Christianity 201

June 13, 2018

Christianity is never sentimental about death

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:37 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Today we’re back with Colin Sedgwick at Welcome to Sedgonline. Click the title below to read at source, and then navigate around the blog to look at other articles, including this one, which also made the short list for today!

Thinking about dying

Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Philippians 1:21

Every couple of weeks I attend a small poetry-reading group (oh, what wild, crazy, nefarious activities we retirees get up to!).

Recently someone read a poem by the Welshman Dylan Thomas – you may very well know it. It doesn’t have a title, but is known by its first line: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” The “good night” referred to is death, and the person Thomas is addressing is his father. He is pleading with his dying father not to meekly submit (“go gentle”) to the approach of death: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I know nothing about the circumstances of Thomas’ father’s death, and I certainly would never pass any kind of judgment. But I couldn’t help but feel how sad those words are – and how alien to the Christian understanding of death.

Christianity is never sentimental about death. Paul bluntly refers to it as an enemy – “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).

And though I love the old hymn based on words of Francis of Assisi, “All creatures of our God and King”, I must admit I’ve never felt comfortable with the verse that starts, “And thou, most kind and gentle death,/ Waiting to hush our latest breath…”

No! Death may indeed come as “kind and gentle” to a very tiny minority; but it’s not like that in the experience of most people, and that’s not how the Bible sees it: “enemy” will do for me, thanks very much!

But Christianity is all about hope, even in the face of death: at its heart is the greatest story ever told – that death, though certainly an enemy, is a defeated enemy, overcome not in some “spiritual” or “mystical” sense, but in hard physical reality on that first Easter morning. Jesus died; and Jesus rose again. Hallelujah!

Personally, I have no wish to die. I shrink from the very thought. I enjoy this life too much, and feel that there is still a lot of living, and loving, to do. No doubt I will cling to life as long as I can – that’s just a natural part of the way we human beings are made. Probably you feel the same.

But when that time comes I hope that God, in his grace, will help me not to “rage, rage”, not to “burn and rave at close of day”, but to approach death with the attitude of Paul: to me, to live is Christ, to die is gain.

What extraordinary words those are! Have you ever seriously reflected on them? If they mean anything at all, they mean that, whatever he or she may lose, the Christian can only gain by dying.

Jesus knew better than anyone the horror of death. His suffering wasn’t just physical, but far worse – the suffering of being abandoned by his heavenly Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried (Matthew 27:46). But at the end he was able to pray – and “with a loud voice” too! – “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). John adds the vivid detail: “With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). Forgive the cliché but… what a way to go!

Paul brings his great resurrection chapter (1 Corinthians 15) to a climax with words of victory and triumph, some of them echoing Old Testament passages: “ ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ … But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” No burning, raging or raving there!

Why don’t we proclaim this breath-taking, life-changing, joy-giving truth more loudly? We need it for ourselves – oh, how we need it for ourselves! – for, unless Jesus returns first, we are all going to die. But, still more, our sad, troubled, frightened world needs it too – yes, your friends, your family and your neighbours, and mine. Trumpet it to all and sundry – and not just once a year when Easter happens to have come round!

I’ve quoted a hymn that I can’t really sing with conviction. But here’s another one that, so refreshingly, faces death head on by Matt Redman; it’s being sung everywhere, and deservedly so, I think…

And on that day when my strength is failing,
The end draws near and my time has come,
Still my soul will sing your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore…

I can sing that all right! — with the unspoken prayer at the same time “Yes, Lord, may it indeed be so!”

What about you?

Lord God, help me to live fully in Christ – and then to die triumphantly in him. Amen.

 

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