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Bishop Pierre Whalon

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Many Mansions in Whose House?

Posted: 06/06/11 05:17 PM ET

The famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has said it again: "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." Hmmm...

We read this text from John 14 at funerals: "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you," as King James' men had it. The word translated as "mansions," or in modern versions as "dwelling places," "rooms" and "houses," is, as you can see, a bit tricky to get just right. Another possible translation is "way-stations," an understanding favored by some of the Greek early fathers of the Church. This would imply that where we are going is not our final home, at least not right away. So how we read this says a lot about what happens after we die. "I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, there you may be also."

So where did Jesus go? The Bible as a whole tells us very little about the next life, other than that there will be another, Larger Life after this one. There are several versions that have been advanced over the centuries of the scene we shall see after death. In one scene, we each shall stand before "the great judgment seat of Christ," as the Prayer Book says. We will be immediately sent to the place we deserve, Paradise or Hell. In another version, we have a third option called Purgatory, which is supposed to be a place where we sort of clean off the dirt of sin so that we can be pure for Paradise, so long as our sins are not really serious.

Then there is another scene, which I think is more biblical. We die, and as the psalmist says, in that day our thoughts perish. So Hawking does have a point. But then the Spirit of God begins to raise us up, for the New Creation, the new heavens and the new earth. When we come to that, there is a separation between those who want life with God and those who cannot stand the idea.

Let me spell out what I mean. The Scriptures begin with God creating the heavens and the earth. The Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos and brought forth the universe. Later the same Spirit of God hovered over Mary the Virgin and brought forth Jesus. Then the Spirit hovered over the tomb containing his corpse and from the cold dead cadaver of Jesus created the Risen Lord Jesus. Finally the Spirit gave birth to the Church, an event we Christians celebrate on Pentecost. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a New Creation," wrote Paul to the Corinthians. Each of these actions is a fresh moment of Creation by the Spirit. And God has promised you and me that we share in the New Creation, by the same action of the Holy Spirit, and that starts now.

So you and I are on the way to becoming this New Creation. It stands to reason, then, that the place Jesus went forth to prepare for us is first of all a way-station. It is too simple to settle for those various scenes that have come to us over the centuries. We have a ways to go before the resurrection of the body. First comes the moment of death, and then, who knows? There will be a New Creation, and that probably has stages, way-stations, just as the first Creation did and continues to have.

Jesus is telling us as he did his first disciples, "You trust in God, trust also in me." He promises us that he will always be with us, not only in some heaven above but right here, right now. And this brings us to where we need to be. We are still mostly of the Old Creation, and we can only know the New One by extrapolation. The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth belong more to the New Creation that is being transformed out of the Old. This means that while we are still living in the Old, we will find it difficult to grasp exactly what the New will be like. The odd stories of the risen Jesus collected in the Gospels point to the strangeness of the New Creation in the midst of the Old.

It's natural to be curious, especially about what happens after death. Personally, I am a lot less afraid of that than I am of the dying part. But when we try to figure out on our own what happens after death, we end up in all kinds of nonsense, like "channeling" the spirits of the dead. We simply do not know. So Jesus invites us to trust him.

Which is an invitation to return to today, right now, reading this. What else do we need to trust God for? If he has prepared a place for us for then, what about now? If we are willing to trust about our death, what about our life now?

If you're like me, you find it easier to have faith about the afterlife -- let's call it Larger Life -- than about right now. After all, I can't do anything about dying, so I can put off having to worry about it. But today, right now, I often find it a lot more difficult to believe that Jesus is with me, you know, "consider the lilies of the field, how much more will your Father clothe you" and so on. I want to control the outcome, especially those things over which I do not have control. Death is remote, my checkbook is not! How will our daughter turn out? What do I need to do to make myself feel secure and safe? How can I keep my status among the bishops? And so on -- all ways of staving off death. I can't help it, because I am still part of the Old Creation, the old Pierre, even as I am becoming the New.

Now I am not saying we do not have to work. Work is a very good thing -- just ask someone you know who's lost his or her job. And I am not saying that we do not have to plan. What I am saying is that when Jesus asks us to trust him, it isn't just about Heaven. It's also about Earth, here and now.

Our faith has to make a difference in the way we live. It has to be the determining factor in how I decide what kind of human being I want to be. We are being invited today to live into the New Creation that we are becoming. Each day is a way-station on the road. It has stages. Today we get to try again to develop the character of Christ in ourselves, walking in his presence. Tomorrow we get to try again. And the next day. And the next.

There is a lot to mull over in the 14th chapter of John. One comforting thing is that the disciples are just like us: "We don't know the way, what are you talking about?" "Show us the Father -- what you say isn't good enough!" They whined too. Trusting is hard. We want certainty, and we want it now.

God refuses to give us that. But having no faith is harder, I submit. So let's get on with today, with trusting today, and act as if we are a New Creation.

Today.

 

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