Near Death and New Life Experiences
April 28, 2002
Easter 5 John 10:1-10
When the bleeding wouldn't stop, Bill knew he was dying. "I was going, but I felt totally at peace', he later explained 'There was a golden kind of light, brighter than the sun, but it didn't hurt my eyes. I never wanted anything as much as to go into that light, but something or somebody - it felt like my dad, who died when I was a kid - communicated to me, 'It isn't your time. You must go back to finish what you have to do in your life.' The next thing I knew, I was slammed back into my body. It felt like a wet sock, and the pain was just awful."
This account is amongst millions of such stories. Some of the common themes in near death experiences include the bright light, conversations with deceased loved ones, and life flashes. More importantly there seems to often be a heightened sense of the meaning of life, and how it all connects; a revision of priorities and what changes need to be made.
It was Woody Allen who said - 'I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens!' In recent weeks many people around the world have paused to ponder the nearness of death, their fear of death, and hence the point of life. Of course much of the world has never stopped thinking about death. It has always been an ever present reality. Yet recently the Western world, believing it was untouchable in its progress, has had cause to stop and reflect. It has been what I would describe as a global near death experience.
It seems to me that this is the time, above all times, to offer a message of hope. Where people expect the church to speak of God's role in this or that world crisis, and this or that national cause, we speak of the unconditional love of God for all people; the unifying God. Where people expect the church to speak of dying well, and to hope in an after life, we speak of living well and finding hope in this world. I want to offer a positive message, one I would call a new life experience.
I wonder if you have ever considered the Bible in this light. The writers and composers of the Bible, as well as the early church, lived so under the perceived threat of fatal persecution. They believed that their days were numbered, and that possibly the situation in their world was so dire that it could spell the end of history. Allow yourself to entertain for a moment the possibility that the Bible was written as a collection of near death experiences. The factual details become unimportant. Far more important are the attempts of a group of frightened people to make sense of their lives and how the universe might gain some purpose.
So, come to the Gospel text for today. Hear it not as a description of hell or of purgatory or of any actual out of body place. Rather hear it as a story of agony and ecstasy. The agony of reviewing your life, only to realise that at points you have not lived at all. The ecstasy of knowing that it is not too late to make changes. There is time to repent; a word we have become ashamed of, yet in reality means making changes or turning around an attitude.
My definition of repentance - 'Refocusing our priorities, restoring our vision and regaining purpose in life.'
Then a curious story about Abraham and the Prophets. The point I take from that is that we need not be motivated by fear of death to make changes in life. We need no near death experience to appreciate life. Rather the wake up call comes in the midst of life, in the inspiration of those who have gone before us and lived to the full and offered us the resources to live life to the full, to engage in a lively faith.
There exists a great chasm between life and death. I don't mean physically. In fact the line between the two is torturously fine, as we have recently been reminded. Rather the chasm is the gap between living life to the full and going through the motions in a state of death, without meaning and hope. This is hell. It is a state many of us have known. It is agony and can be described many ways, even as the indignity of having dogs lick the wounds of life or being forced to dine off the worst that others or society has to offer.
The agony can be so painful and Jesus knew this agony. He knew its pain so acutely that for him at this point in his journey, he saw it as a chasm which could not be crossed. Of course we know that at other times the message of Jesus was the hope of always being able to choose to cross that chasm.
And so my message today - in the face of agony, personal agony, global agony, anxiety, fear, the agony of loss of hope, I offer the possibility of a new life experience. The belief that there is time to make the changes which will lead to a full life and a hopeful future. That time is now.
Each in our own way:
The passion for living and loving
The courage for daring and hoping
The freedom for growing
The capacity for giving and receiving
The humility for learning
The tenderness for understanding
The strength for enduring
And trust for believing
May God's grace and peace
the presence of all that makes life whole
be with us and go with us. Amen