Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Regardless of their age, children have a unique way of seeing both life and death. Sometimes, their words surprise and amuse us. There was a Sunday School teacher who had described the kingdom of heaven as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” When she then asked her little ones, what they thought a land flowing with milk and honey would be like, one boy answered, “I think it would be pretty sticky.” At other times, our children’s thoughts on death stun and silence us. I myself am not planning on dying anytime soon, but I do hear my sons already dividing my worldly possessions between them. Nonchalantly, one will ask, “Papa, when you die can I have your green sweater?” The other has eyed a replica World War I cigarette lighter. Both are vying for my vintage Jaguar. I guess they could each have a leather seat.
Children often speak with a unique honesty about death and dying. Innocently, they will ask, “What does ‘dead’ mean?” Or they will stare you in the eye, and ask, “When will you die?” They’ll observe the actions of adults around them and whisper. “Why is Aunt Sally crying?” And they will place the emphasis on the question why. If heaven is so wonderful why should you be sad? Or death may seem like a nothing more than a weekend vacation, and they will ask, “When will Grandpa come back? Will he be here for my birthday?”
In the First Letter of St. John, the apostle offers a glorious truth which is difficult for us to imagine. He writes, “What we will be has not been revealed.” Perhaps our children understand the possibilities of such a promise more than we can. St. John wants us to remember that this life we know is only the beginning. Yes, “What we will be has not been revealed.” And yet the assurance and promise given God’s children doesn’t prevent questions from rising in our thoughts.
Over the course of three decades of parish ministry, I have heard many familiar questions spoken by children about death. They often highlight what we as adults are wondering. So on this All Saints Sunday I would like to share with you a meditation based on a few of the most common questions children ask. First, “Where is my loved one now?” Second, “Will I see my loved one again in heaven and will I know them?” And third, “What is heaven like?”
Let us begin with the question, “Where is my loved one now?” Whenever a child asks the question, “Where is grandmother or grandfather, my mother or father or my brother?” I answer, “With Jesus.” I then turn to one of the most powerful stories of life and death in scripture- the story of Jesus’s crucifixion on Good Friday. There were two robbers with Jesus, one on his left and the other robber on his right. The one robber on the left shouted at Jesus in an angry tone of voice, ‘Jesus, if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and prove to us that you are divine.’ But the other robber on the right, simply said to Jesus, ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to that robber on the right, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.’ That phrase is the key to our Christian understanding of death, and Jesus’ loving promise. ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.’”
Oddly, scripture offer a variety of conflicting perspectives on death. In the New Testament epistles, we read that the dead are resting- waiting for the great day of resurrection or the second coming. It’s the meaning beyond the acronym on tombstones. “Rest in Peace.” In others passages of scripture, however, we read that some of the dead have already been raised. Now there may be confusion here. After all, St. Paul writes in the Book of Romans, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Neither height nor depth. Nor principalities nor powers. Nor things present nor things to come. Nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God which is found in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There is never a moment when we are not in Jesus’ watchful care. It is a promise that echoes in Jesus’ own words. “Whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” That is why the Good Friday story is so important. Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Not tomorrow. Not when the end of the world comes. Not when the devil is bound and the trumpets sound. But today. My friends, that is your assurance as well. When you wonder where your loved one is, trust that your loved one is with Jesus.
Let us turn to the second question, “Will I see my loved one again in heaven and will I know them?” The simplest answer is, “Yes. You will see them again, and you will know them.” That is the promise Jesus’ offered his disciples on the night he was betrayed. “I am going to my Father’s house to prepare a place for you.” I like the imagery of that simple promise. Jesus was after all a carpenter. He knew how to create and build with his own hands. It is a comforting thought to envision Jesus going to his Father’s house in heaven, in order to build a room for me. And he doesn’t even need a building permit, or a Minneapolis Housing Inspector to check his work. Jesus said, “I am going to prepare a place for you.” And so, it is with confidence that I can say, “You will see your loved one again.”
But there’s more to that promise. When we die, we do not lose our individuality. Yes, we will take on new more glorious bodies as Jesus did. And yet the disciples still recognized Jesus after his resurrection. He was different, but he was also the same. Even with that change, there is something about our individuality and uniqueness that is retained in heaven. Again, St. John writes, “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed we will be like him.” The Christian faith is ultimately about our individual and unique relationship to God in Jesus Christ. And I believe that in heaven, God will retain this type of uniqueness. This is what we confess in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We believe in the resurrection of the body. We do not believe that we will become a part of some glorious light, or that we will be poured as water into a boundless ocean. We believe that we will be resurrected and our own unique and God-given characteristics will shine through. So my friends, when you wonder whether you will see your loved ones in paradise, do not be afraid. You will see them and you will recognize that unique characteristic which God has bestowed upon them.
Now, we turn to the third question, “So what is heaven like?” Of course, we all have our ideas. We trust that it’s going to be beautiful. The Bible says that no human mind can conceive or human eye can envision what good things the Lord God has prepared for us. Our minds are not big enough to think such thoughts about heaven and so we create visions of what we think heaven make be like. Children are content with green pastures, clouds and angels. Though there was the boy who was convinced that there would be animals in heaven as well. His Sunday school teacher asked him why he was so certain. They young boy replied quickly, “Well, every time there’s a thunderstorm, my father says its raining cats and dogs.” I guess the boy must have stepped in a poodle.
But we mustn’t be stopped by the lack of imagination. This life we know is just a beginning. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” With such a possibility, children often ask, “So if that is true, why doesn’t’ everyone want to go there? Why doesn’t everyone believe in heaven? Why are people so afraid to die?” It’s a good question, but I rather suspect it’s because we’re all a bit cautious. We don’t quite trust God’s promise to give us eternal life. We are not quite sure that God can be that good- especially when someone we have loved and known has died.
When we were serving as missionaries in Lithuania, there were times when we wanted to stay in closer contact with our family back home. Our home web page on the computer was the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Janna would often listen to the Viking games broadcast on the radio. But it wasn’t always enough. My mother-in-law, who was then living in North Carolina, suggested that we could look to the heavens. She often reminded us that it was the same moon shining over North Carolina and in Lithuania. But she also said that early in the morning there and late in the evening here, we could both see the same stars in the northern sky. We couldn’t see each other, but we could still be close together gazing up at the same stars from our different vantage points.
On this All Saints Sunday, we have a similar experience. Today, we are on this side of death looking up to the star of Jesus. And as we are looking up, our loved one are on the other side of death looking up at that same star, in a place more wonderful than you or I can imagine. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” Our loved ones who have passed away, our grandpas and grandmas, our mothers and fathers, our husbands and wives, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our friends and loved ones, are on that other side. No, I cannot see those loved one anymore, but I trust that we can all see the star of Christ from our different vantage points.
Children have a unique way of seeing life and death. We could learn from them. They hear Jesus’ words of promise freely spoken, and with the innocent eyes and open hearts, they receive these words as a gift of hope as a promise that cannot be taken back. “Your loved ones are with Jesus; you will see them again and greet them in a heavenly home; it will be a place that is better by far, than anything you can imagine.” My friends, it may seem too good to be true- but it is a promise given to you from the heart of a loving God. You need simply believe. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.