A few days ago I was on a bus travelling towards the city on a route that is very familiar to me as it takes me towards the church where I am minister. On this day, my attention was caught by something new - flowers attached to a post - the now traditional way of paying respect to someone tragically caught up in a road accident.
A little bit of research soon revealed that indeed a young man had died in a motorcycle collision whilst he was travelling home from work; he was only 20 years old. It caused me to reflect on the fragility of life - perhaps partly because the place where he died is a spot I cycle past regularly on my commute. One minute all is normal, the next… And, of course, thoughts turn to those who are left behind who have to deal with the sudden, unexpected and tragic loss of a loved one.
It can be so easy, for much of our lives, to ignore the reality of death; we know it is there and it happens but we are not directly or painfully exposed to it so we don’t think about it. However, there are times when mortality is thrust in front of our eyes in a way that we can focus on nothing else; it might be the death of a parent, or a close friend, or indeed our own failing health.
An investigation into the most commonly held fears people have reveals 'spiders' and 'flying' high up the list but at the top is the fear of death. During Lent, as we prepare to commemorate and celebrate the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it is an appropriate time to consider how we live positively in light of the inevitability of death (George Bernard Shaw said that "death is the ultimate statistic: one out of every one of us dies").
First we need to be aware of what the Bible says. Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher of the 19th
century said: “There are very few Christians who believe the resurrection of the dead. You may be surprised to hear that, but I should not wonder if I discovered that you yourself have doubts on the subject. By the resurrection of the dead is meant something very different from the immortality of the soul
(going to heaven): that, every Christian believes
He goes on to say that many non-Christians believe in the soul continuing beyond death … “But the resurrection of the dead is quite another doctrine, dealing not with the soul, but with the body. The doctrine is that this actual body in which I now exist is to live with my soul.”
Paul is at pains in his first letter to the Corinthians to point out that it isn't only our souls that survive in heaven but that we have a physical resurrection: “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:12).
The gospels report Jesus eating with the disciples and Thomas being invited to place his finger on the wounds inflicted at the cross: Jesus had a physical resurrection body – no, it wasn’t exactly the same as his earthly body as locked doors seemed to be no barrier for his entry into a room, but it was still a physical body.
Our Christian hope is that those who die will be raised in the twinkling of an eye with a new body. It won’t be exactly the same as our current bodies - they are subject to decay whilst resurrection bodies will be imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:42). Whilst there is fear in the unknown we can also dare to be excited that life after death has the promise of eternal joy without the misery of tears, pain, mourning and death (Revelation 21:4).
The question is “Does this make any difference to the way that I live my life now?” The answer is that it should! Many things could be said at this point, but let me suggest just a few…
1) We do not grieve without hope
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is writing to a people who did not understand about the hope of resurrection. They understood why Jesus had died and they also understood that Jesus was coming again but they were afraid that those who died before Jesus’ return had missed out. They grieved for them and were worried for themselves that they too might miss out on the promised blessing.
Pauls says: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope”
1 Thessalonians 4:13. Grieving is a natural response to death. For those who are left behind life will never be quite the same again. We miss the person and we are sad. We do not trivialise death or underestimate it but through it all we have hope that for those who know Christ, death is not the end. We do not need to fear our own mortality because of the promise that we have in him.
2) We do not lose heart
In the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that follows the adventures of people who move to a retirement hotel in India, the energetic and over optimistic manager, Sonny, has a line that is much repeated amidst the chaos of all that is going on: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.”
Christians could easily repeat such a phrase as we live in a world where we are far from immune to struggle and difficulties.
Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians writes in light of the resurrection promise “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all”
(2 Corinthians 4:16-17). Yes, there may be trouble and struggle and disappointment and frustration but through it all, we have the strength to keep going in the sure and certain promise that one day it will be different. We are reminded of the famous saying of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
3) We fix our eyes on what is unseen
Paul goes on to write: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal.”
(2 Corinthians 4:18). Having an eternal perspective should make a difference to the way we live our lives now. We don’t need to be fearful of death because we have a confidence based not on wishful thinking but on what the Bible tells us. This can free us to live as God intends us to and to have the fullness of life that Jesus came to bring. It may bring a change in priorities.
We are often encouraged in our society to ‘live for the moment’. This can lead us to focus on fulfilling physical and often selfish desires rather than spiritual ones. Paul encourages us to make it our goal to please Christ whether we are at home in the body or away from it. I wonder how often we make decisions based only on what is seen and temporary rather than what is unseen and eternal?
So, as we journey from the reflection of Lent to the rollercoaster of emotions seen through Holy Week and onto Easter Sunday, we may find it helpful to give some time to thinking about death. We do this not as a morbid exercise to depress us, but rather to take us to the heart of the Christian faith that breathes hope and life. As we reflect afresh on what Jesus has done for us, it can give us a fresh perspective that allows us to face death so that we can truly live life.
Rev Mark Fairweather Tall is a Minister of Norwich Central Baptist Church.
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