Most pastors have more than a passing acquaintance with death and dying. They are frequently called to people’s bedsides at the time of death. They spend hours in rooms over which a pall has already been cast, where people speak in hushed voices, and tears are shed in long vigil.
My acquaintance with death and dying began long before I became a pastor. It started when my brother, two years my senior, died at age fourteen from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It continued when my wife and I cared for our parents as they died. We brought my wife’s mother into our home when her cancer made constant care necessary. On the night she died, we were sleeping in the living room so that we could be near her.
The seven years I spent as a Hospice Spiritual Care Coordinator allowed me to be with many people in their final days, and sometimes final hours. I’ve been privileged to pray with people as death neared, to hold their hands or sing their favorite hymns and, occasionally, to close their eyes.
I’ve had an interesting vantage point from which to see how people in our society cope with dying and death. I’ve known some people who looked death in the eye without quailing, and others who literally ran in fear at its approach. For the most part, though, the people I’ve accompanied to death’s door died with courage and honor. God really gives “grace to help us in our time of need.”
Individuals often face death bravely, but I don’t think society as a whole does. As a people, we both fear death and are embarrassed by it. We treat it like the contracted employee everyone hates but can’t be sacked, and so is sent to the recesses of the warehouse. Society hides death behind closed doors, usually in sterile hospital rooms and Hospice facilities.
We are like the people in biblical times who said, “We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement … for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place.” But that agreement was based on a lie – the lie that death would leave them alone. But death doesn’t leave anyone alone. Of the estimated hundred billion people who have ever lived on earth, only seven billion or so are currently alive, and death will not leave them alone any more than it did their ancestors.
Christians believe, and on Easter celebrate, the news that God has torn up the agreement with death. The resurrection of Jesus means that God does not intend to honor any covenant with death. The old agreement, “You leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone,” is out the proverbial window.
Death enjoyed a long reign as the undefeated champion of the world, but it came to an end on that first Easter morning. Death is undefeated no more and will be destroyed. Christians join with the English Renaissance poet John Donne in his taunt: “Death, thou shalt die.”
If we take Easter to be the story of one man’s unlikely return to life after death, we will completely misunderstand it. Easter does not tell a story about how God played favorites with his favorite son, while leaving the rest of us to our misery. (Though more than one skeptic has mocked such a view as if it were the church’s own, it is nothing more than a rank caricature of Christian belief.)
Nor is Easter merely the promise that human beings can continue to exist in some form after death. Preachers sometimes talk as if that were the main point, but the vast majority of people who first heard the Easter story already believed in life after death.
The earliest Christian thinkers did not regard Jesus’s resurrection as proof that life continues after death, but as proof that God was bringing the age of injustice and rebellion (the age of death) to an end. They saw Jesus’s resurrection as initiating God’s “end times” strategy. It was not merely an extraordinary event, it was a promise: a promise that death will be destroyed, the world put to rights, and God and his people reconciled.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/15/2017