Scripture: 1 John 2:28-3:3
In Evansville, IN the most prevalent public green space in the growing city during the mid 1800’s was Oak Hill Cemetery. It was a common practice on beautiful days to stroll the graveyard, paying respects to loved ones, and enjoying the sunshine. Because of this, the prominent families in town built incredible monuments and structures on the hill. If people were going to be walking through the cemetery they wanted to make sure their family names were the most impressive. This was not uncommon, Crown Point Cemetery in Indianapolis has similarly impressive headstones that look less like grave markers and more like monuments. In fact most old American cities have a similar cemetery that was almost made to explored. It make sense, in a way, because all of us by choice or necessity end up exploring a graveyard at some point. Perhaps this is why so many tombstones contain an epitaph, a saying printed on the marker that records the deceased wisdom, wit, or sarcasm for generations. For instance, famed talk show host and game show creator Merv Griffin had “I will not be right back after this message” on his tombstone. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield continued is self-depreciating humor all the way to the grave. He still doesn’t get any respect as his epitaph reads “There goes the neighborhood.” Early 20th century writer and satirist Dorthy Parker was cremated and where her ashes are interred it reads “Please pardon my dust.” When I was in my early twenties and attended a meeting, I had never given any thought to an epitaph. After all that is not something on the mind of most twenty-somethings. However, at this particular meeting they did an ice breaker. Since it was around this time of the year, the ice breaker question was “what do you want your epitaph to be?” Thankfully I was not first so I started thinking about it. Because this was a Christian gathering, I could not just go with a bible verse. That is what everyone was doing, and I wanted to be original. I did though want an epitaph that was based in my faith and was suitably epic. Right before it was my turn I got it. When it came to me I introduced myself and then stated my chosen epitaph: “Death is just the beginning.”
This is the day that we chose to mark, remember, and celebrate those who have gone before us. We can gather in thanksgiving and celebration because for Christians death is not a period, it is a comma. We can find joy in the knowledge that death is just the beginning, that there will be a day where there is no more crying, no more suffering, and no more death. There will be a time when we enter a world without end. In the United Methodist funeral liturgy it states “blessed are those who die in the Lord” and the reason for this is that in Christ we may be clothed with glory.” While we celebrate that this morning’s scripture is a reminder to us. It is a reminder that while we may look forward to glory with expectation, here and now we are already children of God.
Outside of Revelation, the epistles of John are the most recent books included in the New Testament. 1 John was likely written somewhere in the late 80s or early 90s of the first century, this was close to sixty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. At this point some Christian churches were entering their second generation, and the faith was still spreading. John, who is typically regarded to have been the youngest apostle, is now an old man. He wrote this letter as a circular letter that was meant to be passed around multiple churches. In a lot of ways 1 John reads like a kind grandfather giving wisdom to his grandchildren. The fact that 1 John tends to address the audience as “dear children” really helps drive this image home. Given that, I find the choice of words in this scripture to be particularly interesting. It has been my observation that the older a person gets the more they tend to focus on the past. Yet John, who is in his 80’s and possibly his 90’s here is not focused on the past. It would not surprise me if he faced that temptation, he might have thought of writing this entire letter as a “back in my day” diatribe. That is not found here though. The tense is never looking backward. Everything in this scripture is based in the present or the future. In fact, this section of scripture has a great balance of what is and what is to come. For instance, it urges us in the present to continue in Jesus and it reminds us that now we are presently children of God. Yet this scripture also reminds us that Christ is coming back and when that day comes “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”
This scripture hints to the complex realities of our faith. We remember and celebrate a past event- the death and resurrection of Christ. Yet, we live out the reality of that grace in our everyday present. Then, at the same time we look expectantly to a future reality where that grace is fully realized in a world without end. To be a Christian means we hold the past, live the present, and claim the future simultaneously. This makes sense I suppose, since we worship an eternal God and serve a risen savior who was, who is, and who is yet to come. As we struggle with what it means to live out our faith in the present we can make the mistake of over emphasizing the past or the future.
Starting at a very early time in Christian history, we put a great emphasis on tradition. It is long been important to followers of Christ to remember and honor the past. However, we can get a bit carried away with this. Our faith experience can become all about what we have done. We can get stuck in a rut where we endlessly look back on the faith victories of the path. When you get someone stuck in this place to open up and talk about their faith they relay stories of when they met Jesus years or even decades ago. When we dwell on the past we do not live out our faith in the future. We fail to carry out the urging of this morning’s scripture to “continue in him so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” Unfortunately, I have heard colleagues in ministry tell stories of entire congregations who fell into this trap. These churches become museums built to themselves, where all of the artifacts are preciously preserved and marked with memorial plaques. At the same time these churches do not even remember the last time they had a baptism in their sanctuary, and their stories of serving the community are from a different generation. We absolutely can claim, honor, and celebrate the past. However, our faith story both as individuals and congregations need to also be based in what we are currently doing to make disciples and transform the world.
On the opposite side it is possible to get carried away with emphasizing the future. We absolutely believe that there is a day when Jesus will come back, when he will judge the living and the dead, and that God’s heavenly kingdom will be established over a new heaven and a new earth forever and ever. However, if wishing that day would come sooner than later becomes the most important aspect of our faith, then things are a bit out of balance. We need to be cautious of Christian escapism. This is where instead of engaging a broken, fallen, and scary world we look instead to the future when Jesus comes back. The major focus of our life is waiting for that day that Jesus comes back or calls us home, because we would rather escape this world then love it. Which is precisely the problem with over emphasizing the future in our faith. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to make disciples of all the nations. If our focus is on escaping to a more prefect future then we cannot continue in Christ, because we are not following his commands. This means that when we arrive in that future world without end we will be unable to approach the throne with confidence or unashamed because we would have failed to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Instead of living in the past or always gazing to the future may we instead remember the past, anticipate the future, and live in the present. We are saved by Jesus. The sacrifice he made that earned our forgiveness and reconciliation has already been made. May we claim that and clothe ourselves in Jesus Christ. One day, like the precious saints we remember today, we will one day be clothed in glory. However, friends we are clothed in Christ now so may we continue in him so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him in his coming. This means we love and serve others with the same love and compassion that Jesus has already shown us. Because of Jesus, we are now God’s children. That is what we are; so may we earnestly act like it. This is how we remember and honor the mighty acts of salvation that Jesus has already preformed in our present context.
The way we live out our future expectation of Jesus’ return in the present is through worship. Imagine the day when we shall see and know Jesus in all of his glory. Imagine the day when we take our place in the communion of saints before the throne of God. Can you only imagine, what that day will be like? While we cannot truly fathom it, I do think we can get glimpses of it in the present. We can worship God, express our love to God in glorious expectation, that the line between the now and the not yet begin to blur. This past summer, I got to experience what that is like at church camp. It was Thursday night, and this was the night that the whole week had been building towards. The evening worship that night was good and powerful, but it was a Jr. High camp and their attention span only last so long so as that evening worship drew to a close campers and counselors began wandering towards the bon fire. However, the camp as a whole was not done worshipping the one true God. As the fire began to die, a small group began to sing one of the worship songs for the week. Soon others joined in, and it did not take long until the entire camp was standing in a tight group singing, “In the soundless awe and wonder, words fall short to hope again. How beautiful, how vast your love is. New forever, world without an end.” As that happened, there was a holy moment, where that line blurred. Where we no longer counselors and campers in patch of woods south of Bloomington, we were part of the communion of saints before the throne. For a fleeting moment the future reality was tangible in the present.
Truly death is just the beginning, but eternal life does not begin with our death. It began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, when he defeated death once and for all and won the victory. Because of that singular event, we still live even though we die. We can claim an eternal life that goes on with Christ in the presence of our heavenly father forever and ever and ever, world without end, amen. May we joyfully anticipate that time, but may we remember that if we are clothed in Jesus Christ because we have accepted the forgiveness found in him then we are already living an eternal life in the present. May we claim and live out that eternal life found in Christ Jesus in the here and now. May we “continue in him so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him in his coming.”