By Rev Ron Ham
The main character in Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, is Sherman McCoy, a millionaire who has an expensive apartment on wealthy Park Avenue in New York City. He wears clothes which cost a lot of money, has a talented wife, a daughter he adores, and a top job with brokers Pierce and Pierce. And he has a girl friend which his wife does not know about!
He and his girl friend have an accident in his Mercedes on a freeway ramp in the Bronx when they take a turn-off into a run-down neighbourhood which is at the other end of the prosperity in which he lives on Park Avenue. A black man is injured in the accident. From that point Sherman McCoy’s life falls apart.
The story presents the dangers and temptations of modern wealth and its influence, the questionable attempts of politics to achieve and hold power, the life-style of the very rich and the very poor, and the day to day highs and lows of particular people. None of this is confined to New York City. With suitable scene changes and different characters, this is the way things are between some people anywhere in the world. But if this is how life is for many people, is that all there is? When their soul is required of them, as the parable of Jesus says it will be required of the man who has his barns full and tells himself to be at rest, perhaps what they had is all there is!
This is a question that is as old as humankind itself. Reflecting on life now we cannot help asking, “Is that all there is?” Or is there more to our existence than our life on earth? There are some things belonging to our faith which we need to return to now and then so as to nourish our lives. To borrow a sentence from Psalm 23, I am today spreading a table before you in the presence of our enemy death – in this 26thverse of the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul says that death is the last enemy to be destroyed.
You will get a surprise when you realise that I am not giving you “pie in the sky when you die” stuff. As you will see, I am not one of those people who devalues life here on earth, thinking of this life as a time of waiting in the forecourt of God until our name is called – as though life here is really only second-rate and will soon be over. So be prepared!
Tom Wolfe in his novel does not raise the issue of life after death – he is concerned to tell us the story of Sherman McCoy whose life fell apart, here and now, and why it fell apart. But if we read his story, it is tempting to wonder about McCoy in the next life, and then about life for anyone, ourselves included, when at last we make the transition from the known here to the unknown somewhere else.
Some people in the Corinthian church to which this letter of Paul is addressed were raising questions about death. Their questions included whether there was life after death, but their more urgent question was about what kind of life it will be. Paul asked them, “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” I don’t want to explore his question in too much detail because that would involve a lot of information about the difference in the ideas of Greek and Hebrew thinkers about existence. I would bore you!
It is sufficient for me to say that broadly speaking the Greek thinking was that the invisible soul of a person is the ‘real’ person and the body is only a kind of container in which the soul lives here on earth – at death the body drops away and the soul alone goes on existing. But Hebrew thinkers could not put it like that. They thought of a person as being soul and body – a single whole and when a person died, if they continued to exist they have to exist with some kind of body: Hebrew thought could not imagine any person as a disembodied spirit. So that is why Paul argued for a resurrected body – whatever that was. That was the real concern of their question.
Here is an answer to my question about life in this world: “Is that all there is?” No, it is not all there is! The risen Christ is our guarantee that life after death is real, personal and in community with God and with others. This is not to say that Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s novel, nor the other characters with him, will move straight from Park Avenue, New York, or from 138th Street in the Bronx into a resurrected life with no questions asked.
Clearly, if we take the New Testament seriously, there is a matter of evaluation, of judgment which enters into life after death. Paul, if we were to ask him, would say of Sherman McCoy that he will have to give account of his greed, his pride, his attempt to cover up his injustice to the black man hit by his car, and the way he treated his wife – to mention only a few of the things his tangled life had spawned.
Paul is concerned to discuss with puzzled believers the reality and fullness of the resurrection. They have asked what kind of body they will have in the resurrection. Paul does not know the answer. All he can do is to give images: Thinking of our dying as ‘planting a seed’, Paul speculates – and I paraphrase: “What is sown perishes, what is raised never dies. It is sown incomplete, perhaps damaged and often old; it is raised vital and beautiful. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in strength. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body.”
I have found one of the most helpful ways of understanding this in a novel by Ronan Bennett, Havoc in its third year. The story is set in northern England in the seventeenth century. The Puritans control a town there and watch carefully over the beliefs and the behaviour of the population. So zealous are they that they lock people up, and even put people to death for their sins.
The coroner, John Brigge, is a good man and he tries to stop their brutal abuse of religion. But he becomes the target of their zeal and they hound him to his death not long after his wife Elizabeth has died. Bennett describes how John Brigge dies at the side of the road where friends had carried him. Then he writes: “By morning Brigge was recovered. His head was cleared and his wounds healed. He felt such extraordinary strength in his heart and limbs that he marvelled at it as though he had fallen asleep an old man and woken a young one. He climbed the mountain with bounding steps and called for Elizabeth. Below, his sheep grazed contentedly…and in the fields the harvest was nearly done…He was so joyful he lay down on the (flowers) and gazed up at the gentle sky.” (241,242). That’s another way of saying what Paul is saying, but instead of the body being sown in death a perishable body and raised a body that never dies, Bennett puts it movingly and accurately: “John Brigge had fallen asleep an old man and woken a young one.” Life here is not all there is!
Now let me warn you that I am not speaking of life after death as though that is all life is. Unfortunately there are some Christians who live life here as though the life to come is all that matters. “They are”, as the saying goes, “so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use.” That is an insult to God. God has given us life, and what a life it is! Think of the joy of human love, of human companionship, of the pleasure of games and food and music and art and literature and study and discovery and work andhumour. God has given us all these things richly to enjoy. We who are Christians are to live life in the fullness of human responsibility and when our call comes we will be raised to a life which has already begun in Christ now.
Did you know that John’s Gospel regards ‘eternal life’ as beginning here? We do not have to wait for it. Look at the life of Jesus. His quality of life sprang from the fact that already he possessed eternal life – a quality of relationship with God that you could not help noticing. He did not have to put on an act to convince others. He simply was who he was. He was no actor. Sometimes we make our faith in Christ such a self-conscious thing that we come across as putting on an act. “If you to try to make an impression, that is the impression you make!”
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is already to have eternal life. That begins to make a difference to us. We don’t have go around announcing it. Our quality of caring, of gentleness, of generosity, of justice, of kindness, of humility; our love of life and warmth demonstrate naturally a life in which God dwells. If we were to agree to let our church become a community hub, for example, we would meet people on this property whom we would never meet otherwise, and they would get a chance to see in us as individuals and as a community the eternal life which Christ has given us. It would have to show. If we get over-nervous about opening up this property to the people of Footscray, we might be denying God the chance to “let our light so shine that people see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven!” That’s Jesus, by the way, not Ron Ham!
So a sermon about our belief in the life after death has become more exciting because that life is already in us. If we turn to the life to come, not even Paul could find words to describe how immeasurably greater that future life will be – but not at the expense of loving and living this life in all its fullness.
Tom Wolfe, in this book, Bonfire of the Vanities, with which I started, describes how a reporter on a New York newspaper got to work one day and saw another reporter he disliked heading towards him. He describes the advancing reporter as the type which “always wears bright neckties that leap out in front of their shirts, as if to announce the awkwardness to follow.” (164) It does not have to be neckties that announce our awkwardness. If we live lives of pessimism and fear, of meanness and narrowness, of artificial faith artificially announced by an empty life – a kind of unpleasant necktie – we will be announcing the awkwardness to follow. But if we draw our hope from Jesus Christ risen from the dead, who guarantees eternal life now and a life which continues when this earthly life falls away, we do not need to deliberately parade our belief like the reporter with the bright necktie; we will have a quality of life that enriches people now and hints strongly of the resurrection in Christ that awaits us at the end.
What are the things we need to wake up from? What do we need to wake to?
There are two things I suggest.
1. Waking up to our responsibilities in and for the world.
Following Jesus is about waking up from focussing on ourselves, our needs, and being awake to the needs of others and the world.
Jesus wanted people to be wake up. He wanted the religious authorities to wake upfrom their deep sleep of privilege, wealth, power, injustice, and wake up to the needs of the disadvantaged, the poor, the lepers, the sick, the prostitutes, the widows, the foreigner.
He wanted them to wake up to the way they shaped society to benefit themselves.
Jesus too wants us to wake up; wake up from our deep sleep comfort and privilege and wake up to sharing our god-given resources.
He wants to wake up from the sleep of complacency, keeping things the way they are.
We need to wake up from the sleep that those in positions power can do as they like just as long as it doesn’t affect or disadvantage us. We need to wake up to the fact that when another human is suffering, we suffer, the world suffers, God suffers.
But Jesus also wanted disadvantaged people/victims to wake up from their condition. They can just as easily fall into a deep sleep of self-pity: I’m helpless, nobody loves me, why me? And this is the type of sleep that we often drift off to when it comes to meeting the needs of world:
I’m too young, I’ll do it when I’m older, I’m too old I’ll leave to those younger, I’m too busy, I’ll do it when things slow down a bit, it’s not my calling!
But if we think about those who have made a difference in the world, [e.g. Gandhi, Luther king, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Bono form U2] they do not have magical powers. They were not born world-changers. They could have easily gone the other way.
They are simply people who are awake: they are people who refused to be drawn into the deep sleep of not caring, the deep sleep of keeping things the way they are. They refuse to be sleeping and doing nothing.
We need to wake up to our responsibilities as humans as Christians!
Being awake means living a responsible life. We need to wake up from understanding our faith as something we do with our heads rather than our lives. We need waking from sleep that sees our faith as separated from, or more important than, our living out. Our faith must be an active faith; it can only find expression in what we do; in how we act/behave.
We pray “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When do ‘mission’ or work toward social justice, we are trying to live out what we pray, we in fact helping to bring about God’s kingdom.
Being awake in this way means doing good at every opportune time. But it’s not about being able to recount what we’ve done or what we expect in return. No, we are called to be good for nothing. Yes, Christians must be good for nothing!
2. Being Awake to God
As Christians we need to be awake to God!
In the early 1990s, in Atlanta USA, a woman named Joyce Simpson couldn’t decide whether to stay with the church choir or quit and sing professionally. So she prayed for a sign from God. Very soon after, she spotted the face of Jesus on the street – to be more precise it was on a Pizza Hut poster. Apparently the shadowy image of Jesus’ face in strands of spaghetti hanging from a fork meant she should stay with the choir. ‘Spaghetti Jesus’ made headlines all over the country with thousands coming to Atlanta to get a glimpse.
Almost two years ago, Florida, US, woman declared she had found an image of the Virgin Mary on a burnt grilled cheese sandwich. She auctioned it off, selling it for US$28,000!! In her Ebay ad, she wrote: “I would like all people to know that I do believe that this is the Virgin Mary Mother of God. That is my solemn belief. People ask me if I have had blessings since she has been in my home. I do feel I have, I have won $70,000 on different occasions at the casino near my house.” I remember seeing this story in the news on TV. (http://www.goldenpalaceevents.com/auctions/grilledmary01.php).
At about the same time, a Canadian man burnt his fish stick at dinner and saw an image of Jesus on it. He then auctioned it off on Ebay.
I’m sure you would’ve heard about these stories or similar ones even here in Australia. As silly as these stories sound, they express an important truth about how we look for signs of God in every day life.
I think most of us deep down we want to see God in an unusual way, in a way that captures our imagination and fills us with awe. A way that’s spectacular and miraculous that reassures us that we’re on the right track – that we’re worshipping the right God.
But I feel it is a deep sleep that we need to wake from. We have all the signs in world of God in our everyday life, it really depends on what you’re looking for: When I think at how there is just the right amount of sunlight to give the earth life, any more than we’d all fry any less we’d freeze; when I see how Liam has turned from dependent restful baby to a independent restless 2 and a half year old; when I feel how much love you give my family; when I have peace at difficult times; God must around somewhere!
When we’re wanting and expecting the spectacular, it is seeing Christ in the ordinary that Jesus teaches us to be awake to. These are the unexpected things we need to be ready and awake to appreciate. This is the unexpectedness of Christ!
If Christ comes like a thief in the night, when do you notice that a thief has been in your house? It is after the thief has already entered. We know the thief has been there because of the “evidence” left behind. We must be awake to the evidence of God’s fingerprints all around us and upon us!
Waking up from a deep sleep is never easy and it may take sometime until we are fully awake. But it is a journey that leads to life.
What do you need to wake up from? What do you need to wake up to?
Here again is a verse from the song “Bring Me to Life” (evanescence) which I think describes well our need to wake up!
All this time I can’t believe I couldn’t see
kept in the dark but you were there in front of me
I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems
got to open my eyes to everything
without a thought without a voice without a soul
don’t let me die here
there must be something more
bring me to life
Come Lord Jesus, wake us up on the inside and bring us to life. Amen.
Go with open eyes, minds, and hearts
May the God of life awaken within you a new sense hunger to know God.
May the Christ of compassion stir within you a renew love for others
May the Holy Spirit, fan within you the flame of faith anew.