On Labor Day Sunday I’m often called on to preach so that the official pastor can take time off. So it is again. But this is probably the last time I will preach for a while. The congregations that usually use me all will soon have pastors firmly in place.
On Monday I sat for a long time in a medical waiting room after transporting someone to an appointment (this is a volunteer thing that I do). This allowed me time to read most of my next book. I am reading Dale C. Allison’s Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things. Allison is one of my favorite authors. He is a biblical scholar and historical Jesus theorist. He is a full participant in modern rationality and skepticism. Yet he keeps an open mind about miracles and mystical experience.
While reading this I decided to preach about life after death. This is challenging because I do not think I know much about life after death. I believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But that is about Jesus, not you or me. His resurrection by God undergirds a belief that God is stronger than death. That gives us hope, but it doesn’t give us details.
I know from personal experience how vital and real are the questions asked after someone close to you has died. Where are they now? How should I think of my loved one now?
I am thinking about two recent deaths that have occurred in the congregation where I will preach. One, just weeks ago, was their beloved interim pastor. Another was of a long-time pillar of the church, someone people were used to greeting every Sunday.
So how do we now think of these loved ones who have disappeared from our presence? I will discuss Allison’s work in future posts. But the rest of this post is something I have been thinking about and that I will develop into a sermon this week.
I have been pondering what Luke 16:9 tells us that Jesus said:
I tell you, make for yourselves friends by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when you fail, they may receive you into the eternal tents (WEB).
The retention of the Aramaic “mammon” and a few other markers in this verse make it a candidate for being an authentic saying of Jesus.
The question I have been asking myself is whether Jesus envisioned the future life, where we are welcomed “into the eternal tents” as a community of friends. The image is that of being welcomed by the friends we have made in this life.
Luke has placed this saying between two parables which he must have thought shed light on it. It’s present place makes it part of the interpretation of the parable of the unjust steward. The steward had made friends by deceitfully forgiving a part of what debtors owed his master. But the parable was not explicitly about death or being received into an eternal home. So the saying seems a little forced as an interpretation of that parable.
However, there follows the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man has failed to make Lazarus his friend and this puts a gulf between them in the world of the dead.
I do not think this parable literally describes what happens after death anymore than I think all our stories about meeting St. Peter at the pearly gates literally describe what will happen. Jesus was using a popular way of imagining the situation after death to make a point.
But what is more literal is the idea that after death we are welcomed into a community of friends.
The idea of welcome that occurs in Jesus’ saying that whoever welcomes one child in my name welcomes me (Mark 9:37 and Matthew 18:5) has the implication that the act of welcoming people creates community with Jesus. Or, as Matthew 25:40 says, when you act kindly toward other people Jesus receives those acts as acts of friendship toward himself—as you have done it to other people, you have done it to me.
Those with whom we have interacted in generosity and love in this world welcome us as friends into the next. We may think of our loved ones who have died as at home in the presence of their friends.