THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 172
Celebrating a life
A friend of mine died yesterday. He was a good age - approaching his mid eighties, so it was not entirely a complete shock - but nevertheless it was a surprise because I had been talking to him only two or three days ago and he was in good style then. Just collapsed and then died shortly afterwards. I suppose the body is liable to do that when you are in your eighties.
He wasn’t a Christian. At least, not a conventional Christian. After a lifetime of atheism, he had recently come to believe that there was a God but he had not yet got around to really examining who Christ was, what he said, what he did and how he died and what his followers said happened then. But he was a scientist and he had the mind of a scientist - open to new truth and ready to test any hypothesis. His lifestyle was along the lines of Christian teaching and his consideration and care for others was well known. He was in the process of testing the Christian hypothesis. I guess in time he might have become a paid up member of the Church of England. Certainly the beauty of Christian worship in an old church appealed to him.
I shall go to his funeral if I can. Not to support his wife, because she died some time ago. Nor to support his sons who seemed to me to be slightly detached from his situation. No - I shall go to celebrate his life. A lovely man, an honest man, a man genuinely looking for truth.
I think the nicest thing I heard anyone say recently was that such a person might have a wonderful surprise when they get to heaven! That strikes me as a very good way of expressing how God relates to us. Not as naughty children - nor even as sinful beings (which we are). But rather as people who have mostly missed out understanding what the true nature of the universe is all about.
So what is the meaning of life? Is it 32 or whatever figure was famously selected? Surely the essence of what it is all about lies in our view of who Jesus Christ was - and is. Because he is the vital clue - the connecting factor - the person who revealed deeper truth than all of us have otherwise come across.
So what did Jesus show us? Never mind for a moment what the church makes of it. Nor even how
One key word is ‘father’ - the word that Jesus used over and over again if the gospels are to be believed. And the fact that the word keeps cropping up means, I suppose, that we really should believe that this is what Jesus wanted us to catch hold of. God is like a father. Indeed, he is like a daddy - for that is the word preserved for us in the gospels, with every likelihood that it is exactly what he wanted us to understand. Daddy! A word on the lips of every child. A word we are all familiar with and happy with. Well - there might be some few people who had an evil earthly father and who therefore find the word full of terrible and horrible memories. But for the vast majority of us the word Daddy means happy memories. A time when we were innocent - well, fairly innocent! A time when he would come home and pick us up and we would thrill to know that we belonged to this big man.
And that is the word taught us by Jesus - how we should think of God. What we should conceive of when we think of God. How the idea of God should evoke the same loving response that we get when we hear the word Daddy.
That is a powerful insight into who God is - according to Jesus, anyway.
Then there is another saying of Jesus in which we can surely have full confidence - that in his father’s house there are many mansions and if it were not so he would have told us. An incredibly reassuring statement. That there are rooms in a house waiting for us. A house in the possession of our Father - whom we can call Daddy.
And Jesus is telling us that we can be sure of what he is saying - that if it were not so he would have told us. Warned us. Prepared us for a disappointment. So that we would not feel let down when we arrive there. Instead he is telling us that we are expected. That there have been preparations for us ahead of time. That we can rest assured that we won’t be left out in the cold. And he said this, not to a gathering of Christians, but to the huge and motley crowd around him.
And then doesn’t the story of the prodigal son give us an insight into how Jesus saw His father - our God? A Father who stands in his house - on the low roof perhaps - looking out to see whether there is any sign of his returning son. A father who runs out to greet that son, who hugs and kisses him and puts the ring on his finger to assure him that he is welcome - that his home is always open to him - the place to which he can always come back.
There had been nothing like that in the Jewish teaching of his day. Jesus was outlining a revolutionary gospel. His picture of heaven was quite unlike anything the Rabbis taught. Nobody had ever had the effrontery to suggest that God was like a loving father who took back an errant son despite his wild life in foreign parts. Possibly the Jews could conceive of a righteous person being acceptable to God. But a sinner? Never!
So this was new teaching. So natural and sensible did it seem that I am sure that many did not even realise how revolutionary it really was - not at first, anyway. All they knew was that they liked what they heard. It sounded right to them. It answered their need to believe in a believable God.
Having a wonderful surprise when we die is a lovely way to suggest that God’s love welcomes us in despite the intellectual difficulties and the moral questions and the sin and sins that have baulked us all our lives.
‘Ah!’ I hear someone saying ’But what about judgement? What about Justice and Holiness and all of that?’ Well, I suppose we have to give some sort of answer, even though it will probably satisfy no one who asks the question!
Yes, of course God is a just God and yes of course how we have lived has consequences. And yes, it would seem unfair if the sinful ‘got away with it’ . We have to believe in a just and righteous and loving God - otherwise we are truly in a morass. The bible leads us to see that justice is not so much what takes place in some future Court of Law but rather is deeply ingrained in our every action, every thought, every consequence in our lives. To that extent we are all already being judged and are already paying the price for the way we have lived. But lets try to look at it from God’s perspective.
In his creation we are all sinners. We are all sinners all the time, even as Christians, and paid up members of a church, we are still sinners. It would be very brave for anyone to claim they are sinless. Of course, as redeemed sinners, we get better at living as Christ wants us to live - but surely we all agree that sin still has a part in our lives?
But in God’s grace we are all forgiven sinners. All? What about repentance - don’t we have to evidence repentance before we are forgiven? Well, actually no. Repentance is necessary before we are able to receive God’s forgiveness - but that forgiveness is there, implicit in the cross and the resurrection.
And the gospel shows us a God who comes out to meet us - who, in his great grace, throws his arms of love around us even while we are still trying to give the reasons why we went wrong. A God who looks only at our heart to see how we are. What he sees there tells him whether we are open to meet him or whether we are closed down in a selfish egotism.
I believe that God will go on seeking and saving the lost until every person is won over into his kingdom. Converted not by force or by bribery or even by seeing an advantage in such conversion - but rather by a free moral and spiritual choice of good over the selfish and sinful. I have no idea how or where or when God will do that - but I am sure that the love and purpose of God is such that he will go on seeking and saving because this is the task he has set himself, and he won’t be satisfied until every last sheep is in the fold.
So my friend may not immediately get to be in that house that has been prepared for us all. Maybe there are other worlds - other situations - other systems of existence - other universes, parallel with ours, even - where God will enable each person who has not opened up to his love and grace to choose - if they wish - to refine their ideas and choices - until eventually we shall all join together in celebration of the might and majesty of Almighty God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Yes, I am aware that this runs contrary to the doctrines of some Christians and some Churches. But it seems to me to be in line with the heart of the gospels - and I rate that higher than the criticism I shall no doubt get from ‘orthodox’ Christians. And I am looking forward to meeting my friend again one day - and sharing with him how wonderful our Saviour truly is.