Jul 10th, What Happens After We Die?, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
A Part of the Series:
Jul 10th: What Happens After We Die?, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
The focus of our summer worship is questions. Abraham Hessel said, we are closer to God when we are asking and wrestling with questions than when we think we have all the answers. So we asked you to submit questions, and we’re focusing our worship this summer around wrestling with your questions. Today’s question is one that I think everyone wonders about what happens after you die? A woman asked her pastor what heaven was like.
And the pastor said, I imagine heaven to be like a worship service that never ends, that goes on forever. And the woman’s husband muttered, sounds more like hell to me. I know there are preachers who claim with utter certainty they know everything there is to know about the furniture of heaven, the temperature of hell, and they also claim to hold a gift list for both places. What happens after we die? This preacher will honestly say, I don’t know, and I’m not going to pretend I do know.
But what I believe and what I trust with my entire being is the mystery of something more, that death is the transition from this life to more life.
Mystery isn’t a bad word. It’s not a negative word. Mystery isn’t the absence of meaning. Mystery is the presence of a greater reality that is beyond anything our minds can possibly comprehend. I have a friend who’s a pastor who flat light for two minutes and was brought back to life.
Now, he described experiencing the things you often hear like a white light, experiencing a sense of overwhelming peace and being at one with everything. He also described laying in a field of wildflowers, and in a nearby field he could hear his father. His father who suffered from severe mental illness while alive and died by suicide. He said he could hear his father laughing and laughing. You know, I got tears in my eyes when I heard him describe this.
Imagining my father who died from Alzheimer’s, imagining my father in a spacious field where he was laughing, where he was held in love and overwhelmed with joy. I had the sense of the mystery of more life.
That’s just simply being better than anything our minds can comprehend or imagine, where we are free from any kind of fear and anything that combines or restricts. The Psalmist in Psalm 1819 describes it this way god has set me free and placed me in a spacious place.
You know, I asked someone who was nearing the transition from this life to more life. I asked them if they were afraid, and she beautifully said, no, not really. I was loved before I was born, and I will return to love after I die. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t say it better than that. I think the three most powerful words in the Bible are found in one corinthians one three eight.
Love never fails. It says in Romans 828 that there is nothing, there’s nothing in all creation. There is nothing in life there’s nothing that can ever separate us from the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Nothing in life or death that can separate us from the love of God.
So if love is the ultimate nature of reality, then whatever is after death is love.
What that looks like is a mystery. But personally, I don’t need more than that. Our good friend Marcus Borg, who preached preached at our church, he said this before he died. So is there an afterlife? And if so, what will it be like?
I don’t have a clue. But I am confident that the one who loves us and holds us up in this life will also love us and hold us up through death. We die into God.
What more that means, I don’t really know. But that is all I need to know.
Now there’s a beautiful story. I love this story about twins having a conversation in the womb. The sister said to her brother, I have this feeling, I have this trust, this inner knowing that there is life after birth. Her brother protested via Billy, no, don’t be silly. This is all there is.
This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing else to do but cling to the cord that feeds us. There’s nothing more, his twin sister insisted, there must be something else, something more, a place with light, a spacious place where there’s freedom, room to move. I get a glimpse of it now and then, but she couldn’t convince her twin brother. And after some silence, the sister said hesitantly, you know, I have something else to say. And I’m afraid you won’t believe that either.
But I think there’s a mother. Her brother scoffed at the age. What are you talking about? I’ve never seen a mother, neither of you, who put that foolish idea into your head? This dark place is all there is.
There is nothing more. And his sister just couldn’t let go of this deep sense, this deep, knowing that there’s something more. And she finally said, don’t you feel those squeezes every once in a while? I mean, they’re quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful. Yeah.
Her brother responded, what’s special about that? And his sister said, I think those squeezes are there to get us ready for another place. A place much more beautiful than this, where we will see our mother face to face. Isn’t that exciting? I love that story.
It says in one Corinthians 1312 now we see through a glass dimly, but we trust that the day will come when we will see face to face. Now we know in part, but there’s a day when we will know everything, even as we have been fully known.
The very first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis. There’s poetry describing the very nature of creation. It’s not science. It’s not science to be taken literally. It’s poetry inviting us to wonder.
And in that first chapter in Genesis one, it says these words culminating each of the six days of creation. It says, and there was night and then there was morning. Now, we’d probably reverse the order, right? We’d probably say, there’s morning and then night. It’s not what it says.
It says, There was night and then morning. So again, this isn’t a science lesson describing how the Earth moves around the sun. This is poetry, where the poet writing in Genesis is trying to describe a mystery built into the very fabric of creation itself, built into the mystery of existence, that beyond the night, no matter how dark or how long the night may seem, morning comes. Morning, oh, it’s always comes. Beyond winter, there is spring, and beyond death, there is life, more life.
And that’s the nature. That’s the nature of reality.
There’s something more. There’s always something more.
We are loved before we are born, and we will return to love after we die.
You know, another question about what happens when we die is who’s included in this love and who gets excluded? A friend of mine asked me to officiate his father’s funeral. And my friend said to me, I have to be honest, my dad wasn’t a Christian. In fact, he was an avowed atheist. Now, he was a really good man, and I want to celebrate his life, and I want to believe, I really want to believe that the goodness of his life continues in some way.
He looked right at me and he asked me, can you officiate his service knowing he was an atheist?
I smiled and said, you know, the love of God, the love of God, I’ve come to understand the love of God I’ve come to understand that is revealed in Jesus that love is not so fragile that it can’t withstand someone’s unbelief.
He then asked, Wait a minute. Does that mean then everyone goes to heaven?
I said, yes, I’m pretty sure everyone’s everyone’s included in the embrace of God’s love.
It says in Ephesians 28, it says, it is by grace that we are saved. Now, grace, what grace is grace is God’s free gift of unconditional love that is at the center in the heart of all things.
It’s not something we earn. It’s not something we even deserve. It’s a gift.
And remember, we’re told there is nothing, not even our unbelief that can separate us from the gift of that love.
The idea of heaven being a reward for being good, for believing the right things, and hell being a punishment for being bad and not believing the right things completely nullifies the idea of God’s grace. For grace that has any conditions attached to it is no longer grace. Unconditional love with conditions is no longer unconditional.
So my friend asked, Wait a minute. Okay, so if heaven isn’t a reward for being good, why the heck bother being good?
I said, Because we have a need to be good. That’s how God made us created. We are created in the image of God, and God is love.
That means our essence. That means our truest self is love. We are most fully alive and whole and authentically who God intends us to be, love one another. And we don’t love to earn a reward.
We love as a grateful response to God’s love for us. And we love because it’s who we are and it’s how we are made.
My friend wasn’t going to let this go. He then asked the tough question that I think everyone asked, okay, what about those people who are sheer evil? They can’t possibly be included in love, can they?
And I said, you know, I’m pretty sure everyone is included. That’s why the Bible keeps talking about God’s love as being beyond anything that we can possibly comprehend.
I suspect there’s a refining aspect to love once we die. There’s a justice when even the most evil person encounters pure and unconditional love. I believe that encounter with pure love heals, heals all that gave earth to evil. And that encounter with pure and unconditional love heals the pain that evil caused others.
So even in the mystery of more life, god continues to love. God continues to heal. God continues to restore and make us whole.
Honestly, I don’t know what happens after we die. What I know, not just with my mind, what I know in the very depth of my being and in my heart, is that God’s love is stronger than death and is a love that will never fail us. Do you remember the story of the Rodley brothers? They were famous trapeze artists in the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Joseph Rodley was considered the star of the show because he was the one, the one who flies through the air doing somersaults he was interviewed by a reporter who asked what it was like to be the star of the show.
And Joseph Rodley said, I’m not the star. My brother is the star. He’s the one up there, way up there in the rafters. You actually can’t see him, but he’s there.
And what allows me to fearlessly fly through the air is knowing and trusting. My brother is there to catch me. In fact, if I become afraid and try to grab onto my brother’s wrist, that’s what I get in trouble. All I have to do is stretch out my arms, open my hands, and trust. And my brother my brother catches me every time, never lets me down.
What does it say in one Corinthians 13 again? Love never fails. Jesus revealing to us not only how to live, but also how to die. Said, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. That’s what I tell people when I’m privileged.
And it’s a sacred privilege to accompany their transition from this life to more life. I say to them, you know, nothing is required. Nothing is required or demanded of you.
Just stretch out your arms. Open your hands and trust I promise God’s love will catch you and carry you into the mystery of something more a mystery better a mystery better and beyond anything our minds can possibly imagine and as you trust the love that never fails the love that will catch you in the mystery of the life that is to come friends. May it free you today to live as fully and to love as boldly as you can in this life.
May it be so.