+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many of you know that we don’t have cable television, and one of the things I don’t miss about the ability to stay glued to the 24 hour news cycle on cable is seeing the constant, sometimes indelicate coverage whenever a celebrity dies. It’s one thing when somebody elderly dies of natural causes, like Prince Philip earlier this year, but it’s often especially ghoulish when somebody goes before his or her time, whatever that means. I suspect this was the case last year with the deaths of Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman; like I said, we don’t have a traditional television setup, but the online sources I follow bore this out. Anyway, it’s fascinating how much attention the media pays ferreting out all the gory details, and this exercise strikes me as a particularly important window into our hangups as a society. Part of me would affirm that death happens and it’s often of little consequence precisely how. Yet another part of me is just as curious as those in the media and, presumably, their target audience.
Perhaps it’s because death is such a mystery to us these days. We avoid thinking about it for the most part, and then when a death particularly unsettles us for some reason we try to explain it away. If we can make sense of the mechanics of a particular death, we think we can finally put to rest the notion of death entirely. It can become a problem which our modern, scientific minds have solved, and we won’t have to think about it anymore. That’s what we think, anyway, but then the next shocking death presents the whole issue anew. We might have figured out the mechanics, but so many of us lack a theology of death which helps us put it into perspective.
It seems to me that this problem might stem from the fact that we live in such a death-denying culture, as some of you have heard me say before from this pulpit. We can shield ourselves from the reality of death to a certain point, and we can even convince ourselves that we can avoid it. I wonder if all the exercise equipment and quasi-medical products we can see advertised and all of the elective plastic surgery so many of us undergo prey on our inability to accept the fact that we will all grow old and die (at least one hopes).
Even in our Christian discourse we don’t often acknowledge the reality and profundity of death. We Christians sometimes seem to operate on this notion that “there’ll be pie in the sky when we die, by and bye.” And then when the death of a loved-one occurs we might not understand why it rattles us so much. Maybe some of us chalk it up to a lack of faith. Perhaps others lose faith.
Ultimately, I think this internal, emotional roller-coaster, comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of death. Listen again to what the writer of Wisdom said: “God did not make death and he does not delight in the death of the living…through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” Death, he is saying, is an aberration. It was not part of God’s initial plan for humanity, and that means that we shouldn’t berate ourselves when we find it too much to handle. Death is an effect of the fact that we live in a fallen world. As St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” God’s will is for life, and not only for life but for life abundant, a life fully lived in His ways. Death came later, and fights against God’s plan to a certain extent.
And yet death is inescapable because of our condition, because of the reality of evil and of original sin. Death is not illusory; it’s not a trick to test our faith, to see if we really believe in the resurrection.
I remember one day in seminary when our systematic theology professor said something which became scandalous to my classmates, I think because many of us weren’t really listening to what he was saying. He said, just this directly, “when you’re dead, you’re dead.” There was scandal because some of my classmates thought that our professor was denying the resurrection. Quite to the contrary, he was trying to help us understand how profound and wonderful the resurrection of the dead really is. What I’m about to say might sound controversial, but I promise that it is, in fact, the traditional Christian understanding of death and resurrection, so bear with me. There’s not something about us inherently which makes our souls immortal. The Christian view is not that we are essentially disembodied ghosts which after death keep on living just as before. That’s not actually the traditional Christian view, that was Plato’s view and it became popular much, much later in Church history. That view does ultimately deny the reality of death and turns it into an illusion.
Conversely, the traditional Christian view is that death is very real. That the whole of us—body, mind, and spirit—experiences death, and there’s nothing about the way we’ve been created which permits us to avoid that. Far from denying the resurrection, this makes its truth all the more wonderful. When we are dead it is not our own nature but God’s power and grace which brings us to new life. The resurrection is not something we do automatically, it is something which God brings about.
Today’s Gospel reading makes this point. Jairus’ daughter was dead, really dead. Yet Jesus knew that because of the promise of God, death was like sleep. Jairus’ daughter was no less dead, but her death was a period of rest and expectation. It was not the expectation of an automatic transmigration of her soul to some different sphere of being, but that God in Christ would literally bring her to life. And this He did, and this is our own hope for ourselves and our loved ones. While the dead rest in peace, and while we too will enter into that sleep, we have assurance that Christ will bring us back to life fully, not as disembodied ghosts, but as whole, holy, incorruptible people, with minds, spirits, and bodies. When at morning prayer or baptisms or funerals in our own private prayer lives we recite the Apostle’s Creed and proclaim “I believe…in the resurrection of the body” we’re not speaking in metaphors. The Church really does teach that there will be a bodily, physical, literal resurrection, and this is so much more comforting than the idea of “pie in the sky when we die, by and bye.” It’s comforting and esciting. It means that the life of the world to come is not contingent on anything we do, but on the grace and creative power of God, or to use the language of Wisdom “the generative forces of the world [which] are wholesome” because God creates and controls them.
And so, knowing that death is real but not the end we can over time come to terms with it. We needn’t wait for the next shocking celebrity death to broach the topic for us once again, and we certainly don’t need to run from it or deny its reality. Rather, we are called to embrace death in a sense. We are commanded to love our enemies, and death is an enemy we’re called to love, as strange and difficult as that might sound. We are called to love and embrace the reality of death because we do know that it is only through death that we are born to eternal life. For even the evil of this world, death being part of it, can be transformed in such a way that it accords with the ends God intends. All that we need to do is trust God, and keep alive a robust hope in the resurrection.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.