This Gospel passage is one that I nearly always read at funerals. To me it perfectly sums up so much of what we believe happens at death. So often we think of this life as being everything and when it’s over, we go to some kind of spiritual retirement home, where we ‘rest in peace’. In some ways that is to see it the backwards. Our society tells us that this life is everything, so enjoy it all you can and try and gain as much pleasure and satisfaction as you can, before it’s over. The Lord tells us that this life is a time of getting ready for the world to come, which is what we are created for. This is our time of learning about love and service and about God. It is also our time of free will when we must choose to accept or reject God. When our time on earth is complete, the Lord will take us to be with him forever, unless we have rejected him.
‘I am going to prepare a place for you…’ There is a place waiting for us.
‘I will come and take you to myself, so that where I am, you also may be.’
When our time on earth is complete, the Lord will come for us. Even just to put it that way, as opposed to saying, ‘when our life is over,’ makes a big difference. Our life isn’t over, just our time on earth. Our mortal bodies will die, but then we will have glorified or spiritual bodies and we will no longer be bound by time and space and where we will live more intensely than we do here on earth. We will experience everything just as we do now, but at a higher level of intensity than we do now.
The most difficult thing anyone can face is the death of a child, or someone dying much younger that we feel they should die, through violence, or cancer, or anything else. Why does God allow this to happen? We don’t know. But if we can go back to seeing our time on earth as the time of preparation for the world to come, then it means that those we have lost have gone ahead of us sooner than we expected. Their time on earth was completed sooner than we expected, but sooner or later we will catch up with them again. That is the hope that our faith gives us and there is really no greater hope than this.
If our life on earth was everything, then the death of those we love is the worst disaster imaginable. But if our time on earth is only temporary and leading to something else, then that changes everything. Sooner or later we will catch up with those who have gone before us.
St. Paul writes, ‘If our faith in Christ has been for this life only, then of all people we are the most to be pitied’ (1 Cor 15:19). The whole point of our faith is what it is leading us to.
So what is the purpose of our time on earth? We were created to share in God’s happiness. When we are very happy about something, our instinct is to share it with people. We have a party to celebrate happy events, because we want others to share in our joy. God created us to share in his happiness. After giving our first parents this happiness, which is explained through the story of the Garden of Eden, we lost it, which was not what God wanted for us. So God won it back for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now it is offered to us again, but we must consciously choose it.
Our time on earth is that time of choosing for God or against God; choosing to love or not to love. We are created to love and serve God and to share in his happiness. Our time on earth is meant to be a time of service, to God and the people around us. It is meant to be a time of giving of ourselves, sacrificing ourselves, for the people around us, just as Jesus did.
In St. John’s Gospel, at the last supper, it says that Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles and then He said to them: ‘You call me Teacher and Lord and rightly, for so I am. If I your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.’ (John 13:13-14)
In other words, we are meant to serve and sacrifice of ourselves. It is easy to forget that when we are constantly being told that everything is about our own fulfillment. It is not just about our own fulfilment, although in fact the more we give of ourselves, the more we will be satisfied.
Does it really matter what we do, since God loves everyone and everyone goes to heaven? That is not what Jesus taught. Many times Jesus taught that we must be careful how we live, because it will determine what happens to us after death. We choose for or against God by the way we live. God has created us to be with him in heaven, but it is not a given. It depends on how we live and what we choose.
In Matthew 25, Jesus gives the parable of the sheep and the goats, explaining this:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Many people scoff at the idea of hell, or say that a loving God would never create hell. But if heaven is real and we have free will, then it must be possible to not go to heaven. Otherwise we would be forced to go to heaven, which contradicts the idea of free will. So if heaven is beauty, joy, peace, light, happiness, love and the total fulfillment we all long for, then to reject that would be to be left with the opposite: ugliness, hatred, darkness, pain, isolation and the eternal frustration of never having the fulfillment we long for. It is not that God sends people to hell, rather that people choose hell by rejecting God.
It is interesting that any place where apparitions of Jesus or Mary have occurred, the visionaries have nearly always been shown heaven, hell and purgatory, to remind us that these are real.
The various trials that we continually go through are also part of this journey to heaven. Every trial we go through gives us the opportunity to grow. When things go wrong we can curse God, or ask God to help us. Every struggle we go through helps to form us as people, one way or the other. When you think you are going crazy and can’t take any more, try and remember that no matter how bad things get here, it is temporary. Sooner or later our time here will be complete and then, God willing, we will go to be with our loved ones once again, where we will experience the fulfillment that we all long for.
I want to finish with the following quotation from a famous Protestant minister called John Owen. When he was dying he was dictating some letters. He said, ‘Write, “I am still in the land of the living”, and then he said, “No, change that. Write, “I am still in the land of those who die. Soon I hope to be in the land of the living.”’