2 Corinthians 4:7-15, Isaiah 40:27-31, Psalm 46
Unafraid: Fear and Death*
We’ve been talking about fears for the last several weeks. We started about thinking about fear and security, our need to feel safe and the ways we can let that need close us off from anyone and anything too different from us, if we forget that God’s perfect love casts out fear. We talked about fear and failure, and the pressure we put on ourselves when we mistakenly believe that our value as a person is derived from our supposed successes. We thought about fear and loneliness, and how we can perhaps best fight off our sense of isolation by focusing instead on making sure others are not lonely. We talked about fear and change, and how change sometimes feels like grief, but though weeping lasts for the night, the joy of God comes in the morning.
Today, we’re concluding our series by talking about fear and death. I know, a light-hearted wrap-up to this series! But that’s the thing - we human beings have a lot of different experiences, different hopes, different fears - but death is a common experience that every single one of us will face. Everybody dies. And yet, despite the universality of our experience, despite the fact that everyone dies - no matter how healthy you are, no matter how rich you are, no matter what country you live in, no matter what, your journey on this earth, this plane of existence, will one day end in death - despite that common bond we have - humans, plants, animals, all of us - in our culture we tend to shy away from talking about death. Sometimes, when I’m meeting with a family to plan a funeral for a loved one, the family can’t answer any questions for me about what their loved one wanted in a service. And they can’t easily answer questions about what they want in a funeral service - because they’ve avoided thinking about it, avoided talking about it. I get it - I do. I’m in the process of making my will right now, and making sure I’ve communicated in writing the kind of decisions I’d want someone to make for me if I was in the hospital, on life support. I told my Mom that I was doing this, and that I’ll make sure to communicate with her and my siblings about where important documents are. It’s not a light and easy conversation to have. And I’ve always teased with my Mom that we don’t need to talk about these things for her because she is not allowed to die - ever. Of course we don’t want to talk about death when it comes to our loved ones because despite whatever hopes we have for eternal life, we know the loss and grief we’ll experience right now when we lose someone we love is the worst kind of pain we’ll experience in this life.
But I think it is more than that - our fear of death. I think we especially fear the unknown, and what happens in death is the great unknown. No matter what we learn about the process of death, no matter what we read about visions of eternity, we can never really know what death is like until we experience it. Death is an unknown, and that is what is most frightening about it. I think about a poster I had on my wall in junior high. It was an image of our galaxy, with an arrow pointing to a tiny spot on the image that said, “You are Here.” I can’t remember where I got it - something from school probably. I thought it was pretty clever. But the more I looked at it over time, the more uncomfortable it made me. I could get pretty lost in my head thinking about the size of the universe - how either it having an edge or not having an edge - both possibilities seemed impossible and baffling. And then to think that I was a tiny speck on a tiny planet in one solar system in one galaxy out of that whole perhaps infinite mess - it was just too much to consider. I had to take the poster down. Sometimes I think ours fears about death are kind of the same. There’s too much that’s unknowable about death, too much that is beyond what our minds can really take in, and so it’s hard to look death in the eye too often.
So we do it in snippets. On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, we start by remembering that we’re mortal, literally marking ourselves with ashes. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And at funerals, at the graveside, the prayer of committal says, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” When someone else has died, for a little bit, we have to face our own eventual death.
Adam Hamilton spends time in his book Unafraid reflecting on the fear of death as he studies the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians. By the time Paul writes this letter to the young church at Corinth, things aren’t going so well. There’s been tension between the young faith community and Paul. He’s had to correct some of their beliefs and behaviors, and in turn, some of the Corinthians call Paul’s leadership into question. Paul’s a bit on the defensive. He and his co-workers have been through a lot. He so wants the church at Corinth to thrive, because he wants the gospel message to thrive. And he’s given heart and soul to make it happen. You can hear the weariness in his tone: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Adam Hamilton picks up on Paul’s metaphor of the clay pots. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes. Hamilton says that our bodies are the clay jars, and clay jars of Paul’s day weren’t meant to last forever. They get crushed and broken and destroyed. But they hold a treasure - the real, essential us. (211)
I’m struck particularly by Paul’s words starting at verse 10. Paul says he and his co-workers carry in their bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be visible in their bodies too. “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” Paul seems to say that we can only fully reflect the life of Christ when we embrace the sacrificial death of Christ as part of us too. After all, something can’t be resurrected unless it has first died. So how can we embrace new life without first embracing death. Since Paul was pretty hopeful and intent on continuing to preach the gospel, we know Paul didn’t mean he was signing up to die - although he did eventually give his life for his faith. No - Paul means that we die to self - we die to “me first” so that we can embrace “Christ first” if we want to embody Jesus in the world. The unknown of death, the grief and sorrow of death - they can be scary things to contemplate. But when Paul talks about his life making Jesus visible to others - I want that! I want others to be able to experience the life of Christ through me and my work. I think we’re called to that. If that means we have to also carry the death of Christ with us, in us, are we ready to do that too? I recently saw a post on facebook talking about people speculating on what they might do if they knew they had one day left on earth. Maybe we’d eat our favorite foods. Visit our favorite places. See our dearest loved ones of course. And the post said, “Jesus knew he had one day left on earth. Jesus washed feet.”
Hamilton notes that the Bible has many different images of heaven - from the beautiful images in the writings of the prophet Isaiah, to the streets of gold in Revelation. Hamilton thinks of these different descriptions as ways of saying, “‘Think of the most beautiful and treasured things you can in this life - the next life is even more beautiful than these!” And then he shares this story, an illustration that is more than 100 years old. There’s a man, dying alone at home. “His doctor, traveling by horse and buggy, came to make a house call. He went everywhere with his faithful dog, whom he left on the front porch as he entered the home of his patient. The patient, lying in bed, said to the doctor, ‘Doc, I’m scared. What’s it going to be like on the other side?’ At that moment the doctor’s dog began scratching at the door and whining, hoping to be let in. The doctor said, ‘Do you hear my dog scratching at your door? He’s never been in your house. He doesn’t know anything about the inside of your home. Here’s the only thing he knows: His master is on the other side of that door. And if his master is inside, it must be okay, and it is where he wants to be. That’s what heaven is like.’ Believing this about death changes how we face our mortality.” Hamilton says. “It doesn’t mean we have no fear, only that we’re not controlled by fear. It means that, despite our fear, we can live with real hope.” (219)
I find hope in this: In facing death, we don’t experience anything that God did not experience in God’s own self. Jesus died. His death was at the hands of enemies. It was painful, violent death. It was not something Jesus did easily, not something he faced without fear and anxiety and wishing there was a different way. He was crucified. He was put to death. So I find comfort that we follow a savior who faced death head on - washing feet the night before with his servant’s heart, trusting in his Parent, ready to embrace death to demonstrate the abundant life God promises us. That gives me hope.
I find hope in the fact that whatever aspects of the unknown await us in our experience of death, whatever different pictures of heaven, of eternity we might conjure, whatever metaphors the scriptures use, there’s a consistent theme: we’re united with God forever, God who created and loves us. Being with God who is goodness itself can only be good!
And I find hope in this - hope, and challenge: We can only experience resurrection if we experience death first. Eventually, death of this body, this life. But we’re always being called to face the death of some part of ourselves, our old selves. To have room for my resurrected life, I have to put to death everything in me that isn’t of Christ. That’s maybe as hard and as scary as facing physical death. But isn’t resurrection worth facing death?
As we come to the end of our series, of this go-around with wrestling with our fears, I return to 1 John, where we started out weeks ago: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as God is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” We aren’t perfect. Sometimes, we’ll be afraid! But God is perfect. And as we let God in, as we put aside everything but God, God’s perfect love casts aside our fears. Fear not! God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
* All quotations are from Adam Hamilton’s book Unafraid: Living with Courage and Hope in Uncertain Times. New York: Convergent Books, 2018.