As you can imagine, I have supported many people through my life as a priest as they have coped with the death of a loved one. Sometimes they can tell me how glad they were to be able to say goodbye, but very often there are some regrets, some sadness that they failed to say what they wanted to say. Often I hear “If only I had realized death was so near, I would have done or said things differently.” I comfort them by telling them to say it now, because we Christians believe that in and through Jesus, we are still linked to those we love who have died.
That belief is of course of great comfort to us too as we think of our own death. To know that when I die I will meet Jesus, that he will welcome me the way he welcomed so many sinners during his earthly life, is a great relief. I find myself singing “Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus, thank you Lord for loving me.” This belief that there is life with God after death was what made Christianity so welcome to ordinary people in the time of the Bible. Sadly, people nowadays miss out on the difference this makes. The problem is that modern people who are not religious, have been so influenced by Christianity, and by Islam, over the centuries, that they have come to believe that there can be life after death even if God does not exist. Indeed I once met a non-believer who was planning to kill himself. He told me that then he would be at peace. He simply assumed that there was a nice easy transition from death, to life after death, for everyone. You can imagine that I challenged that assumption!
It was very different in those early times when the Bible was being created, pagans then had no such belief. Life for most was an awful struggle, and death was just the end. The idea that death could be overcome, and that a new kind of life was offered beyond the grave by a God who loved them, was for them a new and wonderful gift; and so they put their faith in Jesus Christ and longed for it. St Paul says as much in his Letter to the Philippians (1:22-23) when he says: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me…. but…. my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
Our Gospel today (Matthew 11:2-11) tells us something of what a new life beyond death with Jesus means “The blind see again, and the lame walk.. the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life.”. But Jesus also teaches us that those who live selfish hypocritical lives, especially the rich “wearing fine clothes” etc, will not find that meeting with God so easy. Meeting God, meeting Jesus when we die, may be a joyful thing eventually, but it will also mean judgement, as we face up to our failings and our selfishness, and are shown all the things we could have done for others that we didn’t get round to.
Remember the parable of Jesus about the sheep and the goats? (Matt 25:31-46) Some people ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” and he answers “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” So faced with this, we know that only those of us who put our faith in the mercy of God shown in Jesus will be taken beyond our sins, and into his glory and peace.
Now I have said all this about death, because many people find it quite hard to understand St James, in our Reading today (James 5:7-10), when he tells us to be patient because the Lord’s coming will be soon. Why is that hard? Well because it has been 2000 years since that was written and the world still hasn’t ended. What is more, most of us do not want the world to end, because what we are hoping for is a better future for ourselves and our families, not for the end of the world. How then can we think of the Lord’s coming in a way that makes sense to us? The answer lies in what I have been trying to show as I have spoken of death. The point is that for each of us the coming of the Lord is sooner than we think, because each of us will die. And when we die, that for us is the day of the Lord’s coming, the day when we meet God face to face, the day of Judgement.
Living with the knowledge that one day we will die and face God does not mean being gloomy or frightened. It simply means living every moment for God, living every moment as if it were our last. Remember what I said at the beginning? Death will almost always mean regrets; regrets that we should have done this to help someone or said that to show we care or that we are sorry. But God accept our regrets for they are part of the way he redeems us and brings us through judgement to glory.