In this strange and wonderful line of work, you find yourself at deathbeds. And I'm blessed to say that I’ve never seen a death wrapped in fear. Maybe I’ve just been fortunate, but my experience of being with people as they die is that they’re not afraid. Nearly to a person, they seem to find peace and freedom.
Instead, where I see fear of death is among the living. It expresses itself lots of ways: We deny our age, being perpetually 39. We have mid-life crises, making choices more like teenagers than 55-year-olds. We build up possessions until we find ourselves possessed by them. We invest ourselves in overwork, trying to hang our portrait on the office wall rather than build relationships at home. We become chronically ill and seek a third or fourth or fifth opinion, unable to step into a new normal of decline. And at the end of the line, we find ourselves prolonging life for the sake of postponing death.
Well, on this All Saints’ Day, as we come to the end of our sermon series on “The Generous God,” let me share with you what I believe to be God’s greatest blessing to us, the most astonishing act of generosity we’ll ever receive. Here it is: We need not fear death. Let me say that again: We need not fear death. This truth is so central to what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ that we may miss it, like the fish that doesn’t notice the water in which it swims. When we enter the waters of baptism, as Charlotte Cynthia Murray will do in a few minutes, we are buried with Christ in his death. Enlivened by that water, we share in his resurrection. Rising from that water, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. The battle with death is a battle we simply need not fight because it’s a battle Jesus has already won.
We hear that story every Holy Week and Easter, and we heard it foreshadowed in this Gospel reading for All Saints’, too. Though Jesus has healed many people before this crucial turn in the story, he chooses not to heal his dying friend. He’s told that Lazarus is sick, but he waits two days to come see him. By that time, it’s too late. Lazarus’ sisters meet him on the road and rail at Jesus in their grief; and Jesus himself breaks down, sharing and bearing the sorrow of all. But he’s done this to accomplish a larger purpose: that the crowd might believe Jesus is the Son of God, the one who brings eternal life into the here and now, the one whose restoration of Lazarus will cost him his own life at the hands of church and state. Jesus tells them to roll away the stone, roll away the power of death; and then he commands, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). And “the dead man came out” (11:44), Scripture says, still bound in his shroud, still struggling, like us, with the remnants of death. Unbind him, Jesus says, from the body of decay. Unbind him from the human expectation of finitude. Unbind his friends and family from their grief. Unbind them and the disciples from their fear of what might come when the powers of the world do their worst. Unbind them from their fear, Jesus says, and let them go.
For as we remind ourselves when we commend a saint to God’s care and pray the burial rite: To God’s faithful people, “life is changed, not ended” when we die (BCP 382). Life is changed, not ended. That means two things. First, of course, it means death is not the end of our stories, no matter how final or fatal transitions may feel. As baptized people who commit ourselves to follow Jesus as Lord and to live in the light of his sovereignty, we are assured that “neither death, nor life, not angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39) – much less the death of our physical bodies. We know this, even though we may forget sometimes, in our worry and anxiety. We know this promise for all the saints, the promise of life in God’s presence, the promise of heavenly life that never ends.
What we may not know so well is the other stunning implication of that statement that “life is changed, not ended” when we die. If it’s true that life is all of a piece, from birth to heavenly life, then we must be living in eternal life right now, not merely waiting for it later, in the sweet by and by. Of course, we don’t experience it as fully now as we will. For now, we still know “mourning and crying and pain” (Revelation 21:4). We still suffer the brokenness of creation and the smallness of our own hearts. But that is not the whole story because, just as the divine Word once spoke forth creation, the One now seated on the throne has spoken forth new creation: “See, I am making all things new!” (Revelation 21:5). God has given us the most astonishing gift of all, the gift of Christ’s resurrection. And with it, we are set free from death now, even as we wait for life to be changed into its fullness. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says – present tense. Welcome to the kingdom of heaven, every day you rise from sleep.
Some days, we’re blessed to see it more clearly than others. I remember seeing it right here one morning, three years ago, when someone else stood in this pulpit. It was Connie Smart. One of the great sadnessses of my time here is that I was on sabbatical last fall, when Connie joined the company of saints gathered around the heavenly throne. A couple of years before that, Connie had received the news of her cancer diagnosis; and all of us were fearful for her – fearful of the pain of treatment, fearful of the disease’s course, fearful of the likely outcome. Well, Connie stood here in this pulpit one Sunday morning, and she proclaimed eternal life in the here and now. She proclaimed the love of her family, and the love of her church family, and the love of God she’d known through her life. And then, she said,
“This cancer has turned my prayer life in a different direction.… In my daily prayers, I [once] held up others in need [and] expressed my thankfulness for my many blessings…. However, now I really want to have more one-on-one [with God] by asking questions and hearing his answers.… I have been blessed with an amazing life, and I have no fear of dying.… It’s up to us to learn and be trusting, through our ears and our hearts, and to know, no matter what, that [God is] always there for us.”1
With the power of death set aside, Christ invites us to embrace what Connie embraced: courage. Heavenly courage. If we truly don’t fear death, imagine what that freedom empowers us to do. It empowers us to live as new creations. It empowers us be the people we talk ourselves out of being – people who love unreservedly, people who speak the truth, people who give generously from abundance, people who risk – not for our own gain but to accomplish God’s purposes. If we truly don’t fear death, we can be living sacraments of the generosity of God – icons of the Creator who gives us all we see and hold, icons of the Son who gives himself to redeem us, icons of the Spirit who gives us life day by day.
So free us, generous God, from the boundaries the world sets around us. Free us from the fear of death that keeps us small and still. Unbind your saints, Lord, and let us go.
- Smart, Connie. Address to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Feb. 23, 2012. St. Andrew’s Archives.