When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I met a lot of people who were very unlikely to get better. And sometimes their relatives would ask me to say some prayers at the bedside. In most cases this wasn’t because they had a strong faith, but was more likely to be a result of not knowing where to turn in their grief.
I guess that most people wouldn’t give a second thought about asking God for anything when things are going along quite nicely; but when the chips are down; well that’s a different matter.
I don’t have a problem with this and I fully understand the hope that as a last resort, God will intervene where medicine may fail. I think it’s sad, but I do understand it.
Now, a while ago I was called to a High Dependency Unit because staff had been asked by some relatives that a priest attend their loved one who was very close to death. The gentleman in question was an elderly man who’d suffered a big heart attack. He’d also told his relatives and his nurses that he wanted the church’s ministry, at the end of his life.
I checked the position out with the nursing staff before I met the family, and it was clear to me that the dying man’s wish would have been for me to say commendatory prayers for him.
The relatives had a very sketchy understanding as to what this involved and so I explained the nature of the prayers of commendation. They were aghast. That wasn’t what they wanted at all. There was to be no mention of the dreaded word “death.” Their relative was in a coma, but that didn’t matter. They didn’t want to hear that word, and what’s more, they didn’t want to be present when prayers were said. I think they wanted magic, and perhaps I was the man with the wand.
I tried to explain that their grand-dad wasn’t afraid of death. I tried to explain that sometimes, real healing can come through death, but my words fell onto closed ears.
Now, this kind of situation is difficult for me to face, because I know that love is stronger than death; and I want other people to know this as well. This is the Christian message. It’s not all about singing hymns, and sprinkling holy water, it’s about love.
I want men and women to be set free from the fear of death, and to know that the God who created the Universe, and everything in it, including you and me, is a God of love who would never bring any of his creatures into being just to snuff their lives out after however many years.
I want men and women to know that Jesus is alive today and that he’s to be met through the lives of ordinary people, who like him will also pass right through death. Yes, some of them may appear to be holy do-gooders but I rather expect that most of them will be ordinary men and women; people who laugh and cry and eat and drink and yes, tell jokes as well; people who sometimes let the side down, but through whom we can also see Jesus at work. Beggars, if you like, showing other beggars where to get bread.
The resurrection of Jesus is a mystery of course; but it can explain many things. And one of them is that God’s love is stronger than death. Death has been shown up to be an imposter, and we know this because Jesus appeared to his friends who loved him.
Now, perhaps you feel that your faith would be a lot stronger if you too, could have a personal experience of the risen Christ. Well, if that is the case, then remember you’re much more likely to meet Christ when you’re in the company of other Christians.
It’s when we’re at our lowest; when we really don’t feel much like going to church at all, that we most need to be there. It’s when we’re in the company of others, doing what Jesus told us to do at the Last Supper, that we’re most likely to meet him. It’s when we recognise our broken-ness and our dependence on God and each other; it’s when we see in the broken bread and the poured out wine, the sign of God bleeding and dying for us in Jesus, that his presence is likely to be sensed and indeed felt. It is a presence which transcends the Jesus of history and yet makes him present to us in the Christ of faith.
The resurrection appearances stopped some six weeks after Easter; they had to stop in order that Jesus could be made present to everybody. But Jesus isn’t just a figure from history who we can read about in the Bible. He’s alive in a way which transcends flesh and blood, and he wants to relate to all who will respond to him. And you may believe this, first of all, because of the witness of the gospels. No other explanation can do justice to the facts.
And once you accept this, once you decide to take God at his word, despite all of your honest doubts; then you’ll meet Jesus, and words will never do justice to your experience. Your life will begin to be turned upside down, as you begin to see more clearly than ever before how the God of love is made present to us. How he reveals himself to us through a suffering servant who’ll take many forms to make his presence real. A presence which will always say to you: “Even though you die, you will live”. I went back to the High Dependency Unit later that day. The relatives had gone. I blessed Roy, and commended him to God. He knows that now; may he rest in peace. Amen.