What happens to us when we die?
Believe it or not, that was at the center of what started the movement we know as the Reformation. The Catholic understanding, which was the only understanding that mattered at the time, was that souls spent time in purgatory. Purgatory is like a waiting room, where your soul spends time to get rid of residual sins; you must be purified, if you can, before you enter heaven.
This became important to a German monk and theologian named Martin Luther. Near the town where he served as pastor and professor, representatives of the Pope were selling indulgences. Indulgences were certificates that assured you, by the power of the Pope to forgive sins, that you could purchase a cancellation of certain amounts of time for someone in Purgatory.
In other words, you make a donation to the Church, and you reduce a time that a loved one’s soul spends in Purgatory. The sales pitch was, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul out of purgatory springs.”
So, how much do you love your mother, or father, or grandparents. Will you buy yourself a sweater to fight the chill of the upcoming winter, or will you deliver someone from hundreds of years of torment? People flocked to buy indulgences, even at the expense of providing food and heat for their families. How good was the indulgence selling business? It paid for St. Michael’s Basillica in Rome.
Luther objected to the sales of indulgences, and thought that this was a case of people abusing the trust put into them by the Pope. He thought that if he brought this to the attention of the Pope, the sales would stop. So he wanted the matter to be brought to light and discussed. He wrote his arguments, his Ninety-Five Thesis, and posted them on the doors of the church in Wittenburg on the day before the most highly attended worship service of the year, All Saint’s Day. All Saint’s Day is November 1st. Luther tacked his thesis to the door the day before, October 31, 1517. From that day, we mark the beginning of the Reformation, and celebrate it’s 500th year now.
What started as a complaint about a fellow employee spun far beyond the control of either Luther or the Catholic Church. Each side became entrenched in its positions, not only unwilling to concede an inch of theological ground to the other, but constantly brought other matters into the fight. Like any good family fight, eventually all of the dirty laundry was going to be aired. Additional issues, the role of clergy, the authority of scripture versus tradition, the nature of Holy Communion and others have come to divide our two traditions in the past 500 years.
In the past 50 years, there has been more communication and cooperation between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran traditions than in the previous 400. We focus on where we agree, and even on how close we are on the things where we will not agree. But it all started over what happens when we die.
The focal point of Luther’s arguments against the sale of indulgences is in Thesis 82, “Why does not the Pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there?” If the Pope can free people from damnation, why not just do it?
Luther lived most of his early life in fear of being condemned to Hell for his sins. Becoming a priest did nothing to lessen this fear, if anything, it made it worse. He would daily confess the smallest potential sin, the tiniest temptation because he did not want to have an unconfessed and unforgiven sin hanging on him. It was not until he studied the letter to the Romans that he understood that the gift of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness came not from what we do, but from what God has already done through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ.
While Luther leaned on Romans, I believe the two passages we heard earlier spell out how God deals with our disobedience and sin.
Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, the Pharisee who has come to him to understand who Jesus is, in our passage from John’s Gospel. The first line of the Gospel text, John 3:16, is probably the most well known verse from the Bible, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” But I believe that the next verse, John 3:17, is just as important for us to understand. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Luther, and many others, including many people today, believe that God wants to punish us for our sins and disobedience. They choose to focus on condemnation and punishment, rather than love.
God loved, and loves, the world so much that God sent God’s son into the world, knowing he would be rejected. But Jesus came into the world so it could be saved through him, not condemned by him.
The last part of verse 17 also points out what is written in greater detail in the letter to the Ephesians. Jesus became a living, breathing man so “that the world might be saved through him.” His mission was, and is, to save the world. The world is saved through him, through what he did. Our individual salvation, the determination of our fate is much to important for God to leave it up to us.
In the letter to the Ephesian church, we hear, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him.” Out of love, God ignored and our sins and trespasses, erasing them from existence. These faults and failures should leave us dead, without hope of salvation or life after our death. But because God is rich in mercy, we are joined with Christ, seen as sinless and without fault, and are saved and raised up, just as Jesus was.
It is clear that we, and the world, are saved through the works Jesus has done. Our works, both good and bad, do not save us, nor do they condemn us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
By grace, the grace of God, we are saved. We are saved, forgiven, found faultless because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, going to the cross to suffer and die. He did this out of love, to show us we cannot do anything to lose God’s love. Not even killing the Son of God.
Our forgiveness has nothing to do with us, but has everything to do with God, and God’s love for us. It is a gift. I think too often we miss what that word means. You don’t earn a gift. A gift isn’t, or shouldn’t be given out of obligation. A gift is an expression of love. It means, ‘I love you, and to try to show you how much I love you, I have this for you.’ God loves the world so much God gave God’s son to us, and forgives us for all of the times we failed and fell short of responding to that love.
The good that we do, the ways we share God’s love with others comes not to earn God’s love or mercy, but in response to that gift of grace. “We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” We are made in the image of God to do God’s work in the world with our hands. We have been blessed to be a blessing to others. We are forgiven so we can give of ourselves to those in need. We have been saved so we can serve a hurting world.
So, what happens to us when we die?
We have been promised to be “seated … with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” To be there, we do not have to purchase forgiveness. It has been purchased for us already.
This is an understanding, that even after 500 years of division, both Lutherans and Catholics can agree to. God loves the world and sent Jesus, through whom the world is saved, by the grace of God.
Thanks be to God. Amen.