The Christian Church has an ambiguous relationship with death.
We speak of death as the last enemy, and as a defeated enemy; but it still haunts us. The desire for life, and the fear of death remains strong – for most of us, most of the time – even as our faith assures us that death is the end only of one chapter of our story.
And while our grief for those who have been taken from us is coloured by our knowledge that they are now with God: no longer suffering, no longer sorrowing, no longer bound by their failing mortal body, that grief remains.
And of course we have stories in both Old and New Testaments of the dead being brought back: but they are scattered and seemingly arbitrary; there are many more who die than who are healed or raised.
But there’s more to this ambiguity than all that: life itself depends upon death. Whether it’s the death inherent in the natural selection process through God worked to fashion life, or the death of plant and animal to provide food for grazer and predator, or simply the fact that in a world of limited resources there cannot be birth without death – we would simply run out of space – life is dependant upon death.
As a teenager I remember attending a Christian youth camp, and at one of the evening Bible studies our group leader saying that Christians really ought to welcome death, to look forward to it. And his logic seemed impeccable: for if to die is to go to be with Christ, to enter into an immediacy of relationship with God that we cannot even imagine here on earth, why would this not truly a be “a consummation devoutly to be wished”? Why would we mourn for those we have loved and lost, if we knew that they were in such a better place?
And yet even then – and still now – I felt that there was something deeply, profoundly wrong with what he was saying. A sense of wrongness that took shape when I heard someone comment “before Jesus died, he lived”
Before Jesus died, he lived. He grew up. He celebrated the festivals, he went to banquets and weddings and parties. He had friends and family, a community around him, a trade to work at. He lived life – the life in all its fullness that he said he came to bring. Whatever it is that awaits us beyond death – and I’m confident its something good; God created this life as well.
Getting into heaven isn’t the point of life. The point of life is living. As we reflected last week: we are here for something, we have a role, a purpose; our place in the Kingdom of God “on earth, as it is in heaven”.
And in that light, the miracle outside the gates of Nain makes a little more sense, seems a little less arbitrary. The dead man is the only son of a widowed woman, and we read that Jesus had compassion on her. The only son of a widow had a particular role to play in that culture; he was her only means of support. Without him, she was dependant upon charity, begging, or worse. Jesus raised the man not because no-one should die, but because his job was not yet done.
In his way, the psalmist says something similar. With no sense, it seems, of the chance of life beyond death, he asks
‘‘What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? ’
He saw his role as that of bringing praise to God, telling of God’s faithfulness, and sees his healing in that context; that he has been restored to fulfill that purpose. And how many of the psalms would we not have today if the author – possibly David – had died?
Of course, this doesn’t answer our ambiguities; for many faithful servants of God die with their tasks left seemingly incomplete. When we speak of life and death we are poking at the margins between the mortal and the divine; we probably shouldn’t expect complete answers that make perfect sense. But perhaps this nudges us in the right direction.
Death has its place in this creation; there is a time to live, and a time to die. And whenever that time comes, there will be things that have been left unsaid or undone, there will roles left incomplete, jobs left unfinished. For we live in a broken world, one in which nothing is perfect, complete, free of ambiguity. But there is a time for death; a time when our role in the drama of the Kingdom of God comes to an end, and we make way for other players.
But until that time – life also has its place. Life lived in the security of God; life lived in the knowledge of our salvation; life lived in the confidence that there is more than this: but most of all, life lived. Life lived for the Kingdom of God, life lived in love for others, life lived for the sake of the beauty of life.
So that when our time is done, those we left behind will mourn for us, but will also be able to celebrate our lives, and send us on our way with a party.
It might tell you something about the way I prepare for Sundays, that when I was choosing hymns, I didn’t expect to end up here, leading into a hymn which really doesn’t follow! You might like to speculate on the sermon I thought I was going to preach when I chose “Rock of Ages”, Hymn 222.