A young mother, grieving for the death of a baby, asks the question, ‘Will I be reunited with my Olivia in heaven?’
An elderly widower expresses certainty that he will be with his bride in heaven.
It’s almost as though Christian faith depends on after-death reunions of loved ones. The guidance, however, that Scripture gives us on this is vague and contradictory.
So, the totally honest answer to this question, especially as no-one has returned to tell us, is that we don’t know. But when faced with the direct question, ‘Will we be reunited in heaven?’, I hesitate.
Of course, the temptation for us pastors is to give the easy answer, the answer that people want to hear. The reality, however, is that we understand so little about life after death: what does time mean in life and after we die? What does resurrection mean for us as individuals? Will there be a different experience for those who do not identify as Christians? How will we connect with those from whom we have been estranged in this life? Cynical Sadducees asked Jesus a similar question, ‘In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?’ (Matthew 22:28)
Many people believe firmly that the church teaches that we, as individuals, will be united after death with loved ones. Many clergy taking funerals, without directly endorsing this view, allow it to stand as an implication of their pastoral message. I understand this prevarication: we are motivated to tell good news. I am deeply uncomfortable, however, with its dishonesty. This teaching falls short. There is better news.
The idea that we will be united with loved ones after death springs from a good place: it is an idea that the best God has given us in this life is love, and the one thing that we should expect from the eternal God is ongoing love.
In this life, we love with our bodies: we make love with our spouse with our body; we are present in the body to our friends. When we are absent from our loved ones, we project our bodies through space to continue the contact – our image on FaceTime, our voice on the telephone, our hand-writing in a card. These symbols of our body tell our loved one that we yearn to be present in the body.
Death destroys the body. Dust we are, and to dust we return (v. Genesis 3:19). The body is then transformed in resurrection. We know almost nothing about what Saint Paul calls the ‘resurrection body’, only that we would be a ‘foolish person’ to imagine it to be the same as our current body. It is as different from the natural body as the wheat plant is from a grain (I Corinthians 15:36-37)!
Love, after death, will also be the same and categorically different. While our bodies can love gloriously, God promises a love after death that is different in degree and in expression: a much better love. All bodily limitations to love will be removed and transformed. Who knows whether we will rise as individuals, or as love promises, somehow joined in love? Or something entirely different, and, as yet, unimagined?
My plea is that we settle for more than the idea that we will be reunited with loved ones, and that we take the Bible at its word (I Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), that God will exceed our imagination as to how wonderful love in the resurrection will be. It will be heaven!
Now love is primarily a sharing: letting oneself be hurt by someone else’s distress, putting oneself at their side, living with, suffering with, begging with. She naturalises herself as one of the poor: this is where love works. And this process of sharing liberates the power of love to change the world; by her astonishingly fruitful activity, she contributes to changing the world. This is the very mystery of Mercy.
Paul Milcent on Saint Jeanne Jugan, founder and first Sister of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
These stories are partly about two women’s ability to have children. The girl is twelve years old. On her next birthday she would have been old enough to marry and bring a baby into the world. As modern Western people we recoil from this whole business of treating a girl as a commodity to be sold. Bride price, dowry, physical attributes, and then the sheer hard work of bearing babies and keeping house – and keeping to the house – for the rest of their lives. To us, the customs of those times were as repugnant as the Taliban’s are now.
But her age is mentioned for that reason. Jesus restores her to her life prospects as wife and mother.
The older woman has had a bleed for 18 years. It doesn’t specify what sort of bleed, and that leads most scholars to suggest that it was related to her womb, not a stomach ulcer. With the medical care of those days, there is no way she could have children. There is no way she could be a wife under the Jewish Holiness code. Her life as a wife and mother was on hold at the least, probably finished, dead.
Jesus restores both women to life; and that includes to restore the possibility of their cultural role as wives and mothers. Whatever we think would have been best for them, being wife and mother was what they would have known and wanted, and certainly better than being dead!
But as Mark tells us the story, he insists on two words which take the restoring of these women far beyond those cultural expectations. The two words:
The woman has spent everything she had on cures. ‘Everything she had’: the Greek work is ‘bios’ which we know in English words like ‘biology’. She had spent her whole ‘bios’, her whole ‘life’, her whole ‘living’ on doctors and cures. At one level, it just means, she had spent all she had chasing a cure. But if you’ve ever had a complex medical problem, you know it’s not just the monetary cost. We are so blessed in Australia with Medicare, cost is not usually the problem. But we can find ourselves with so many appointments and treatments, visits to the pharmacist and physio as well as to the GP and specialists, not to mention waiting on the phone to make those appointment, that our whole life starts to revolve around our medical issues. Our life is in danger of becoming our medical impairments. There are times when we could easily spend our whole life on chasing a cure. It’s not good. That’s where this woman was.
Jesus healed her. Jesus gave her her life back.
Jairus’s daughter was dead. The professional mourners were already in place, and laughing at Jesus for thinking he could achieve anything. Her life was gone. There was nothing left but her pious burial. Jesus raised her from the dead. He gave her her life back.
Of course, both of these resuscitations are prefiguring the resurrection. And they are also mirrors to us. If we reach out to Jesus, just touch the hem of his robe, just taste his power in the Eucharist, then he may give us our life back. That’s what Jesus wants to do. There is no person, no thing, so far from God, who cannot be restored, who cannot receive their life back.
What that will mean will vary from person to person, just as it was different for the woman with the bleed and Jairus’s daughter, so it will be for you. But Mark is telling us the Good News that Jesus considers every person – even women in his society – should be able to live her life to the full, and that she can do that if she allows Jesus to restore life to her. Or him.
That’s more than the cultural script of being a wife and mother. That’s a gift of life that is wide open to all good possibilities.
The second word that Mark uses is ‘daughter’. Each of the women healed in these stories is called a daughter, because each is unconditionally loved. Jesus calls the woman he heals by the name of ‘Daughter’: ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’ (Mark 5:34). And then immediately follows the rest of the other story. ‘While he was still speaking there came from the house some who said, “Your daughter is dead”.” (5:35) Whose daughter? It is ambiguous, because she is both Jairus’s much loved ‘little daughter’, and a daughter to Jesus too.
I am blessed to have a wonderful daughter. I remember the day in 1983 when she was born. I remember a lot more of her childhood than she might like me to. I am so proud of her now as a young mother of three, working at an interesting job part-time. She is a lovely and accomplished young woman. Everyone knows that. But only Rae and I can call her ‘Daughter’. We have the privilege of loving her especially. The love that I have for Clare, and the love that I know is returned, is a real joy.
Jesus emphasises with the women in these stories that the Father loves each daughter just like, and even more, than a human father loves his daughter. Daughters, you are loved, you are loved by God, with a love that gives you your life and goes on giving you your life back. Sons, you are loved, you are loved, too, by the Father, but sometimes, even in this 21st Century after Jesus, the daughters need to be told more intensely, more Intentionally, that God’s love is for them in this way of deep joy.
But for all of us, daughters and sons, can we in reality imagine what Jesus is offering to us?
the fulfilment of our lives up to our expectations so that we can do what God wants us to do in this world, as the two women were given the opportunity to be wives and mothers;
secondly, to get our lives back richer than we can imagine and better than we can imagine: this is Christ’s gift to us. As we open ourselves to Christ, so we are being transformed into new people, leaving the old one behind, becoming the person God intended us to be from the beginning, and discovering more and more joy in that. This is why for me being fed with the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood is so important, as it feeds us on that journey of transformation.
and thirdly, knowing ourselves deeply loved as God’s children. God has loved us from the beginning and will love us eternally.
This is good news. It takes time to seep into us. It can be hard to hear this good news. God took human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth to show us what God is like. And this is what God is like. This is what God delights in doing for people.
Sin is when we refuse to let this love, the love of Christ penetrate more and more deeply into our hearts and lives, when we refuse to connect to Christ. Christ for his part continues to offer us our lives back, renewed and better than before.
Out of our poverty, we become rich, as Paul said in this morning’s epistle (2 Cor. 8:9) – and what wealth it is. What Good News it is! And what good news we become for others as this transformation takes place.
If you think I am being too idealistic, I plead with you to go back to the reading and see again what the gift is that Jesus gives to the woman and to Jairus’ daughter, and then to resolve to go about your lives knowing that it is true. God loves you through and through for eternity. Let him change you into his glory bit by bit.
The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew (Chapter 2 beginning at the 13th verse):
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
The Gospel of our Lord: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of God the Creator, who was born a human being, and lives among us as Spirit. Amen.
“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under.” (Matthew 2:16)
The shock of a psychopath in power. In the 20th Century, Stalin behaved something like Herod. The sad thing is that we remember the psychopath and not the names of his victims. Dmitri Volkogonov writes,
“Stalin personally signed 357 proscription lists in 1937 and 1938 that condemned to execution some 40,000 people, and about 90% of these are confirmed to have been shot. At the time, while reviewing one such list, Stalin reportedly muttered to no one in particular: “Who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years’ time? No one. Who remembers the names now of the boyars Ivan the Terrible got rid of? No one.” “
King Herod would resonate with that sentiment.
Mao Tse Tung reportedly killed 45 million people in four years. The records are carefully catalogued in the Public Security Bureau, and researchers can read about the violence Mao ordered and permitted, including deliberately starving the elderly to death because they couldn’t work efficiently. But scholars don’t write critically about Mao: it seems that the Chinese don’t want to face these horrors.
From what I understand, people also tried to forget Herod “the Great” as quickly as humanly possible.
Stalin, Mao and Herod. Eight children murdered by their mother in Cairns. A siege in Sydney by an unhinged Iranian. The horror of it all seems to have set out to spoil our Christmas. We want Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas to be Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer without a care, yet, with the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the church sets a trap for us three days after Christmas.
Christmas can easily become a fantasy, especially in our consumer-laden culture. People travel hundreds of kilometres to view Christmas lights, and where communities have some success with colour and light one year, householders compete with each other the next year to be brighter and more spectacular than their neighbours. Cummins, a little town on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia, turns its RSL hall over to a Christmas Wonderland. Carols by Candlelight have become so commercial and so un-focused that I can no longer watch them or join in.
These sparkling displays at Christmas empty Christmas of meaning. And I know that conflict, the conflict between Christmas and Yuletide, has been going on for nearly two thousand years, so I’m not going to win that. But I do know that the Feast of the Holy Innocents is a necessary corrective for us each year. It shocks us out of a fantasy Christmas world back into the real world.
It points out again where God’s concern is in Christmas: not in the cute superficialities of new babies, but in the pain of child-birth, the challenge of poor families, the survival – or not – of refugee families.
God knows the name of each of the boys under two in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who was killed by Herod’s men. God knows the name of each peasant murdered by Ivan the Terrible. God knows by name each of those massacred by Stalin and Mao. God cares for each, as he cares for each of the children killed in Cairns, and weeps over their mother, Mersane Warria.
God can name 141 Pakistanis, 132 of them children, less than two weeks ago in a school in Peshawar.
· Hamza Ali, 14 years old. Dead.
· Farhad Hussain, 15. Dead.
· Hamayun Iqbal, 14. Dead.
To God, the 141 killed last fortnight and the 41,000 Pakistanis in total killed by terror since 2001 are all beloved individuals.
God mourns for the lost lives of Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson killed in Sydney; and unlike the tabloid press, God does not count Man Haron Monis as monster, but as a human being; he was damaged, disturbed, dangerous and responsible for his crimes; but still of immense value simply because he is a human being, God’s image in him marred and spoiled – as it is in each one of us.
So on the third day of Christmas, the church invites us to gaze compassionately on the horrors of the world. It takes courage, and sometimes it’s a little easier when we know that the victims are Holy Innocents.
We take seriously that God has taken human flesh, God became man in Christ. This means that he gazes through our eyes. God uses us to see. We are called upon to look with clearer focus; to be able to gaze without flinching on horror, and to allow Christ’s compassion to flow through us.
Some rather wonderful things happen when we allow this compassion to gaze through us: it transforms what we see.
First of all it turns victims into treasured human beings; we see them not just as people that happened to be in the way, but in Bethlehem as Jacob and Paran’s and Eliab and Naomi’s little boys, or in another massacre as someone’s lover, someone’s daughter, someone’s friend, someone’s father.
Secondly, this compassionate gaze shows Herod up for what he is – just a petty angry little man, not deserving the title of king. It shows that his values are bankrupt. We will have to deal with Herod as an individual, or someone does, but he is not the king he claims to be. In this story, we see clearly who is the king, who has the values of strength and love and care for his people – and that is God. The real claimant to the throne, not just of Israel, but of our lives, is revealed. God cares.
You may know the story Elie Weisel told of the men hung during the holocaust. As one boy struggled at the end of a rope, with the crowd being forced at gunpoint to watch minute after minute, a voice cried out, “Where is God in all this?” A man pointed to the struggling boy, and said, “There he is.”
God is in the midst of the pain and suffering. That is simply a re-statement of the Christmas message that God has come to live among us. Wherever there is pain and suffering, God is in the midst of it. God is in the outpouring of grief in Martin Place. God is in the fierce anger of the Pakistani government and people. God is in the bewilderment of the community in Cairns.
This God, the God who cares about our suffering, about our human condition, comes to surprise us at Christmas.
There are shepherds and there are wise men. The shepherds struggle. They struggle to make a living looking after the sheep of someone else. They struggle through long shifts in the cold and wet. They are tough, but life is hard. God’s news comes to them first, because God comes to share our struggles.
The wise men are learned astrologers. They know what is wondrous and amazing. God’s news comes to them too, because the coming of God as human being to share our suffering is wondrous and amazing. We are not learned astrologers. We need to be told over and over again.
God has become a human being and shares our suffering however horrific; and God with us is wondrous. Shepherds and wise men were there on the Third Day of Christmas. Glory to God in the highest!