Quite a few years ago now, Christian Aid in the UK used those words as a way of highlighting their aid and development work. In doing so, they deliberately turned upside down a widespread, but deeply mistaken, view of the Christian Faith as a whole. For ‘we believe in Life after Death’ is a popular affirmation of Christian Faith, isn’t it? Of course, that is true also. The Love of God we trust in in Jesus Christ is indeed so strong that nothing can stop it, not even the powers of death. The Love of God into which Christians are baptised is truly eternal Love, eternal Life, extending through all time and space, and dimensions of existence. Sadly however, too many Christians become so caught up in the ‘Life after Death’ affirmation, that they neglect, or even look doubtfully, on the idea that Jesus, and Christian Faith, is also, and first and foremost, about ‘Life before Death.’ Too many people, in and outside our churches, understand Christianity in terms of getting to heaven when we die. What an amazing turning-upside down of the life and teaching of Jesus!...
Christian obsession with sin and death is an odd thing. For a central Christian doctrine is that of the Incarnation. This affirms that, in Jesus Christ, God became human, part of the earth. This means, as a great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple put it, that ‘Christianity is the most materialistic of all religions.’ So, we, as Christians, should above all people, value, celebrate and enjoy God’s Creation. Yet, strangely, it has sometimes been Christians who have been, most life-denying. That is really a great heresy!
In contrast, there is a lovely Spanish legend which speaks about Christian Faith as ‘Life before Death’. According to this, when people arrive at the gate of heaven, seeking to enter, St Peter asks them a seemingly strange question. ‘Tell me this’, he says to each person, ‘have you taken advantage of all the earthly joys which God made available to you when you were on earth?’ If someone replies, ‘no, I haven’t’, St Peter shakes his head sadly and says, ‘alas, my friend, I can’t let you in: not yet at any rate. How can you expect to be ready to enjoy the joys of heaven if you have not prepared yourself to do so by enjoying earthly joys? I am obliged to send you back to earth until you learn better.’
Jesus’ words today about life in all its fullness are about the whole of life, here, on earth, and beyond. This is the original, ancient and orthodox understanding of our Faith: the full truth that Jesus came to transform all of life, to help God’s Kingdom come on earth as well as heaven, and to entrust that mission to us also. Sadly, our Churches sometimes lost sight of this, especially after the so-called Black Death in the 14th century. This devastating plague killed at least a third and possibly half of Europe’s population: an absolutely staggering figure. Add to this other forms of pestilence, war and destruction, and the very real interests of the rich in telling the poor to wait for life until after death, and you can see why late medieval and reformation theology, Protestant and Catholic, became far too focused on death, sin and salvation after death.
Today we Christians often still struggle to shake off the worst excesses of that death-centred theology. As a result, as a body. we sometimes fail to affirm some God-given aspects of life. It is not for nothing, for example, that some atheists actively campaign against Christianity on grounds that it is life-denying and fails to affirm new paths of life for others. Thanks be to God that there are then many signs among us that grace, not sin, is the heart of our Faith: that Easter-resurrection-life is once again being rediscovered at the centre of Christianity. For, with Jesus in our Gospel today, let us proclaim that we believe in life before death, as well as after it, everywhere and always. Healing, peace, joy, freedom, transformation: all these things Jesus showed us; all these things are gifts of God for us to receive and share with others now, not just to be fulfilled in some putative future when we expire.
One of the interesting things about Christianity is the way in which particular images and symbols of faith have fallen in and out of favour. Christ is often called a King for instance, which, in some particular senses, He is. Yet it was as a Good Shepherd that He was much better known, and more frequently pictured, in the early Church. For, as we hear in today’s Gospel, Christ the shepherd is a much more loving and intimate figure of life than an ordinary king. Similarly, we tend to think of the Cross today as the most important symbol of Christianity. Yet the fish probably predates the cross today as a Christian image, and, as such, it was much more widespread in the early centuries of the Church. For, again, the fish is a much richer symbol of life, rather than death, and the fish represents the way in which Jesus Christ feeds us and brings us life. Perhaps today we would therefore do well to display more fishes in our lives and churches, reflecting the food and life Jesus offers, rather than the things of death he also overcomes?
In the same way, maybe we should pay more attention to another fruitful image of life which we find in today’s Gospel: namely that of Jesus as the gate of life. Again, perhaps we might profitably replace some of our crosses with gates. No one for instance thinks much in Brisbane if they see someone wearing a cross, but if someone was wearing the symbol of a gate around their neck, might that not open up a different kind of conversation?
What symbol of Christ means most to you as image of God’s life? The gate has much to commend it. For, in Jesus’ day, shepherds would lay down in the opening of the sheep pen and become its gate. In saying he is the Gate, Jesus is therefore saying that He is the one who protects, the one who provides the way into eternal life, and the one who leads His people out into fuller life. For whom then might we wish to be gates? Who do we need to protect? For whom do we wish to act as openings to life? Who do we need to help lead into fuller life? Are we gates to God’s life or reminders of death?
Among the many spiritual gems of his writing, John O’Donohue left us this challenge which he too learned from Jesus:
Either (he said) we are in the universe to inhabit the eternity of our souls and grow real, or else we might as well dedicate our days to shopping and kill time watching talk-shows… Let's not let our days fall away like empty shells and miss all the treasure… Each day is a secret story woven around the radiant heart of wonder. The sacred duty of being an individual is to gradually learn how to live so as to awaken the eternal within you.’
This was best summed up for him by his experience of attending the dying, where he often saw great transformation in the course of a short hour or so. What was truly sad, he said, was when people came to their death having hardly lived, having remained trapped by their fears or by conforming to social expectations. Yet others came to their death as they had lived their lives: full of courage, flow and the openness to fresh surprise. So, how has your life been?, John asked one particular rogue as he prepared to slip away, with great expectation, for the next, quite unknown stage, to come. ‘By Jesus’, the man said, ‘I knocked one hell of a squeeze out of it!’ Will we bale to say the same when we meet St Peter? In the name of Jesus, who also got a hell of a squeeze out of life, and who calls us too to share that same squeeze together with others. Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for Easter 4A, 7 May 2017