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The Bird of Paradise: A Meditation on Immortality

 Text: John 14:1-6

Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would not have told you that I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.

In my Father’s house there are many mansions,” said Jesus. “If it were not so, I would not have told you that I go to prepare a place for you.”  Unfortunately today, with our distrust of all leaders, and particularly religious leaders, it occurs to many that Jesus was flat out wrong about the possibility of eternal life. In fact, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton once said that this is the central question of our age. The whole of modern history can be interpreted, he suggested, as a frantic attempt to rediscover the lost secret of immortality.

The Loss of Immortality

There is a parable told by an ancient rabbi that speaks to our situation. Imagine a rare bird, the bird of paradise, a glorious and colorful creature, perched on the very top branches of a tree. To reach it, a group of people form a human pyramid, one standing on the shoulders of another, so that one of them may eventually climb toward the very top of the tree, seize the bird, and bring it down to earth. But as the pyramid reaches higher and higher, the people at the bottom begin losing interest. They cannot even see the bird of paradise, so eventually they lose patience, become bored, or even angry at having to carry so much weight. Eventually they stomp off and go home. The pyramid falls apart, and the bird of paradise flies away. Lost for one, the hope of immortality is lost for all.

In our day and time we have seen several routes toward immortality closed off, undermining our assurance. People once believed that we could be assured of immortality biologically. One could triumph over death by living on in the memories of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Even without children, it was thought, one could survive the ravages of death by making a contribution to the clan, race or nation. There was a sense of immortality stemming from association with any group that endures.

Yet in our highly mobile society, where family ties are so easily torn apart, where marriages are made and broken, where people move so frequently from place to place and from city to city, one cannot be certain that there will be continuity from one generation to the next. We can no longer count on living on through the memory of family, race, or tribe. So this most basic, biological link with the immortal has been severed. And our hope wears thin. And we no longer see the bird of paradise waiting for as at the top of the tree of life.

A second method by which people have attempted to secure immortality is to create things that endure. Whether one thinks of the great artists who have expressed themselves in works of stone or clay, or the philanthropists who have labored to amass great wealth to build universities, schools, or hospitals, people have attempted to build immortality in brick and mortar. Motivated by the desire to survive beyond the day of our dying, we are driven to create monuments that endure.

But we have all seen far too many old buildings and monuments destroyed by developers and we know from our own experience that no monument built by human hands can guarantee our immortality. 

Heaven Has Slipped From View

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are the specifically religious paths toward the eternal. Christians believe that an assurance of immortality can be found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Unfortunately the wisdom of this faith has often been obscured by some rather fanciful theories about heaven and hell. The idea of a heaven with streets paved with gold, angels with haloes and heavenly choirs, and a god seated on a throne, these images are vivid but imaginary. This, too, we have come to understand. 

The Wisdom of Jesus

In fact, the scriptures are cautious in spelling out precisely what lies beyond the gates of death. For in all honesty, no one really knows. Even Jesus did not describe the afterlife. His emphasis was upon the quality of life we live here on earth. He insisted that our conduct and our decisions count. He said that in this cosmos we are not alone. And he put his hopes into the form of an image: "In my father's house there are many mansions."

Still, in this day and age we are in the position of the people in the rabbi's parable, having seen the bird of paradise at the very pinnacle of the tree of life, we make a human pyramid, each one of us climbing upon the shoulders of the other, and depending upon the support of the others. But as so many have lost faith and abandoned hope, then the pyramid is in danger of falling. Lost for one, the hope of immortality is lost for all.

Which brings us to the most important insight about immortality contained in our passage from St. John’s gospel: the way toward eternal life lies directly through the gates of death.

This is a lesson which the disciples had great difficulty understanding. They did not understand how or why the Son of God would die. They expected that Jesus would triumph over any foe. They thought it impossible that the Messiah would suffer and die. They could not reconcile themselves to the simple fact of his death, for they saw death as the enemy of life. For the disciples, the difficult part of what Jesus had to tell them was not his affirmation of immortality, but his acknowledgement of death. “I go to prepare a place for you.”  It was not his divinity that they found difficult, but the simple fact of his approaching death.

We too have this basic misconception. We have this sense of building success after success; we have this expectation that the fulfillment of life comes in piling happiness upon happiness. In this view, death is the greatest single threat to our fulfillment. We can achieve our goals only if we have our health!

We see life and death as enemies. And our purpose is to hold back the advancing armies of age and death for as long as humanly possible. Hold fast to what we have, resist the changes, deny the loss.

A Different Way

But the whole story of Christ's life, death and resurrection tells us something different. Some of the deepest lessons of life may be learned through suffering. Some of the greatest opportunities come in the face of failure. And in the end, the only real avenue leading to eternal life, is the one that takes us straight through the valley of the shadow of death.

You see, until they encountered the spirit of the living Christ after his death, the disciples didn’t really understand him at all. They thought of Jesus as one of the immortals. But their superficial faith in immortality was utterly destroyed by the crucifixion. After his death, they recognized his true identity. The recognized him for the first time in and through the shattering of their illusions about immortality. In the end they saw his love expressed as much in his suffering as in his early success. 

Among the most important scenes of the entire New Testament are those quiet encounters between Jesus and his disciples following his death and resurrection, in places like the road to Emmaus, or the upper room, or the shore of Galilee where they shared breakfast together by the sea: not the spectacle of a great miracle, but the simple act of eating a meal together. In my view it’s the simple acts of love and kindness that make all the difference.  

Today as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ I am here to tell you that death is not the final enemy of life. Death is simply one of the steps we take in learning how to walk. And the truth is that nothing can separate us from the love of God: none of our failures, nor our fears, nor our illnesses, nor the departure of the dearest friends, nor the death of the most beloved, need separate us from the love of God. In fact, it may be precisely through the changes and trials of life that we enter into God's eternal habitation. It is precisely through our loss that we learn to let go and move forward.

I Am the Way

That’s one of the things Jesus meant when he said: “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father, except through me.” No one comes into the presence of God fully and completely except through the gates of death, just as Jesus did.

Ironically, perhaps the real secret to a renewed faith in immortality may be the acceptance of mortality itself. In the love which was poured out so powerfully in Jesus we clearly see, that eternal life is not secured by building success upon success. Salvation is not secured by placing stone upon stone.  We do not achieve the eternal by frantically trying to make youth last forever, or denying loss when we feel it deeply. We do not achieve immortality by resisting changes that threaten us. The secret to immortality lies in the love of one who made peace with death itself.

In Jesus Christ the bird of paradise has descended from its remote height at the very top of the tree of life to take its place here among us in the love that we share and in the simple acts of love and kindness that bind us to each other and ultimate to God.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.