In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Tennessee daughter was up last month and during one dinner with my Round Hill daughter we invested some time discussing whether I should specify cremation or full-body burial when my time comes – as it will. Not nice table conversation? I think it responsible and appropriate. On my birthday every year, if not more often, I obey Prayer Book page 320 by reviewing my Last Will and Testament and sometimes tinker with it.
Details? Sure, but they remind me to think about The Big Things to which Jesus frequently directed His followers thoughts, Heaven and Hell, Life and Death which First Corinthians 15:26 calls “the last enemy,” Death and God’s triumphant answer to it which we specify in the Creed every Sunday, either “the resurrection of the body, and the Life everlasting” or “the resurrection of the dead, and the Life in the world to come.”
We just said that – I hope you believe it?
Note that our creedal emphasis on Life comes after and fully accepts the fact of physical Death. Christianity does not attempt to dodge or explain away Death as some sort of metaphysical-theosophical “translation to a different plane” – No, Christianity is not given to wishful thinking: Christian Faith is always firmly realistic because it alone knows and is in touch with what is truly Real and so assumes the fact of physical death as part of this mortal life – remember that the word “mortal,” from the Latin mors, mortis, “death,” precisely means deadly, leading to death: when we speak of a mortal wound we mean one which kills; when we speak of ‘this mortal life’ we mean one which leads to death, terminal. As in today’s Epistle Christianity accepts Death as a great enemy, “the last enemy” of all the mortal goods which we humans value – and affirms that God is greater! Let me complete that verse 26: “the last enemy… to be destroyed… is Death.”
In this fallen world Death is as real as Sin, but by the sovereign unconquerable power of God both Sin and Death shall – not just will, but shall – be destroyed, washed away by His mighty tide of Love for those who have chosen to live in, for, and therefore with Christ, forever.
And I don’t mean any such mealy-mouth modern ideas as “Heaven is a metaphor” (no one can live in a metaphor) nor such pagan notions as reincarnation or nirvana-absorption-into-The-Oversoul – No, Christianity values the individual soul because God loves us as individuals. I recognize that ‘contemporary wisdom’ finds orthodox Christian teachings on Hell too threatening to contemplate and on Heaven so literal as to be embarrassing – but that’s all right. Contemporary human wisdom is rarely of, and usually antithetical to, God’s word. Look at history: the this-worldly wise mocked Noah for building the ark – advised Moses to return the Hebrews to Egypt for comfortable welfare security – threw Amos out of the holy shrine and Jeremiah into a cistern – martyred most of the New Testament writers – and crucified Jesus Christ. You want contemporary wisdom, watch Oprah and Dr. Phil – you want eternal Truth, read your Bible, and listen up!
My Tennessee daughter tells me of a billboard there on the Buckle of the Bible Belt, “Have you read my Book? There will be a test… -- God.”
You see, I believe what we all affirm every Sunday – I hope you do? I believe in the resurrection of the body, and in Heaven. I know that I don’t deserve Heaven, but I do hope in God’s forgiving Grace. I believe it all, I have bet my soul on it, and happy the Christian who does the same. Granted, there’s a lot of poetry in the Revelation to St. John, inevitably with merely human words straining to express the inexpressible – but, streets of gold? Why Not! Gates of pearl? So? Rivers of crystal, choirs of seraphim? Who can speak to the contrary? As we’ll sing in a moment, “O how glorious and resplendent, / Fragile body, shalt thou be!”
And don’t cavil about what age that body might be: every teenager yearns to be 21, everyone over that yearns to be 21 again “and know what I know now.” As First Corinthians 15 concludes, in Heaven God will clothe each of us with a body appropriate to that existence, and I’m confident that God knows what He’s doing.
There’s an old Gospel song which says, “I’m gonna walk with Moses, talk with Paul, and shake my Saviour’s hand…” Unsophisticated? So what? Literal? Of course! But I believe – I know – that thede simple wprds articulate a clearer Christian Faith than all the German-derivative ‘demythologizing’ theologians in the past two hundred years. God would never send a Gospel that was not comprehensible to the least-educated hearer – why would He? Our particular danger is that our extreme politically-correct notions of pseudo-sophistication may this-worldly immunize us to God’s saving Gospel precisely because Christian teaching is so simple, so physical, so clear. Of course I believe in Heaven – I hope that you do too?
I leave you with a thought which my Brockenbrough cousin Bill Moore of Charlottesville sent me from his daughter’s parish newsletter:
There was a young woman who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. As she was getting her things ‘in order’ she contacted her minister and had him come over to her house to discuss certain aspects of her final wishes.
She told him which hymns he wanted sung at the service, what Scriptures she’d like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in. The preacher was preparing to leave when she said “But there’s one more thing that’s very important – I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand.”
The preacher stood looking at the young woman, not knowing what to say.
“That surprises you, doesn’t it?”
“Well, to be honest, I’m puzzled by the request.”
The young woman explained, “My grandmother once told me this story, and from there on out, I’ve always tried to pass its message along to those I love and to those in need of encouragement. In my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, I always remember that when the dishes of the main course are being cleared, someone would inevitably lean over and say, ‘Keep your fork.’
“That was my favorite part because then I knew that something better was coming – like velvety chocolate cake, or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful, something with substance. So, I just want people to see me there in my casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder, ‘What’s with the fork?’ Then I want you to tell them ‘Keep your fork… the best is yet to come.’”
The preacher’s eyes welled up with tears of joy as he hugged the young woman good-bye. He knew that this would be one of the last times he would see her before her death – but he also knew that she had a better grasp of Heaven than he did. She had a better grasp of what Heaven would be like than many people twice her age, with twice as much experience and knowledge. She knew that something better was coming.
At the funeral people were walking by the young woman’s casket, they sam yjer pretty dress and the fork placed in her right hand. Over and over the preacher heard the question, “What’s with the fork?” And over and over he smiled.
During his sermon the preacher told the people of the conversation he had with the young woman shortly before she died. He told them about the fork, and what it meant to her. He told them that he could not stop thinking about that fork, and that now they probably wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it either.
He was right – so the next time you reach down for your fork let it remind you, ever so gently, that the best is yet to come…
So, keep your fork!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.