We are from God and to God we shall return. We are set within a full circle. And God has set within us the image and likeness of Godself – our origin our destination the root of all being.
Yet we have the tendency to turn from image and likeness of God within and among us, and we can have the tendency to try to trample it underfoot. So we lose the knowledge of our Creator. Hence Christ.
Christ has come to be here for us to see again the restored image of God as set within God’s creation. Christ is a guide to draw us into reconciliation, of restored intimacy with our true origin and destination. But along the way we are compelled to face all about us that denies God and denies the image of God within ourselves and in everyone else, and we are compelled to face the consequences of that denial even as we are offered the merciful antidote – God’s reconciling love. It’s easier said than done – as with all things, this is a process of learning and evolving, in this life and beyond.
As you probably know, sometimes when people come very close to dying but are revived, they come back with these very powerful stories about what they experienced in the realm between life and death. Near-death experiences are fairly rare, but they are common enough that we can know a lot about them. There are a lot of similarities in what people report they experience. And there’s been some research on this, collecting and analyzing stories and interviewing people not just right after their experience, but following them for years afterwards to learn about its effect on them.
You probably know some of the common themes in near-death experiences – being greeted by loved ones who have been long dead; being guided into a tunnel leading towards a pure light; overwhelming feelings of peace and well-being.
There can often be a life review. There’s something to the expression “my life flashed before my eyes.” People report their soul just scrolling back through their experiences of life, especially the most profound experiences and most meaning ful relationships and events.
Now, sometimes in these life reviews people report a really extraordinary thing. They re-experience events from their lives, but from the point of view of another person. And this happens in particular with experiences where they’ve done harm to somebody. They re-experience those events from the view of the person they have wronged and then experience how that came to affect the other person from that point forward. The soul comes to know the full consequences of their actions.
Now, how do you imagine that going for you? It could be quite a hard journey, if we’re honest withourselves.
But the other extraordinary thing about this phenomenon in some near-death-experiences, is that people say there is a guide, some kind of friendly masterful spiritual presence, who ushers the through this experience with a sense of love and support, so they are lead to see the full consequences of their actions, while being offering mercy and grace. So there is awareness, there is accountability and forgiveness.
I’ve known people who have had spiritual experiences like this during their lives, not in a near-death experience. I even know someone who was a soldier, a special forces guy, very experienced veteran, who actually went through this incredibly intense inner process where he’d re-experience things from his past in war from the point of view of the person he had harmed and see and feel how that had impacted that person’s life continuing past the encounter. This was part of a spiritual awakening of his. He came to know how he had helped to make hell for other people, in the process of knowing and becoming free from the hell he himself had been locked into.
Now, these are just dramatic examples of a spiritual and moral process that we all can do, and that we all are called to do, by the grace of God. As we grow in empathy and compassion we can know more about how our actions affect each other. We don’t need to have some trippy experience of literally our consciousness merging with someone elses.
This is the journey of forgiveness, of accountability, of mercy, for anyone, in this life. That’s what we’ve been exploring some last week and the week before.
This has been under our broader theme of Jubilee, our theme for Lent. Jubilee means means release from debt and the ways we can bind each other and harm each other with all the forms of debt we can come to owe and be owed – both economic and ethical. Jubilee means the journey of release from the grievance and guilt and shame and anger and grief and imprisonment and powerlessness and injustice and everything else that can come from various forms of debt.
This has been our theme for Lent because Jubilee is a powerful way of coming to know what Jesus was and is all about.
Now, today I want to bring this to bear on our views and expectations about God and who God is for us. In particular: may this be Good News of Jubilee from fear of a merciless God hell-bent on eternal punishment. I’ll say it again:
May this be Good News of Jubilee from fear of a merciless God hell-bent on eternal punishment.
The vast majority of near-death experiences are astonishing stories about drawing nearer to a holy, overpowering, Love Supreme.
A small minority of these experiences are hellish, they involve torment, judgment, fear, pits and flames or painfully lonely voids.
The research I read found that people who had negative near-death experiences were in a highly negative state of being when they nearly died. Now, plenty of people in a negative state of being when they nearly died have heavenly kind of experiences– that’s important to know.
But what’s even more important in this research: folks who had a scary or tormented near-death experience end up, after some time, seeing it as profoundly helpful. When they had a chance to live after their experience and to wrestle with the meaning of it … and just imagine if you’re the one who had a near-death experience that’s lousy and it’s like, “Oh, everyone else gets light beams and bliss and I get the trash-fire!” … but when people have time to reflect on this and wrestle with it, they find that the experience helps them come to terms with some difficult things about themselves and their lives. It helps them to grow and evolve, as people, as souls.
That’s really important.
Wouldn’t you expect that a God of both justice and mercy would allow our souls to keep growing and evolving when they have stepped beyond the bounds of this life?
I want you to know that when you hear or read from the Bible a story about Jesus, and you hear or see the words “eternal punishment,” the Greek words literally mean “a period of pruning” – an Aion, a “period of time,” an “epoch,” of Kolazo, “pruning, trimming, correction.”
A God of love and mercy and power and justice compels the soul to learn. And maybe some souls will refuse for eternity to let go of their bitter self-absorbsion and denial of God, I don’t know. It sure doesn’t help me to get hung up on the question.
There is justice, that’s a strong biblical testimony, but God’s love and mercy turn and return us to God, that’s also strong biblical testimony.
So, if we don’t have to fear eternal damnation, why not do bad things. Because we are punished by our sins, even if we’re not punished for our sins.
If we have a dislocated joint, and we go to the ER and a doctor or a nurse comes to pop it back in again – it’s gonna hurt, it’s gonna hurt like hell. But it’s a hell of a lot better than having a limb out of joint for the rest of your life. And it’ll bring tremendous relief.
Most of us are walking around with our souls a little out of joint, or a lot. And when the Good Doctor comes to care for us, it may at first seem like a shock.
“What you do to the least of these you do so unto me,” said Jesus, for the image of God abides in all souls. The parts of ourselves that are out of joint with this knowing this truth and living this, are the parts that lead to weeping and gnashing of teeth. The more I sincerely try to hear and heed Jesus and just work through life, the clearer it is to me that he is trying to get us to realize that we are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins. And it just doesn’t have to be that way. The more we get glimpses of a God-eye view of things, the more absurd that suffering seems.
With mercy and grace the yoke can be easy and the burden light.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as Christ is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
Thanks be to God.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in God’s image,
in the image of God, God created them;
male and female God created them.
Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
1 John 4:7-12, 16-18
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent God’s Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us…
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as Christ is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.