Big Questions: Death

Romans 6, Galatians 2, 2 Corinthians 7

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As of yesterday afternoon 202,501 people have died of COVID-19 around the world. 340,000 people have committed suicide this year. 533,000 people have died of HIV/AIDS. 792,000 have died from alcohol. 1.5 million have died from smoking. 2.6 million people have died from cancer. And 3.5 million people have died of hunger so far this year.

But the only one of those numbers that most of us are paying attention to right now is the first one. The 202,000 COVID-19 deaths. Why is that? It’s not the biggest number. And we will have a vaccine for it long before we have a cure for cancer or AIDS. Imagine the positive impact we could have if we put the same amount of energy into solving the problem of world hunger. No, there’s something else about the COVID-19 virus that makes it especially worthy of attention. 

The COVID-19 virus has captured our attention and our imagination because it has stripped us of our illusion of control. It is suddenly abundantly clear to us how fragile human life can be, how unbalanced our economy is, how desperately unfair is the web of systems that shapes health outcomes. We are faced with the choice of sacrificing our personal comfort and preferences in favor of the safety of not only ourselves and our loved ones, but the safety of strangers. And worst of all, we have to take someone else’s word for it! The COVID-19 virus has revealed the power of death in the world. Not just the power of the event of dying, but the larger power of death. And that’s something that we have to grapple with. Last week we talked about sin and this week we need to talk about death because in our faith tradition they are closely related. 

Last week we read the story from Genesis 3, the origin story of the problem of sin in the world. It comes from taking matters into our own hands because we suspect that God is holding out on us. It causes shame and fear in individuals and wreaks havoc in all of creation. Listen to what happens at the end of that story. This is from Genesis chapter 3 verses 22 and 23: “And the Lord God said, “Humanity has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. They must not be allowed to reach out their hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished them from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which they had been taken.” 

Although we have the potential for immortality, living forever with the burden of sin would be unbearable, and so the humans are sent away from the garden so that they can’t eat from the tree of life. Death comes as a result of sin. Last week we talked about how Jesus has conquered sin, and so we also need to consider how he overcomes the power of death. Sin and death are the main concerns of the New Testament writers. There’s very little in the Bible about the afterlife as we think of it, about how we get to Heaven or Hell. Most of that theology comes as a result of how people interpreted the Bible after it was written. The apostle Paul, who is the most interested in explaining theology, actually has nothing to say about Hell. He doesn’t talk about it at all. But he has a lot to say about sin and death. In the book of Romans alone, he mentions death 41 times. Specifically he says in chapter 6 that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The power of death causes all kinds of problems for us. Most psychologists believe that the fear of death is the root of all our problems. The book of Hebrews says that humans are held in slavery all our lives by our fear of death. Death is the ultimate scarcity. The threat of non-being drives us to make the most of our lives, sometimes in good ways but more often in harmful ways. In sin, we suspect that God is holding out on us, so we have to get what we can for ourselves. We think we can create our own happiness or meaning through good looks, health, wealth, possessions, relationships, experiences, power and fame. Those things aren’t inherently bad, but the threat of death makes us believe that there’s not enough to go around, so if I’m going to get as much as I want, someone else is going to have to get less. The power of death is evident in racism, sexism, nationalism, all the -isms, homophobia, greed, addictions, political corruption, environmental destruction. Every act of violence is a little bit of death. It’s all around us. Every problem in our world is a manifestation of the power of death that results from sin.

You see how COVID-19 has captured our attention because it’s such a clear picture of the power of death? It’s wreaking havoc in our economies. It’s causing us to miss out on things that are really important to us. It’s leading us to lash out at each other, tempting us to separate ourselves into camps and feel superior to other people. That’s not the virus; that’s the power of death. The power of death is evident in the health disparities that are being so starkly revealed: poor people and people of color are more likely to die for a whole host of reasons that existed way before the virus. That’s the power of death.

So what can we possibly do about it? Does our faith offer us any recourse, any way out, any escape from the power of death? Well, yes of course it does, or I wouldn’t have drug you down this dark road if there wasn’t some light at the end of it. 

First of all, let me tell you what I think is NOT the answer to overcoming death. It’s not Heaven. Our idea of Heaven has no effect on the power of death. It may provide some comfort for individuals at the event of dying, but it does nothing about the power of death evident in racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, violence, environmental destruction and all the other problems. Me going to Heaven when I die doesn’t fix any of that.

Neither is it a solution to say that those things don’t matter or that event of dying doesn’t matter. The whole testimony of the Scripture says that our lives, our earthly existence, are infinitely valuable and that God cares about what happens here. The story of Noah and the flood says that the things humans do to each other breaks God’s heart. This world is not an illusion. It’s real and suffering matters and we can’t avoid it.

So if we can’t overcome the power of death by escaping it or ignoring it, what can we do? Oddly enough, the way to overcome the power of death is through another kind of death. We can’t beat it because we aren’t strong enough and so the only thing left is to die to it. We die to death. We die to our need to get what we can for ourselves. We die to our need to create our own meaning outside of all the goodness that God has already given us. We overcome the power of death by participating in the death of Jesus.

Hear these words from Romans chapter 6: “All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” 

And also Galatians chapter 2 verse 19: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

The apostle Paul’s favorite description for the identity of those who trust God is that they are “in Christ.” When we participate in the death of Jesus, when we align ourselves with the death of Jesus, we open up the possibility for us to die as he died and live as he lived. In his death, Jesus gave up his need to make something of his life on his own. He surrendered his desire for his own survival. He submitted himself to the power of death and that’s the one thing death doesn’t understand. Death expects us to run or fight, even though we know that never works. Death is entirely defenseless against someone who willingly faces dying rather than being enslaved by the power of death. That’s what Jesus did, and that’s what we do when we align ourselves with him.

This doesn’t mean that we need to be hasty for the event of our own dying. But it does mean that we would rather die than live under the power of death and sin. We would rather die than participate in racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, violence, environmental destruction and all the other problems of the world. We would rather die than bring the power of death on anyone else.

And that’s where the hope is. Because in choosing dying rather than submitting to the power of death, we win. We have tricked death. If the possibility of the end of our own existence no longer has the power to control us, then we are free. If we aren’t afraid of dying then we aren’t afraid of anything. We are free to live, to really live, not for our own self-centered pleasure but for the fulfillment that comes from living in the ways of the Kingdom of God. That’s the true freedom. Jesus has conquered sin and disarmed the power of death by accepting it, and when we align ourselves with him, we do the same thing.

So even as we face COVID-19, we are free. We see the ways that death is at work in this situation, far beyond the number of people who die. And we choose not to participate in the work of death. We may be isolated, but we choose not to be overcome by loneliness. We may be worried, but we choose not to demonize others. We may not know exactly how things will work out, but we keep hoping. The apostle Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians verses 7 through 11. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”

If we would rather die than give in to the power of death, then we are free. Let me end by sharing with you some words from one of my favorite Christian activists, William Stringfellow, who has given me a lot of insight on this. Let’s use this as our moment of reflection, so before I begin reading, I invite you to settle in. Close your eyes to block out distractions, or perhaps focus on the light of your candle … deep breath … And now listen with your ears and with your spirit.

“Of all the worldly powers, death is the most obvious, but death is not the greatest power active in the world. Death is not the last word. Nor is the last word some nebulous, fanciful, fake promise of an afterlife. The last word is not death, nor life after death; the last word is the same as the first word, and that word is Jesus Christ. He has, holds and exercises power even over death in this world. And his promise is that a person may be set free from the bondage to death in this life here and now.”
(William Stringfellow, Instead of Death [Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2004], 22.)

Amen.

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