07 Nov Death Reimagined
November 8, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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“What a really great book. I loved it. I hated for it to end.”
Perhaps you’ve said something similar about a favorite book. Or a movie, or meal, or sporting event. Or a vacation. When we experience truly great things, we hate for them to end.
But guess what? Research is revealing that we need for things to end. When faced with an ending, we become stronger, more focused, more productive, and more positive. According to The Atlantic magazine (November 2019), a study was done of more than 3,000 professional soccer games. It revealed that almost one-quarter, 23 percent, of goals were scored in the final 15 minutes of the 90-minute match. The end of the game had a focusing effect, motivating players to summon their strength for a final push.
Similarly, deadlines inspire deal-making. An analysis of bargaining experiences found that 41 percent of deals are struck in the final 30 seconds of negotiations.
Endings are important. Real life is not like the contest that pitted two pen-and-ink artists against each other. Did you hear about it? It ended in a draw.
In all seriousness, what about the end of life? Blog posts by terminally ill patients use language that is much more positive than that used by people who are not as close to death. The same is true for the last words of death-row inmates. Another study looked at hospice workers and other end-of-life professionals. For them, such close and regular exposure to death caused them to “live in the present, cultivate a spiritual life and reflect deeply on the continuity of life.” People who have near-death experiences also report an increased sense of spiritual well-being.
So, as we approach the end of life, we might think that we will hate for it to end. But the reality is that we need for it to end.
In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul offers a surprising perspective on the end of his earthly life. “To me,” he says, “living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:21). He knows that his ongoing life on earth means “fruitful labor” for the Philippians and for him, but at the same time he admits that his deepest “desire is to depart and be with Christ” (vv. 22-24). Paul is writing from Rome where he is under arrest and awaiting trial for the work he has done as a Christian missionary. He seems to feel that the end of his life is drawing near. Part of him is okay with that, because he looks forward to being with Christ and sharing Christ’s resurrection life.
Like a prisoner on death row, Paul uses remarkably positive language to describe his situation. “I want you to know,” he writes, “that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known through-out the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ” (vv. 12-13). Because Paul is in prison, the good news of Jesus has actually spread throughout the Roman establishment. Plus, he says, “most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear” (v. 14). Paul’s courage and confidence are inspiring others to speak with courage and confidence.
But Paul also holds open the possibility that the time of his death has not quite arrived. “I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith,” he writes, “so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again” (vv. 25-26). If Paul is allowed to live, he wants to be useful to the churches in their mission and ministry. At the same time, he is not afraid for his life to end.
Paul’s own afflictions, writes Professor Morna Hooker, are not described in a negative way. Instead, they are viewed as an opportunity for the gospel. People talk about his case and in so doing, they learn about the Christian faith, and other Christians are encouraged to make a similar stand. Faced with an ending, Paul becomes stronger, more focused, more productive, and more positive.
Another way to say it is that when Paul looks death in the face, he sees new life.
The church can take comfort from Paul’s words, especially in times of struggle and persecution. “Throughout history, persecution has often strengthened the church,” writes Hooker. “The amazing fact that oppression leads to growth reflects the paradox that lies at the heart of the gospel — namely, that God’s power is revealed through the weakness of the cross and that victory comes through apparent defeat.”
Believing that the end may be near, Paul offers some advice to the Christians in Philippi, advice that is equally valuable to us. Live your life “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” he says, “so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (v. 27).
Paul is exhorting us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel, always showing the grace and love of Jesus Christ. He wants us to become stronger and more focused, united in spirit and working together with common purpose. Such strength and unity doesn’t often happen in good times. In fact, it most often occurs in difficult ones.
As I continue to reflect on the impact on the Church Universal and Calvary, in particular, of the coronavirus and the difficulties we’ve faced as a result of the physical separation it has necessitated, I see the potential for exactly the kind of renewed strength, sharper focus, and deeper commitment that Paul speaks of to the Philippians. Covid-19 has forced upon us a “mini-death” of sorts. We’ve been suffering and grieving the loss of fellowship and togetherness, the disruption of our normal routines, including the way we gather for worship and experience church.
Yet at the same time, this disruption has forced many of us to slow down. With our usual means of entertainment and distraction being interrupted, there’s been time, if we wanted to take advantage of it, to reflect more deeply on our lives and our faith. In a similar way that so many people have used these months at home to tackle long-neglected home improvement or decluttering projects, this global pandemic offers us a space in which to take spiritual inventory and to ask ourselves if we are investing our lives in what is truly most important to us, or if we’ve simply constructed a life of busyness.
One of the truisms that I learned in my work as a hospice chaplain is that while we live life forward, of course, we understand it only as we look back. As Paul sits in prison thinking back over his life, we see a man at peace, ready to be called home, if that is what God has in store for him, or equally prepared to continue the work to which he has been called. This unusual year has provided us with a poignant and profound opportunity to ask whether we can say the same.
One of the most meaningful parts, to me, from the Presbyterian funeral service is a line in one of the prayers that says, “Help us, God, to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.” Paul is certainly an example of this, as he awaits his fate in Rome. Regardless of what his future holds, the important thing to him is that he knows his future is held by Christ.
In general, we are uncomfortable in our culture talking about death. Paul has no such qualms, because in light of Christ’s resurrection, Paul knows that death is essential to experiencing new life. Paul reminds the Philippians that God “has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well” (v. 29). For most of us, the privilege of believing in Christ is easy to accept, and we are happy to receive God’s forgiveness and new life. But suffering for Christ as well? That’s a bit tougher to swallow.
For Paul, however, believing and suffering always go together. While it is true that Christ died for us, it is also true that as Christians, we need to die with Christ. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul asks the Romans (6:3). “We suffer with him,” he says, “so that we may also be glorified with him” (8:17). Once again, our Christian faith challenges us to look death in the face.
Throughout his life, Jesus was willing to suffer as he showed love and grace to the people around him. He held nothing back but emptied himself completely. In the same way, we are challenged to give of ourselves to show the love of Jesus to others. This is a challenge for anyone who wants to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Fortunately, such sacrificial service not only benefits our neighbors, as we feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit prisoners and welcome strangers. It also benefits us, as it brings us into the presence of the one who suffered and died for all.
The apostle Paul was not afraid of death. While happy to serve the church in this life, he was equally willing to depart and be with Christ. When we accept that life must end, we join Paul in becoming stronger and more focused, as well as closer to Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.