Tag Archives: death

Weigh it up

Paul doesn’t always write easy, straightforward letters (and we continue our reading of 2 Corinthians with chapter 5:6-17):

Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:6

It seems that Paul is thinking of death – whether because of his age, illness, or opposition which might secure his execution. If in the past he as assumed (and wrote as if) he would be alive at the return of Jesus in glory, he now wonders about the other alternative. Not a favourite activity, but sometimes useful

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

2 Corinthians 5:9,10

This is not to deny that we are saved by faith through grace. The Christian who lives by his belief is safe, but our life work as Christians will be judged. Paul explained it in 1Corinthians 3, using the example of a builder working to build on the foundation of Jesus:

11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15

For Paul, this is a motive for Christian evangelism. He then goes on to a great statement:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

2 Corinthians 5:14,15

We’re dead – not because of some disaster about to happen. Because Jesus died for us, we die to a selfish life. All life is now for him, under his direction. We don’t “get” this all at once. Even if we say we are committed, over time we discover there are still bits of ambition, or things we want for ourselves, that have nothing to do with Jesus – and do not fit in with a life now lived for the one who died for us. Our sense of judgement changes:

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

2 Corinthians 5:16,17

What makes a person amusing or boring; what decides our leisure activities, choice of work (employment, or volunteering); a new perspective. More than that,

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

2 Corinthians 5:20

We are not trying to make other people like us, nor even to introduce them to faith as we know it (so that they learn our worship, our church life). We are ambassadors – for Christ. The aim: that they meet Him, and come to live for him – but in the way He directs, according to their situation, ability, gifts . .

Paul doesn’t always write easy, straightforward letters. But he has some very important things to say!

Do we need a Priest?

If you follow that calendar, this is the fifth Sunday in Lent, and thoughts turn to Jesus death. But how are we to understand the Cross, the whole strange process of Jesus going willingly to death? The problem is that it is unique. It is much easier to explain things that repeat, especially when they are familiar. The New Testament uses various complementary descriptions, each important, but part of the whole truth.

So today, one of those descriptions of what is happening in and through Jesus death is from the letter to Hebrews. It centres around the idea of High Priest – familiar to Jewish first Century Christians, and not entirely foreign to us. We read Hebrews 5:1-10, which explains three things about a High Priest, and shows how they fit Jesus (and him better than others!)

The third thing Hebrews says (you’ll understand my order in a minute) from Hebrews 5:4-6: A High Priest is not self-appointed! (You can guess why!). Jesus was of the tribe of Judah (as a descendant of David), not the priestly tribe of Levi – so how can he be a priest? Because he is not only recognised as Son of God (Psalm 2:7 is quoted at his Baptism and Transfiguration), but also by Psalm 110:4 as a priest for ever (Hebrews 5:6) in the order of Melchizedek.

The second thing Hebrews says 5:2,3: any earthly High Priest was weak, sympathising with sinners and offering sacrifice for them and for himself. 5:8 notes that, while sinless Jesus needs no sacrifice for himself, his earthly life shows suffering and obedience. Once again, Jesus is qualified for this role in a way we can appreciate and be grateful for.

Our third point, Hebrews first (5:1): a High Priest is chosen as an intermediary between God and humans. The Jewish High Priest offered sacrifice, in a daily and annual cycle. (Hebrews will focus on the ritual from Leviticus 16, for the Day of Atonement, but the detail is not vital). Jesus offers a perfect sacrifice – himself – once for all time. 5:9,10 – the source of eternal salvation. He bridges the gap, and unlike the generations of Temple priests, permanently. This is why some Christians dislike “priest” as a title for minister – Jesus is the High Priest for ever, and we shouldn’t confuse the roles.

How are we to understand the Cross, the death of Jesus? Following the New Testament in its variety of pictures and explanations. One of those is Jesus as High Priest. He is appointed by God, familiar and sympathetic with our life and problems, and by a unique act effective for ever in bringing us to God. I hope you begin to understand why the death of an innocent man by torture came to be the centre of Good News.

Dealing with death.

Remembering the dead – it might seem an occupation for the bereaved, and the military, but in fact it may be important for all of us, and for the way we live. On the one hand, we live with modern medicine removing so many of the threats of early death (TB, typhoid, cholera . ) and in a time of peace (at least in Europe). On the other, the news reminds us of those who value life little, and sometimes lose it – on the roads, in fights with knives or guns, by self-destruction with drugs or alcohol.

Paul wants those in Thessalonica to understand “the truth about those who have died” (that’s verse 13 of today’s reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Perhaps he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and when some of the congregation died, they thought they might have missed it.

At any rate, he is clear that the Christian reaction to death is very different to classical fatalism (or contemporary attitudes). Since Jesus died, and rose from the dead, believers can look forward, even at death, to resurrection. (He is not talking here of those outside Christian faith – there are other places in the New Testament which suggest for them both justice and mercy in judgement, which involves some not gaining heaven – but this is the hope for Christians). There is to be no fatalism, no imagining that all ends with life on earth. Nor is death an escape from justice.

He goes on to describe how, on the last day, Jesus will return, and his faithful followers – both those still alive at that time, and those who had died – will all meet him and stay with him. It is a picture of heaven worth reflecting on – does the thought of an eternity with Jesus appeal to you? When I was a child the thought of endless church services was not one I liked at all! Now I see the challenge more in being fully known for what I am – no secrets, no self-deception. Again, you may feel that being gathered up in the clouds is a bit primitive. See it rather as a place of power (a storm contains much more energy than a nuclear reactor), a place we cannot go without help – so a new order.

So Paul tells these Christians that those of their number who have died will not miss out, because Jesus resurrection means a future beyond the grave. He tells them to encourage one another with this. That, surely, is part of the point for us. Our attitude to death will affect our attitude to life. Socially and culturally we don’t handle death well. Better medicine and smaller families mean less familiarity with bereavement. That’s good, but we have lost the ways of expressing grief, and sympathy, through rituals of mourning. We find it harder to help others to adjust to life without someone, and sometimes add our embarrassment to their burden.

Christians ought to do better. Let’s use the fact of Jesus resurrection to face our own deaths with hope, and encourage others to do the same. Facing death without fear, let’s recognise that life is to be lived with purpose. We are to serve. Perhaps the forces are helped by military discipline, but the Christian is not just to “follow orders”, but to follow Jesus, and find the purpose of our life in using gifts and opportunities in that service.

Of course death is still a shock, and for the young (in uniform or out of it) untimely and difficult. Some, in war, will have found identity and opportunity to serve in its fullest sense. Some, in peacetime life, will have learnt rapidly what they have to give, and given freely. Perhaps the loss of their early death is ours, not theirs.

Let the dead, whom we remember, remind us to live well: fully, and in the service of one worth serving. Let the living encourage one another with the Christian hope, as Paul reminded the Thessalonian church.

Not immune – but protected!

“I’ve been good, why is this happening to me?” Sadly this is a common wail of Churchgoers in trouble. Paul gives some answers in Philippians 1. (We are set to read Philippians 1:21-30, but it may be helpful to start a bit earlier – perhaps Philippians 1:12-30).

Paul is in prison (v13), yet his whole attitude is far beyond duty and courage! Even though some people are trying to make trouble for him (v17), he is happy. How does he manage this?

He has no illusions about the Christian life being a guarantee of no trouble, no hard times, no suffering. Quite the opposite, if his being in prison (not a pleasant experience) will help the gospel, then he is happy for that to happen. The experience is clearing up what is at stake, helping others to confront the challenge of the gospel – as persecution has often been a tool for strengthening the church – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (as is said in East Africa). Paul draws strength from realism: he knows the failings and weaknesses of other people, but also he knows the God who is in control of all. His trust is in God, and with that he can cope with people.

Life and death! Paul knows the possibilities of his situation, and has come to be able to say

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21

It is a vital line for many others who face death, whether through disease (as we all do, at some time), or through physical danger. Sadly, we don’t now seem happy to speak positively about preparing for death, preferring to let it creep up on us unawares. Is a sudden heart attack the ideal end? No, for it allows no time to prepare, no repentance, no sorting of finances and relationships. Yes, to prepare for death needs the courage to face dying; and yes, it is a good thing to do – for our own sake as we face God, and for the sake of friends and family, as they adjust to a new situation.

Paul, guarded by armed soldiers, is in no position to avoid the realities, and he has worked through his thoughts and feelings to this wonderful and helpful statement v21. What do we rely on? If Christ, then he will see us through death. If something else, then we need to change – and that brings us to the third paragraph Philippians 1:27-30.

“the important thing is that your way of life should be as the gospel of Christ requires”

Philippians 1:27a

This is your safeguard, in all sorts of ways:

  • if you have enemies, who oppose and ridicule your faith, live it consistently, and they will have no ammunition. More, they will be given fair warning of their own danger.
  • if you are frightened of what may happen in the future, of the uncertainty that is always part of life (health, work, family …) then live as a Christian and you will develop the resources to cope with all these things, as well as to recognise that many will never come.
  • even should you ever be afraid of the “nasties” of the spiritual world, of black magic or vodoo or anything else you should not be involved with – this is your basic protection. Live as a Christian, for Christ does not allow his people to be seriously hurt by the enemy.

So I hope you see that Christians are not “immune”. All sorts of things can and do happen to them, but they are still safe with a God whose work is not stopped. They can face death with reasoned courage; they know that living as Christians is a preparation and protection which will get them through good times and bad.

Like a Virus?

Jesus lived a very long time ago, in a different country, culture and speaking a different language. How can his life be relevant to us in in the 21st century? In Romans 5, (today we read Romans 5:12-19), Paul contrasts Christ with Adam (even more remote), but would argue that both are still relevant.

“sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin”

Rom 5:12.

Whatever you make of the story of Adam’s rebellious disobedience of God’s instructions in the Garden (it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to do what he was told – he wanted to take over God’s role and be in charge!), there is no doubt that the consequence of death and disaster coincide with our experience. Death is something we don’t talk about much, and don’t deal with very well. Wishful thinking abounds as people tell us what they “like to believe”. Yet we all experience temptation and failure – that is, sin – and know the consequences only too easily lead to death (whether our own or someone else’s). It is just as if Adam had released some deadly virus into the world, and we all now suffer because it cannot be contained.

Paul then goes on, in an aside, to talk about “Law”. The 10 commandments were long after Adam, given when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. But they didn’t introduce or invent Sin. The Old Testament law defined sin, and helped people recognise what it was. They knew it was nothing new, even then.

Today, when awareness of truth and right seem less clear, that Law not only helps to explain what God is like, but to show up how different we are, and how much we need help or transformation. Escaping sin has never been a question of just making a bit more effort – or getting old and less energetic!

“But the free gift is not like the trespass” v15 Now we are coming to Jesus. A world stuck in sin leading to death is pretty miserable, but Paul points us to the far greater power of Christ. Adam unleashed a problem – Jesus pours out the solution. The grace of his death is the answer to both sin and death. His sacrifice brings forgiveness to all who will accept it, his resurrection opens the way to eternal life for the faithful.

Paul wants us to have confidence in the effectiveness of what Jesus has done. We know the bad news; however hard we avoid thinking about it, it is part of our experience and the experience of our world.

Are we equally experienced in the good news? Jesus sets us free from sin, and from the effect of death. It is the offer of a totally different life, to be lived in a new way with new power. But it needs accepting and doing.

Understood.

“You don’t understand what its like!” – perhaps we remember the cry as the typical complaint of the teenager. But it is not a feeling limited to the years of adjustment to adulthood.

Increasingly we hear people being pressured in their jobs, by managers themselves being pushed harder and harder for results. Too often the employee feels unheard and not understood as they are pushed.

More and more families are pressured by the varied wants and demands of different members. We are encouraged to be our own people and do our own thing – but no one explains how that will fit with the personalities and agendas of others with whom we share our lives.

There is a danger that church life can add to the problem: Live like this, support that, we must do more . . So Hebrews comes as a relief. (We read a short paragraph from the end of chapter 2 today – Hebrews 2:14-18)

Jesus shared our life. It was necessary for us to know he understands, even if he didn’t need that experience to empathise. A fully human – and not wealthy or favoured – life was lived before his death. And it was his death that set us free from the fear and power of death. Indeed, his death opens our way to new life.

If Jesus had not lived like us, there might always have been the suspicion that he didn’t – couldn’t – know what it feels like. We might have felt as if we were being shouted at by some drill sergeant, who had no intention of running the course, or facing the enemy. But v17 “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God” – an intermediary, bringing us back to God.

We read this encouragement with the story of the Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40) – a helpless baby brought to the Temple to fulfill the requirements of Jewish Law. We are reminded of how fully Jesus was immersed in the life of a faithful Jewish family, and in time would take a full part in it. Of course, Simeon and Anna recognise something wonderfully out of the ordinary in this child. He will bring change, and fulfillment of many hopes.

The “growing up” of God’s plans for his people was not without some painful adjustments, just like the “growing up” of children taking their place in the adult world. The Messiah recognised in his mother’s arms turned out to be the Messiah who did not meet popular expectations, at least not in the way some looked for. People would struggle to understand the way God chose to work – as they have in every age, and still do. But at least we cannot doubt that God in Christ did “know what its like!”, and had every sympathy for what Christians would face and struggle with.

Why Resurrection?

Where does the Resurrection of Jesus fit into Christian thinking? So much seems already complete on Good Friday: Jesus had become High Priest and offered one sacrifice for all time; he has given his example, and his body and blood. Yet the resurrection is central in early preaching, for two main reasons.

First (as we see in 1 Corinthians 15:19-26) because the power of death has been broken. Someone has come back. So the perspective of this letter – and all Christians – is longer than a human lifespan. (So verse 19, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” – but our perspective is eternal). Many people like to think their loved ones continue after death – but without any reason for their hope. Jesus gives reason, and structure, to that hope.

Secondly, the resurrection transformed the disciples, because God raised Christ. This was most dramatic for Paul. As Saul the Pharisee, he was sure Jesus was a false teacher: his attitude to the Law and Tradition; his taking authority to himself; and the claim to be Son of God – all, in Saul’s thinking, condemned him. But then Saul, persecutor of Christians, met the risen Jesus. Since he was alive, by the power of God, he must be right – and all Saul’s ideas wrong where they differed. The resurrection of Jesus is the most wholehearted affirmation of his life and work.

So, the Resurrection shows life beyond death, giving a new perspective to human life. It proves Jesus’ authority to be that of God the Father. And so it reminds us that Christianity is Christ – we are his followers, he is our Lord.

Mistake – or . .

If I ask you to read Mark 10:35-45, I wonder how you react. It’s not that it’s complicated or difficult to translate; it is just very different to what we are used to in the media, and in what seems to be “ordinary” life. I hope, though, that you do find something to take away, ponder, and perhaps talk about.

I wonder if you see a warning. James and John were ambitious, perhaps even a bit ruthless about their aims. But they hadn’t really thought it through, and if Jesus had been less sympathetic it could have got them into all sorts of trouble. (2 crosses, or let the other disciples deal with their ambitions?). This shows up a real gap between Christian thinking and what passes for ordinary standards and expectations – a reminder of the gap, that we have to understand and get over.

But if there is a warning here, there is also an encouragement. These two are key disciples, and despite their blunders they are still included in Jesus circle of friends and students. Not only that, but their imperfections are not air-brushed out of the gospel account – quite the opposite. That’s got to be good news! If Jesus could choose and use people like that, there is hope for us, with all our imperfections.

Or perhaps what stays with you is that last verse, Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” It fits with the Old Testament lesson Isaiah 53:4-12, about the Suffering Servant who would redeem many. It fits with the Hebrews reading (Hebrews 5:1-10) about Jesus as a High Priest, bringing people to God and God to people. But it doesn’t easily fit with our culture of celebrity.

Have we really come to terms with Jesus choice of ministry – choosing to die, rather than to escape (as he could have done). Do we really want to follow and learn to imitate that sort of Lord?  We don’t need other people to remind us it is a strange choice. We easily forget that the eucharist (Holy Communion, Lord’s Supper, Mass, liturgy, breaking of bread – there are many names) we celebrate is a thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of the Son of God who died for us. Because it was necessary, because that sets us free, and allows the love of God to get to us, and through us to others.

I wonder how you react to a gospel reading like that.

Do you take warning, not to let ambition lead you astray?

Are you encouraged by the fact that Jesus uses real people, with their rough edges?

Do you find yourself wondering again about how differently God works, because we would never have planned Jesus ministry like that?

I don’t really mind, I just hope that you do react to it, and take it away, think and pray about it, and find ways of talking about it, too.

April Fool Easter?

It’s not often Easter falls on 1st April. (Yes, I looked it up! It has happened once before in my lifetime – 1956, and will come again in 2029,2040, but not then till 2108). I mention it because it seems to fit with Mark 16:1-8 – a funny end to the gospel, as the women run from the tomb, afraid? We almost want to ask, “Are you serious?” (Yes, verse 8 is the end, although there are 2 other endings given in most bibles, they are not in the best manuscripts, and look like attempts to “round off the story” from other gospels).

We can suggest all sorts of things:

  • Mark wanted to explain how unexpected this was, adding to the authenticity. If you were going to invent a story – be more plausible!
  • Better: He continues the theme of the failure of Jesus followers (the men are no better!) – which emphasises what God does, and the hope for imperfect believers (yes, like us!) later.
  • And perhaps: This is the end of part 1. Part 2 is being written by the believers for whom Mk wrote – they know about the spread of the Church (it has reached them in Rome), about the importance of the Resurrection, and the power of the risen Christ. What Mk is saying – to us as well – is “Now, write the next chapter”

Fear of the unknown is real in today’s Church, too. As we face changes, there will be voices that cover the fear with cynicism or ignorance. Perhaps we can go back to the good old days? Perhaps the changes we don’t like thinking about will never happen? But no, what is past brings us to our present. The present we need to face with faith.

“We just have to carry on as we have in the past”. No. The past contains some big mistakes. In Wales we have failed to engage with younger people, or indeed to evangelise their parents and grandparents, for half a century now, and unless we find the courage to do so, the Church will die out in Wales with us – and we will have to answer for failure, complacency, and unfaithfulness. (There may be other fears and failures where you are – something to think about).

And that is why it is important that the women were afraid, and that they got over their fear. If you look at Acts 10:34-43, you will see how Peter felt all sorts of doubts about going to a Gentile – it took a dream, and a summons to show him God’s way, but the result was vital.  He went beyond his fears.  If you look at 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (another reading set for Easter Sunday) Paul was not surprised his friends in Corinth were daunted when some of their congregation died, and they wondered if they had somehow missed out, or made a basic mistake in the meaning of the gospel. He had faced death himself, more than once, and could sympathise, but also remind them that the Christian Good News was, in 2 words, “Jesus, and Resurrection”.

Peter and Paul are both clear that the Christian faith stands, and faces fear, on the Resurrection of Jesus. That did 2 things:

  • it meant life had to be lived with a new perspective and horizon, no longer just for 70 years (more or less), but for life and eternity. It challenged fear of death, and of illness.
  • It meant Jesus was right. God raised him, and underlined all that he had taught and done. Fear of the unknown is now limited – God knows. We have reason to learn to trust Jesus.

What we face is not new, except in detail. The shadow of death, the fear – of the unknown, the unexpected, or just of not coping, is still real. It is a fear that needs to be faced, with a risen Lord.

Why read the Passion?

In many Churches this week we will read a longer passage, to follow through Jesus’ Passion story (Mark 14:1-15:47). To listen to this Passion story is to face 2 sides of reality.

One is the consistent failure of the people around Jesus.

  • Judas betrays him
  • the disciples don’t understand, fall asleep, desert
  • Peter denies him
  • the crowd want him crucified
  • Pilate doesn’t care to give him justice
  • soldiers and condemned prisoners mock him

Whatever is being achieved is not the result of human effort, offers no encouragement to depend on human goodness . .

The other side is sometimes forgotten. Jesus fights the battle against evil and death which he will win, but it is a most unusual war.

  • total casualties 1 dead
  • non fatal injuries 1 cut ear – healed immediately
  • psychiatric trauma all participants come to deal with reality better as a result of observation / participation
  • economic damage none, (unless the failure to avert the Jewish War a generation later is included, despite attempts by Jesus to avoid it). Some fishermen change trade.
  • political aftermath the Kingdom of God is established, but does not overturn other structures of government. Some officials with varying degrees of corruption are embarrassed.
  • lasting effects incalculable. The only war whose results are not buried by history.

Perhaps we begin to see why it had to be like that.  It is difficult to read, not because it is complicated, but – well, painful.  Yet this is the good news of Jesus.