really not dying because we already have a foot in the door. We already have a relationship with God. Heaven is a quality of life, a relationship with God, which begins in this life when we believe and become part of the church, and which continues into the next life.

Continue is not an accurate word, because we believe in the resurrection of the body, not a continuation of this life. What continues is the relationship with God. We are changed, we are transformed into a spiritual body which is fully alive in the spiritual world. The Bible teaches resurrection, God's act. God raises. God transforms. God gives. Eternal life is a gift from God, not something automatic, not something we earn or deserve. Eternal life is a gift given by God to those who respond to his call, who accept the salvation offered by Christ; a gift bought and paid for with Jesus' life.

When we try to imagine what happens when we die, it is best to resort to poetry. Let your imagination soar, let your spirit fly, let your fears of death be overcome, let your apprehension about what happens be quieted, as you listen to the poem:

GO DOWN DEATH, By James Weldon Johnson

Weep not, weep not, She is not dead;

She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

Heart-broken husband-- weep no more;

Grief-stricken son-- weep no more;

Left-lonesome daughter-- weep no more;

She's only just gone home.

Day before yesterday morning,

God was looking down from his great, high heaven,

Looking down on all his children,

And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,

Tossing on her bed of pain.

And God's big heart was touched with pity,

With the everlasting pity.

And God sat back on his throne,

And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:

Call me Death!

And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice

That broke like a clap of thunder: Call Death!

And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven

Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,

Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.

And Death heard the summons, And he leaped on his fastest horse,

Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.

Up the golden street Death galloped,

And the hoofs of his horse struck fire from the ground,

but they didn't make no sound.

Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,

And waited for God's command.

And God said: Go down, Death, go down.

Go down to Savannah, Georgia, Down in Yamacraw,

And find Sister Caroline.

She's borne the burden and heat of the day,

She's labored long in my vineyard, and she's tired--

She's weary-- Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

And Death didn't say a word,

But he loosed the reins of his pale, white horse,

And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,

And out and down he rode.

On Death rode, and the foam from his horse was like a comet in the sky;

On Death rode, Leaving the lightning's flash behind;

Straight on down he came.

While we were watching round her bed,

She turned her eyes and looked away,

She saw wheat we couldn't see;

She saw Old Death. She saw Old Death, coming like a falling star.

But Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline.

He looked to her like a welcome friend.

And she whispered to us: I'm going home,

And she smiled and closed her eyes.

And Death took her up like a baby,

And she lay in his arms, But she didn't feel no chill.

And Death began to ride again--

Up beyond the evening star, Out beyond the morning star,

Into the glittering light of glory,

On to the Great White Throne.

And there he laid Sister Caroline

On the loving breast of Jesus.

And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears.

And he smoothed the furrows from her face,

And the angels sang a little song,

And Jesus rocked her in his arms,

And kept a-saying: Take your rest, Take your rest.

Weep not-- weep not; She is not dead;

She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris