Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Do we believe God loves us after we die?

Thomas Lynch's article "The Holy Fire" was published in the Christian Century magazine more than three years ago. It is one of those article that I read years ago and cannot forget.

Superficially the article might seem to be a critique of cremations and memorial services verses funerals and burials. However, Lynch is not really opposed to cremations; he just doesn't think we've figured out yet how to do them well.

Many of the parts of his essay that have stuck in my mind are actually quotes from Thomas Long's book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (Westminster John Knox).

Thomas Lynch
I confess I have not read Long's book but if Lynch's quotes are samples of its content, I really need to.

Lynch quotes Long as arguing that the church made a mistake when it became skeptical --and silent-- about eternal life.

Thomas Long
"The fact is," writes Long, "that many educated Christians in the late nineteenth century, the forebears of today's white Protestants, lost their eschatological nerve and their vibrant faith in the afterlife, and we are their theological and liturgical heirs."

But how, Long asks, should the living take seriously a church from which the dead have been gradually banished, as if not seeing were believing?

I don't know what they are teaching in seminary these days. When I went to seminary talking about life after death was considered sort of tacky. The emphasis was that the idea of eternal life is more about a quality of life lived here and now rather than what we experience after death.  

In his introduction to a book of essays about death published in 2001, one of my professors the late Leroy Rouner of Boston University School of Theology said straight out that he suspects the majority of professors in mainline Protestant seminaries do not believe in life after death. I wonder if this has changed since 2001?

I was fortunate as a very young minister to be exposed to the preaching of Edmund Steimle. I took preaching workshops that he taught at the continuing education center at Princeton Seminary. I listened to whatever tapes of his sermons I could get my hands on. I read copies of his sermons.

Steimle wrote a wonderful book of sermons entitled From Death to Birth (Fortress Press) that followed the Christian year beginning with All-Saints Sunday and ending with Christmas.

The All-Saints Sunday sermon --which I also listened to on tape-- was entitled "How Does It All End?" In the sermon he said:
For me, at least, the great hope for the resurrection from the grave speaks most eloquently for those whose lives never had a chance: blasted by illness or mental disorder or --like that baby at My Lai-- by violent death. Then to speak of the love of God apart from the hope that the resurrection brings, is to speak of a meaningless love. You can't separate out the love of God in life from the love of God in death.      
It was dear old Steimle who convinced me that, if we do not preach about what the church believes happens when we die, we are leaving out a critical aspect of the gospel.

So I try to.

It is great to see seminary faculty like Tom Long willing to step out to address the meaning of eternal life for not only this life but the next.

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