08 November 2007

Homily from June 2002

Eucharistic Homily for the First Sunday after Trinity
2 June 2002

Preached at Saint Alban's Parish by Father Robert Lyons

Today in our Gospel, we hear the familiar parable of the beggar and the rich man, and we see what appears, on the surface, to be a fairly clear statement regarding what happens to a man when he dies. However, in the many years that have passed since the day when Jesus taught that parable, Christians have managed to add to or take away from the strictly biblical teaching about the intermediate state of the dead between their earthly passing and their eternal judgement.

In truth, what we believe about what happens to the Christian soul after death may be less important than what we do not believe.

To be certain, we believe that we shall all pass away according to the flesh, and at the last, great day we shall be judged eternally by our heavenly Father. Some of us will enter life everlasting with God, others shall be cast into utter darkness and horror for all eternity. However, if we look with honesty at ourselves, we will admit to some concern about what happens between our physical death and the general resurrection.

Justin Martyr, writing early in the history of the Church, is very clear about what was taught in the Church. He explicitly states that the souls of the godly are in a good place, and the souls of the ungodly are in a bad place; there to stay until the judgement day. He also stands just as explicitly against those who would teach that one went straight to heaven or hell upon their death. He warns his fellows not to account as Christians those who would say that there was no intermediate state of the dead.

However, what is that state of the dead? The Eastern Orthodox Church simply says it is a place of waiting. Many refer to their stance as "soul-sleep", though such terminology is not strictly appropriate. Many of us are familiar with the dogmatic statements of our Roman Catholic brethren who believe in the existence of Purgatory, a place where satisfaction is made for the forgiveness of sins through the celebration of Masses and the obtainment of indulgences. Neither of these explanations can be entirely satisfactory. Certainly soul-sleep is not an acceptable position to hold, for as it is written in the Apostolic Constitutions, "Let us pray for our brethren who are at rest in Christ." This, however, is not to be confused with praying that someone who has died would receive salvation. Such a thing is impossible. One must be saved before they die. However, we can offer prayer for the departed, so long as we do not dogmatize the benefits of such prayers.

We would be wrong as Primitive Christians to accept the Roman doctrine of Purgatory, with it's accompanying prayers for the departed to be set free from the time of purgation, for we accept the primitive theological definition that Jesus Christ's sacrifice upon the cross was made, as we say in the Eucharistic Prayer, "for the remission" of sins. This is very different from forgiveness.

Let us say that a man steals a hundred dollars. You forgive him, but you still as for your hundred dollars back. Indeed, the man should comply and return the money. It is not so with the remission of sins. Christ's remission was full and complete. No work that we can offer will please God so much as Christ's sacrifice. His death was specifically intended not simply to forgive the sin, but to pay the price for the sin. He remitted the payment due for sin, so that we would not have to.

We must further consider the fact that those who have passed beyond the veil of this life were never believed to be knowledgeable about the state of this world. Tertullian, writing before the third century, states that the saints in Paradise are cut off from knowledge of this world by a "sort of enclosure." If one wishes to believe that those who have died are praying for them in their state, that is acceptable; but the Christian walks a fine line when he takes his prayers to the saints instead of making his prayer through Christ to God in the power of the Spirit.

With all these negatives, what can we affirm about the time between our deaths and our resurrection?

First, we can affirm that we will know our eternal destiny. In our Gospel today, the rich man realises that he is damned, and seeks Lazarus to go to speak to his family and to help them to avoid the same fate. Once we pass the chains of the flesh, we have passed into our eternal reward or punishment.

Second, we can affirm that our prayers are in some fashion helpful to those who died, though not in the doctrinal sense that surround prayer for those in Purgatory in the Roman Church.

Third, we can affirm that we should have little to fear if we, day by day, seek to repent for our sins and walk closer to Christ. We are empowered to do this by making use of the Rite of Reconciliation, and also by making every attempt to receive the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist as often as possible; certainly every Sunday and Holy Day. In doing these things, we will strengthen our souls against sin, repent of our sins sooner, allow the Spirit of God to work in our lives more effectively (to the end of avoiding sin) and, at the last day, upon our deathbed, we will be able to die with the knowledge that, having had the price for our sin paid by Christ upon the Cross, we are going to our rest, to await the day of the General Resurrection and Judgement.


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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