Sunday, May 25, 2014
Faith that's Bigger Than a Bumper Sticker: God needed another angel in heaven? (John 10:7-11)
So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. 8 All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest. 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
On your evening news, you may see an interview with someone, and you only see them on screen for a few seconds and hear a few sentences from them. This is called a “sound byte.” The person certainly said much more than what we see, but it’s been edited down to the most essential information. Sound bytes don’t tell the whole story. I understand the frustration from both sides – the person trying to condense the story accurately, and the one being interviewed, reading the paper the next day going, “That’s not what I said, or at least, it’s certainly not what I meant!”
A short, memorable phrase, when lifted out of context, is easily misunderstood. If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series on “Faith that’s Bigger than a Bumper Sticker.” We are looking at popular misconceptions of Faith – they are sound bytes that could also easily fit on a bumper sticker.
Each week we’ve peeled back a different phrase. You may have noticed that many of these sayings are things that often get said around instances of suffering or tragedy, particularly at times of death. Both in experience and observation, though these phrases are offered with good intentions as words of meaning or comfort, most of the time, they only add to the pain of those who are already grieving. And so today, on this Memorial Day weekend, we look at another phrase that gets trotted out in times of death, that “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” May we pray.
We’re just trying to help
“God needed another angel in heaven.” Short phrase that says a mouthful. Since August, my wife and I have lost, between us, three of the remaining five grandparents we had still living. We lost my mom five years ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t still miss her like crazy. Many of you have lost those closest to you just recently, and nearly all of us have someone we miss, whether they went on to the Church Triumphant recently or long ago.
My wife spent her first year out of seminary working as a chaplain at Duke Hospital, where she worked in the pediatric unit. In that year, she personally had contact with 30 families whose children died at the hospital. Those were only the families with whom she had contact; there were countless others. Should we tell the grieving families, “There, there: God needed another angel in heaven?” How good or loving is a God who takes the life of a child? What higher purpose could that serve? What end could possibly justify an end so cruel and callous?
There are related to corollaries to the phrase: “Every cloud has a silver lining. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. Time heals all wounds. God knows what he’s doing. God needed them more than we did.” I’m often within earshot when these phrases are offered, and I just want to say, “Please don’t. I know you’re trying to be helpful, but it’s not working. Because if this person died because God just wanted to add them to his angel collection, then, God sounds like a real jerk.”
Yes, I’m aware these things are said with the best of intentions, and Death makes many of us uncomfortable, we don’t know what to say, and get ourselves into trouble. Often we don’t speak with God in these times, we speak about God. We fill the silence with pontifications that begin “I think God this,” and “I think God that,” and what comes next is not true, not helpful, and not healing for the person about to hear it, as we place things in the mouth and mind of God that God never said nor thought.
Friends, when you don’t know what to say, you don’t actually need to say anything. Turns out you don’t have to say much to let someone know you care. Often, a hug, a smile, a call, a card, and a simple, “I’m so sorry” is all that needs to be said. That’s all you need to do.
God is consistent, not confused
God isn’t a body snatcher, taking people from this life and adding them to his angel collection. One of the issues with making God the acting agent in death is that this runs counter to what we do know about God’s nature. We confess in the Nicene Creed that God is the Lord and giver of life. Not the taker!
In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, who came that we might have life, and, indeed, have it to the fullest (John 10:10). The thief comes to kill and destroy, but not God! God gives life. God doesn’t take it. God is not giving life with one hand and snatching it away with the other. To propose such an arrangement implies a very confused, split personality God, who is inconsistent, can’t make up his mind, who is actually working against himself all the time!
Now yes, people do this, but not God! We humans are walking inconsistencies – our behavior often works against what we’ve stated as goals. So, perhaps we say we’d like to be more generous with our money, or have more in savings, but we don’t change our spending habits. We say we want to lose weight, while we continue to eat as we always have.
Each of us are walking contradictions, saying one thing, and then behaving in a way that works against what we’ve said we want. Humans have these inconsistencies, but not God. God doesn’t work against his own interests. God is Love, steady, consistent, and unwavering.
We sing, “Great is thy Faithfulness,” not, “Great is thy Unreliability.” The God who is the giver of life, Jesus who came that we would have life and have it abundantly – God is not giving life with one hand and snatching it away with the other. Such a confused, conflicted and inconsistent deity wouldn’t know the difference between helping and harming, and anytime we imply that God is willfully grieving us by taking people away from us, then neither do we.
Death is not part of God’s plan
Death was never part of God’s plan. God’s plan was for us to enjoy perpetual fellowship with God and each other. The Westminster Catechism states that “the chief end of [human]kind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” If you read the story of Eden, that’s what it’s about. Nowhere is death any part of that plan. But, when sin entered the world, death came along for the ride. Death is the other side of the coin of sin; sin is nothing more and nothing less than a condition of separation from God – the very thing that works against God’s intent of uninterrupted fellowship with us.
But, since sin entered the world, God has been working diligently to defeat it. God has been working overtime to restore our relationship to God so that we can enjoy the communion with God for which we were originally designed. And so, death was never part of God’s plan, not part of God’s design, nowhere in God’s intent for us, and we, as the people of faith need to stop saying that God is causing and orchestrating death. God is in the life business. God is not giving life with one hand and taking it away with the other.
But, though God hasn’t caused death, God can still use it. Though God doesn’t orchestrate death, God commands death to serve God’s purpose, such that on its other side, we are restored to the full fellowship with God for which we were intended in the first place.
You see, death has already been defeated. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has already declared victory over sin and death, but death hasn’t gotten the message, yet. It’s akin to what would happen in wars before modern times – the war of 1812, for example. The war was officially ended by the Treaty of Ghent in December, 1814, but it took months for that news to reach the front. And so, the Battle of New Orleans, the last major battle of the war, took place in January, a month after the treaty had been signed. The combatants were fighting a battle in a war that was already decided; they just didn’t know it at the time.
That’s how it is for death in this time since the death and resurrection of Jesus. Death has already lost; it just doesn’t know it yet. A day has been promised of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more crying and pain, where death will be no more, but until then, death refuses to accept its defeat. And so, the result is that we live in this tenuous time between the times – the “already/not yet” of God’s kingdom – already here because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not yet here in its fullness.
That means that death is still a reality, with all the pain and suffering it brings with it. It still hurts, we still grieve, we still shed tears for our pain and our loss, and friends, that’s ok – even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus.
But, as people of faith, we do not approach death as those without hope. Frederick Buechner reminds us that the resurrection is God’s way of letting us know that the worst thing is never the last thing. God has frustrated death by taking away its sting. Death does not get the last word. It’s not final. Because now, even in death, God’s promise of life prevails.
God doesn’t cause death, but God does redeem it.
So, God doesn’t take people when they die. But God does receive them. God doesn’t take; God receives. Friends, that’s a big difference. It’s the difference between God rudely snatching and grabbing people from this life, and God graciously welcoming and receiving them with open, loving arms in the life to come. We don’t have a God who takes us. We do have a God who receives us and rescues us from death. Christ is victorious, even when we can’t save each other from death, God still can.
People don’t turn into angels
That clears up one misconception. But there’s another one here, the idea that people turn into angels when they die. It’s a popular idea, and I have no idea where it comes from.
There’s no reason to think that people turn into angels at death. The Christian faith presents a different picture. We believe that our loved ones have been graciously received into the nearer presence of God, where they are glorifying God and enjoying God in a way we can only faintly glimpse in this life. The book of Romans says that nothing, not even death itself, shall separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:35-39), and neither shall it separate us from each other. They aren’t dead and gone; they are alive with Christ, and wherever Christ can be, so can they.
But that doesn’t make them angels. Like angels, perhaps, but people don’t turn into angels. The Scriptures speak of angels in two ways: one specific, and one more general. Specifically, angels are a being altogether different than we are. Different Scripture passages describe them in a variety of ways, but here’s what we do know: angels are both beautiful and frightening. Sometimes they are wrapped in light so bright and glorious they shine like the sun, but they are something other than human. So that’s the specific description.
Now, onto the general. In Scripture, angels appear as messengers – they have some message from God to deliver. The word, “angel” comes from the Greek, angelos, and literally means, “messenger.” And so, in a general sense, an angel is God’s messenger. Anyone who provides help, or a message, or conveys God’s presence is, in this general sense, an angel.
In this way, anybody can be an angel. So, people don’t die because God needs angels. The idea that God needs anything from us is questionable enough to begin with, but really, if God needs messengers anywhere, does God need them more in heaven, or on earth? Our loved ones who have already died aren’t the angels, the messengers; we are! We should be less concerned with getting into heaven when we die, than in getting heaven into us while we live.
People don’t die because God needs angels. God’s message getting out isn’t dependent on death. God is the giver of life, not its taker.
Death is not the end of the story, neither for our loved one, nor for who they were and what was important to them. Whatever of them made this life a little better reflection of the kingdom of God in our midst – make room in your life for that to continue to live and grow. For those close to you who have gone on before us, take a few moments to ask yourself, “What is it about this person that made the world better, more Godly, and how can I make room for it to grow in me?”
Death need not be the end of the story. Their legacy can live on through us.