Sermon: “Death is Not the End of the Story” (July 13, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Death is Not the End of the Story” (Romans 8:11)
July 13, 2014
Dave Johnson

Posted July 14, 2014

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was in high school one of my closest friends had a 1965 Mustang convertible—Royal Blue with a white top. Some of my favorite high school memories involved our riding around with the top down and the volume of his cassette player cranked really loud (yes, cassette player—it was the mid 80’s). We were both huge classic rock fans, and one of our favorite songs was Ramblin’ Man by the Allman Brothers. We would sing along:

My father was a gambler down in Georgia
And he wound up on the wrong end of a gun
And I was born in the back of a Greyhound bus
Rollin’ down Highway 41
Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man
(from the 1973 album Brothers and Sisters).

Last month I read Gregg Allman’s gritty and fascinating autobiography, My Cross to Bear. Although he was not born in the back of a Greyhound bus, his father indeed “wound up on the wrong end of a gun,” and was shot in the back three times with a Colt .45 and died when Gregg was only two years old. Gregg’s ramblin’ life has had its share of extreme highs and lows, including several severe medical crises. In this book Gregg recounts a near death experience:

I was Code Blue. I was bleeding inside, and I was drowning in my own blood… What I remember is that I went to sleep and I had the most incredible dream. It was almost like a still life, and the air smelled so good and music was playing … I was standing at a bridge and it was twilight, and somebody was on the other side. They weren’t motioning, they were just looking at me, but the message got through: don’t come across this bridge. It was all so beautiful, I wanted to go over there and see who it was. All I could see was a silhouette of the person, with hair down to their shoulders… telling me not to come across that bridge. It’s not my time yet (1).

Although in this near death experience it was not Gregg’s time yet, one day it will be his time, and one day he will have to cross that bridge.

And that goes for you and me as well.

But the good news of the gospel is that death is not the end of the story.

Today I’m preaching about the reassuring words of the Apostle Paul in today’s epistle reading from his Letter to the Romans: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11).

As we celebrated a few weeks ago on Pentecost, after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension he sent the Holy Spirit, just as he promised. The Holy Spirit opens our hearts to the grace of God, convicts us when we go astray, leads us into truth, comforts us when life hurts, assures us that God loves us all the time no matter what.

And it is the Holy Spirit within us who assures us of the reality of Easter and the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ—in other words, the Holy Spirit who reassures us that death is not the end of the story.

Throughout his ministry Jesus encouraged his followers of the reality of their resurrection: “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus proclaimed, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live…all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out” (John 5:25, 28-29).

On another occasion, the day after walking on the water in the midst of a storm Jesus told his followers, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:40).

And on yet another occasion Jesus assured Martha before raising her brother Lazarus from the dead, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (11:25).

Moreover, when Jesus spoke to his disciples about his own impending suffering and death, he also spoke of his own resurrection: “The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes,” he said, “and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 20:18-19).

And because of the reality of Jesus death and resurrection, we can be assured that death is not the end of the story for us, as Paul wrote earlier in his Letter to the Romans: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

In his powerful book The Contemporary Christian the late Anglican priest and scholar John Stott expands on this:

The resurrection of Jesus assures us of God’s forgiveness, power, and ultimate triumph. It enables us to face our past… confident of God’s forgiveness through him who died for our sins and was raised; to face our present… confident of the sufficiency of God’s power; and to face our future… confident of God’s final triumph, of which the resurrection is the pledge. The resurrection, precisely because it was a decisive, public, visible act of God, within the material order, brings us firm assurance in an otherwise insecure world (85).

A number of years ago when I was in youth ministry I got a glimpse of what such “firm assurance in an otherwise insecure world” looks like. There was a seventeen-year-old boy named Devin at our church who lost his battle with cancer. I visited with him many times, especially during his final weeks. About 1:30 in the morning on a muggy May night his mom called to let me know he had died. I drove over to their house, and when I entered his bedroom there was an overwhelming, palpable sense of the Holy Spirit, an indescribable sense of peace and comfort in the moment of every parent’s worst nightmare.

His mom was at peace, smiling, and in a soft voice bordering on a whisper she told me, “God’s presence has been so real tonight, and somehow I know Devin is alright, and I know I am going to see him again.”

Death is not the end of the story.

One of my literary heroes is John Donne, the early seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet who also served as the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. In Holy Sonnet X he brilliantly captures the relationship we have to death in light of the reality of the resurrection:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

One of the greatest privileges of being a priest is visiting people on their deathbeds. It is a sacred gift to be invited to visit with someone during their final hours in this world. Several years ago I was visiting with a dying woman who showed me a card one her five-year-old granddaughter had made for her. On the front were simple crayon drawings of happy things like stars and balloons and flowers, along with the words “To Grandma.”

Inside the card was a stick figure of the woman with a smiley face and she was floating upwards, with another stick figure of the granddaughter, also with a smiley face, standing on the ground looking up and waving—and next to the drawing the granddaughter had written: “Soon you will go up, up, up, up. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.”

On an infinitely more grand scale the love of God for you echoes the love of this little girl for her grandmother, for just as Jesus predicted, he indeed suffered and died. He surrendered himself into the hands of sinners who nailed him up, up, up, up on the cross because he loves you, he loves you, he loves you, he loves you.

And as Jesus said as well, he was indeed raised on the third day, because death is not the end of the story.

And when your ramblin’ days are over and your time to cross that bridge has come, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead… will give life to your mortal bodies;” and the One whom the Bible calls Love will raise you up and welcome you to your eternal home.

I’ll close with an illustration from another one of my literary heroes, C. S. Lewis. At the end of The Last Battle, the seventh and final volume of his classic children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, the children Peter, Edmund, and Lucy find themselves in the Narnian equivalent of heaven, puzzled about where they were. Aslan, the great lion who is the Christ-like figure in the story, asks the children, “Have you not guessed?” C. S. Lewis continues:

Their hearts leapt, and a wild hope rose within them. “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Amen.