Saturday, July 7, 2007
THE LAST ENEMY TO BE OVERCOME
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15: 51-56, RSV)
Paul's great triumphant shout of joy, well-known enough, is better known still because of the bass solo version in Handel's Messiah -- so well-known perhaps that we overlook the depth of meaning.
For what can it be, this victory over death given to us? Not that since Jesus died and rose again we do not die. Of course we will die, all of us. Nor that we simply disregard death, pretend it does not happen, call it by another name. True, some may be able to welcome it:
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate around the world serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each
Sooner or later, delicate death.
Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love -- but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Walt Whitman, When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd
That is appropriate enough for someone who has lived a long and fruitful life, or for someone whose suffering has become unbearable. But what about the violent death of an accident victim, the despairing death of a suicide, the slow starvation of a child who never had a chance In life?
Not for nothing did Paul write of death as the enemy, the last enemy to be overcome, an enemy not just in itself but because of the way it can threaten us. It has the power to distort our relation to God, the source of life itself.
The very fact of death -- its arbitrary nature, to whom it comes and when -- can threaten faith in God. So the cry is heard when a loved one dies, 'Why him, why her, where's the justice in that?' Or the cry when one does not die soon enough, lingering on in agony, 'How can there be a loving and caring God?'
And the fear of death can threaten faithfulness to God. 'Life's so short,' we hear it said. 'Why make it miserable by having to be obedient to God? You only live once; live it up while you can.'
So death is an enemy, not just because it stands at the end of life, but because it has this capacity to invade life, diminishing life's possibilities in the present. Death is the last enemy to be overcome.
But, Paul is now affirming, death has been overcome. Not that we do not die, but that death does not have the last word. Not that death has been eliminated, but that its power to destroy us has been destroyed. Not that death is no longer real, but it is no longer to be feared.
For people fear death because they do not know what is in store on the other side of death, or know only too well that if they are judged, then they will be found wanting. Our wrongdoing in this world will cut us off from life in the next. The sting of death is sin; sinners are afraid to die.
But as forgiven sinners we need have no such fear, for the great good news of the gospel is that God does not desert us or cut us adrift. He came to us in Jesus Christ, who shares our grief, our sorrow, our suffering, our temptation and our death. He died, as Paul said, even for the ungodly. He died for us. And God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise us to new life in him.
So if we trust God with our life, we can surely trust him with our death, for the one who meets us at the end is none other than the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep and would not rest until all were gathered into the fold.
[The Bible's position is] that God is the creator of death as a natural event. But an untimely death is a form of suffering which has, intervened between the Creator and the universe he sustains. During the age of this world, which is the age not of God's creation but only of his preservation, it is in Adam and not simply in God that all live; and it is in Adam that all die...
The New Testament is candidly silent about the conditions that will obtain following our [death]. But it is unequivocal about the truth which is of major importance: the God who does not intend our untimely death will have the last word about death... For this purpose Jesus Christ took death upon himself, 'that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.'
Carl Michalson, Faith for Personal Crises
Who is there who can be ready for the future which God gives? Are we so free from anxiety that we cease to cling to the transitory and perishable? Are we free from our own past, from ourselves? There is only one power which can free us from the bondage of self, and take away from us both our fear and our self-despair. It is the power of love...
This love of God is not a goal toward which we strive -- who could ever obtain it by striving? But it is the power which already enclasps us and enfolds us, and to which our eyes have only to be opened; and we are to turn our gaze and our meditation on him in whom it has appeared incarnate, Jesus Christ. To know oneself to be sustained by this love means to be free from the bondage of the past, from the fetters of oneself, free for the future which God will bestow and for the glory which will be revealed to us.
Rudolf Bultmann, This World and Beyond
All my hope on God is rounded;
He doth still my trust renew,
Me through change and chance he guideth,
Only good and only true.
Calls my heart to be his own.
Father in Heaven! When the thought of thee wakes in our hearts, let it not awaken like a frightened bird that flies about in dismay, but like a child waking from its sleep with a heavenly smile.
Soren Kierkegaard, The Prayers of Kierkegaard
A famous tennis player used to spend a great deal of time on the court, not with racquet and balls but just walking around, or standing and looking at the lines. 'Why?' he was asked.
'How can you play your best game if you haven't got a feel for the boundaries?' he replied.
If we do not consider that we shall die; if we do not press on from this truth to the required openness and resolution; if we do not let it forbid us to lose time and command us to make time for ourselves, then we are not genuinely and properly what we could be. We must consider that we shall die; otherwise we cannot be wise. And without wisdom, the true and proper life for which we are destined is quite impossible.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
Treat the living as though they were dying.
The unsuppressed knowledge about death unveils the deepest and most crucial possibilities in life. Philip of Macedon turned this realisation into a kind of one-a-day brand elixir. His slave had a standing order. Every morning he was to enter the quarters of his king and shout, 'Philip, remember that thou must die!'
Carl Michalson, Faith for Personal Crises
Lord, in the strength of grace,
With a glad heart and free,
Myself, my residue of days,
I consecrate to thee.
Give me, O Lord,
A steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;
An unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out;
An upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.
To number our days, to remember that we must die means in the first place... to acknowledge and endure our predicament... The wise heart belongs to one who knows that in the hour of death we have nothing to rely upon except God's mercy.
But there is another thing to be remembered. What happened in the death of Jesus did not happen against us, but for us. What took place was not an act of God's wrath against us. Quite the opposite holds true. Because in Jesus, God so loved us from all eternity -- truly all of us -- because he has elected himself to be our dear Father and has elected us to become his dear children whom he wants to save and to draw unto him.
Therefore he has in the one Jesus written off, rejected, nailed to a cross and killed our old self who, as impressively as it may dwell and spook about in us, is not our true self. God so acted for our own sake.
Karl Barth, Deliverance for the Captives
It is precisely in the face of death that God's power hidden in the world is revealed. We cannot work out for ourselves the resurrection from the dead. But we may in any case rely on this God who can be defined as a God of the living and not of the dead; we may absolutely trust in his superior power even in the face of inevitable death; [we] may approach our death with confidence. The Creator and Conserver of the universe and of humankind can be trusted, even at death and as we are dying, beyond the limits of all that has hitherto been experienced, to have still one more word to say: to have the last word as he had the first.
Hans Kung, On Being a Christian
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4, 16-18, RSV
Fixed on this ground will I remain,
Though my heart fail and flesh decay;
This anchor shall my soul sustain,
When earth's foundations melt away;
Mercy's full power I then shall prove,
Loved with an everlasting love.
Johann Andreas Roth
Help me, O Lord, not to make too much of my own death, nor too little. Save me from coasting through the rest of my life, thinking that the best is behind me, not believing in creative possibilities yet to come, disappointed by hopes unfulfilled, longings unanswered.
Strengthen me in prayer and action for those who find life a living death:
* accident victims and others paralysed, trapped in a body that seems like a tomb; tortured by minds that mislead, confuse and terrify them;
* sons and daughters caring for aging parents, resentful that they have to do so much, yet guilty when they cannot do more;
* men and women stuck in jobs they long to change, or overcome with work demands they cannot meet, obsessed by work that dominates them, distraught at work they cannot find.
I am so thankful that my life has been free of that living death. Most of my time has been given to study and work that I find worthwhile and rewarding; I've had time for family and friends; my body and mind have enabled me to know and to share the joy of your creation.
Help me to show my gratitude in a life lived more fully to your glory, more committed to the needs of others, more open to the future, more accepting of what is yet to be, echoing in my life what I affirm with my lips:
'The best of all is, God is with us.' Amen.
And now to God who was in the beginning and will be at our end; who in Jesus Christ died and rose again to overcome the last enemy; whose Spirit breathed life into us and will give us life anew; to Father, Son and Holy Spirit we commit ourselves and those we love, trusting you with our death as we trust you in life, world without end. Amen.
Rivers in the Desert ed. By Rowland Croucher pp. 245-251