The late Clovis Chappell was one of the twentieth century’s great expository preachers. He was also an incredibly gifted and engaging story teller. I read a story he told about a Philosophy professor in a church-related college. Reading it can never match the power of having heard him tell it, but for our purposes it will have to do.
It seems the professor regularly challenged the idea of life after death in class. He would ask his students to prove it (which, of course, we cannot do any more than we can prove other things we depend on – like love and trust and faith and hope). Then he would go further and say to his students: “Even if you could prove it, what difference would it make? What comes after this life is not the point of this life. I couldn’t care less whether or not there is anything out there after we die. It simply does not matter to me.”
Finally, the Dean of the Department of Religion and Philosophy asked him to soften his ideas in class – not to undermine the faith of those young people who had chosen to come to a Christian college. And the professor answered: “I’m tenured. You can’t tell me what to say in class. The whole life after death argument is pointless. It just does not matter to me.”
The professor had no romantic relationship and lived with his mother, to whom he was utterly devoted. She was the one person in his life who actually seemed to matter to him, the one person who could bring out a sensitive side that he kept hidden away from everyone else. In time, she became ill and died, and the professor was grief-stricken. One afternoon the Dean walked into the man’s classroom. All the students were gone. The professor was sitting alone at his desk, crying. A picture of his deceased mother sat nearby. The Dean placed a hand on the man’s shoulder and simply said: “This life after death idea – I see that it matters to you now.”
Jesus said: “And I, if I be lifted up, shall draw all others unto myself.” Perhaps at times that promise does not seem to be a high priority. It lacks the pertinence of what is going on in our lives here-and-now. What matters is how we perform, if we succeed, what we accumulate or acquire, how many awards or how much attention we garner. But then, there is an interruption. It is the unwelcome message that someone who meant more than life to us has died, and whether or not we knew it was coming, we were not ready for it quite yet. In those moments, all the here-and-now concerns become less crucial. What matters most is a word of hope, some assurance that here-and-now is not all there is. Into that critical moment comes Easter... a risen Messiah... and his word of promise: “And I, if I be lifted up, shall draw all others unto myself... Because I live, you shall live, also.”
Sooner or later people reach a moment when they are no longer able to say that the idea of life after death is not important to them. Sooner or later, nothing matters more than Easter and its assurance that those whom we have loved and lost live on.