I still miss Plato. Our Golden Retriever, that is, not the philosopher. He’s been gone a while now, but the rest of us in the family still frequently reminisce about him.
When we open a jar of peanut butter, one of us will mention how he always assumed that he was getting a spoonful. He would retrieve our mislaid socks, hoover the floor beneath the kitchen table during meals, and sleep curled underneath the Christmas tree.
Scores of ordinary things remind us of him. He was part of the family. We had a common language, shared our daily comings and goings, and showered each other with affection.
I know lots of other people feel the same way. So I am not surprised when people ask me if our pets will be in heaven.
Loving one of God’s creatures as dearly as we do our pets—and experiencing their boundless affection for us—leaves us feeling a profound loss when they die. And it also stirs within us a hope that this love extends beyond the horizons of this life.
The way many of us think about life after life makes this hope seem implausible. That’s because we are not listening carefully to what Jesus actually says about eternal life. To put this a bit more bluntly, quite a number of us think about life after the death of the body in terms that are not especially Christian.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to say that good church goers have intentionally rejected Jesus’ teaching. Instead, I think that many people have picked up ideas from the surrounding culture by a kind of intellectual osmosis and have mistakenly attributed them to the Christian faith.
The central Christian doctrine about life after life is resurrection. And yet, Christians think about the afterlife in terms of the immortality of the soul.
When philosophers and theologians talk about whether or not the soul is immortal, they are usually considering a characteristic inherent in the soul. Whether a person believes in God or not, the soul survives the death of the body. That’s just what souls do if they are immortal.
Christians who follow this line of thinking then reckon that God judges the disembodied soul. God’s judgment takes the form of deciding where that soul will reside. God is like the cosmic usher who directs some souls to the blue door and others to the red door. Heaven awaits some. God sends others to hell.
Now let’s face it, this cannot be the picture you have in mind of an eternal reunion with pets you have loved and see no longer. If you’re like me, you think about scratching them behind the ear, playing catch, and taking walks together.
Disembodied souls don’t have ears to scratch. For that matter, they don’t have hands to scratch with or legs to walk with.
Most jarring of all, most people who focus on immortal souls think that Jesus saves only human beings. Their Gospel is limited to which people go to heaven and which go to hell once they die.
By contrast, Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
In Jesus, God comes down from heaven for the life of the world. Jesus came to transform the entire creation, to infuse it with eternal life. To heal and to restore the world. The first step in that process is the risen Jesus himself.
On the third day, God raised Jesus. He didn’t merely resuscitate him. Neither did Jesus’ immortal but disembodied soul slip out of the tomb. Jesus is risen not only with a soul and a mind but also a body.
And his mind and soul and body are transformed. They are the same and yet they are infinitely more. Jesus will no longer suffer or die. Those who knew him before the crucifixion could recognize him and even touch him, and yet they experienced him as inhabiting a new kind of life.
Jesus is the bread of this new life, the source from which this new life flows. Through Jesus, God is imparting new, eternal life to all that God created. In our relationship with Jesus we begin to partake of this eternal life even now. We take the first few tentative steps on a journey in Christ that will stretch out into infinity.
The Eucharist shows us this very clearly. We hand to Jesus our bruised, flawed, and fragile selves and he gives us back to ourselves as the very Body of Christ.
God creates through the power of perfect, eternal love. When God loves, God loves for keeps. The Holy One creates nothing only to discard it and certainly not to destroy it. God creates in order to be in eternal relationship. God creates to share the divine life with the beloved.
If I believed in only the immortality of the soul, I would write off the hope of seeing my pets after this life as a fond but childish wish.
For that matter, if only my disembodied soul mattered from the perspective of eternity, I could easily turn my back on the sufferings and the sorrows of this world. They would, from that point of view, eventually be nothing but water under the bridge. Gone and forgotten
But Jesus said that he came to give his flesh for the life of the world, to heal and to restore the entire creation. The prospect of seeing my dog Plato does not seem so implausible to me. Instead, it alerts me to my calling to engage God’s mission to make new what has grown old, to raise up what has been cast down. I cannot remain indifferent to the weeping and the aching, the fear and the loneliness, the hunger and the despair in the world around me.
Jesus gives his flesh for the life of the world. He gives his Body. And because he loves you and me, we are part of the very Body that Jesus gives for the life of the world.
This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s in Moss Bluff, Louisiana.