“Suffering, Death and Heaven” by The Rev. Ernie Ashcroft

Isaiah 49:1-7
John 12:20-36

Have you ever noticed that the same point is being made in the OT and the Gospel lectionary readings of the day?  Today the Isaiah reading reveals that the prophet is depressed, believing that he “ has labored in vain and spent [his] strength for nothing”. But a few verses later he is told that though this apparent failure God will usher in a much greater blessing than the prophet could imagine, not the mere return of Israel to God –rather salvation will offered to the whole world by Israel becoming a light to all nations.

In our Gospel today Jesus makes a similar point, saying of his imminent death and apparent failure, that, “ unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Both of these passages illustrate “that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts”, they are much greater.

I want to apply this today to the issues of suffering, death and Heaven.

I in July of 2015 I would be 70 and planned to retire at the end of the month from full time parish ministry. Just before my birthday I got a call from my son Stephen saying “I am at the University Medical Center,  I am having some scans and am scared”. I went there and Stephen explained that the doctors were checking some “issues” in his abdomen. Two days later  on my 70th birthday, I  met with Stephen, his wife Anna and the head of the Colorectal Surgery Department who told us that Stephen had stage 4 colon cancer, and it  had already spread to his liver and lungs. Although I suspected the answer, I asked the surgeon “In your experience, what  are the 5 year survival numbers for someone of Stephen’s age and diagnosis”. “Very poor” was his response, “but the three-year survival numbers are better”.

That day I recognized that, in all probability, Stephen’s condition was terminal. But of course, being human, I hoped for the best; that somehow Stephen would be one of the few folks to survive this disease for at least five years. We then embarked on a wrenching journey of chemotherapy and surgery. Moments of hopefulness, when the chemotherapy seemed to be working effectively and the tumor in his colon was successfully removed surgically and dark moments when the cancer cells mutated, and the chemo agents lost their effectiveness. Different cocktails of chemo agents were employed, but finally the day arrived when the oncologist told us “there no further treatment available for Stephen”. Then I knew for certain that I was about to loose my son of 37 leaving behind a young widow and two small children. Steven died in December 2017, a mere seventeen months after diagnosis.

Over the years I have provided pastoral care to hundreds of parents, spouses and children grieving the loss of a loved one.  I have preached at many funerals, focusing on Christian hope in the face of death. In my teens and early 20’s I was taught the traditional understanding of Heaven- it was located “up there”, far away and separate from the earth, where the faithful would take up residence after death. For years I never questioned this, although if the main activity of Heaven was a sort of perpetual Evensong, this did not thrill me as I feared that I would struggle with boredom, to say nothing of my lack of inability to carry a tune, as anyone who has ever had the privilege of sitting near to me in church can testify. I only began to reflect more deeply about Heaven when facing the loss of a beloved pet.

Bridget, my Labrador, accompanied me to all family services in the church that I was serving. She would patiently sit next to me, the children would gather around, and I would offer a “family talk”.The kids loved Bridget because of her gentleness and patience. Then she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I decided to use this event to talk about sickness, suffering, grief, death and Heaven. So on the Sunday after her diagnosis, I took her to church, gathered the children around and said “ you all know Bridget, she looks normal and healthy, but  actually she is very sick and probably will not get better.”

Bridget died some months later and then I took a picture of her to church, gathered the children and told them of her death. I said how the loss of Bridget made me feel very sad. But I went on to say even in my darkness and grief I saw light and hope. Why? Because I believed the Bible’s teaching that everything that is good in this world, culture, truth, beauty, music, art, living creatures, all are not permanently lost, but will be renewed and retained in that new world that God will bring into being. And God will be present with us in this wonderful new world.  I told the children that I was confident that Bridget will be there along with everyone and everything from this world which is good.  Now this conviction of Heaven being on Earth occurred for me some years before Stephen’s illness. But as I faced into the horror and pain his imminent death, I found comfort and hope even in the face of suffering and loss because of my conviction of life beyond this life. It is Paul, one of my hero’s, who tells us that “the creation [itself] waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God “ and when that occurs he says   “ the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”.

At Stephen’s funeral I read from Romans 8

“What then are we to say about things? If God is for us, who is against us?….. in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I choose this passage because it clearly expressed my deepest confidence that nothing, including death itself, would ever be able to separate Stephen from the love of God.

In the months following his death I have struggled with deep grief and a tremendous sense of loss of someone who had a very special place in my life. But it is my conviction that one day he and I will be reunited in the presence of God that makes his death endurable.

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