Our Fear Of Death: A Holy Week Sermon

“I intended to introduce a new series this week but decided to add a sermon before doing that. I had to prepare a homily for Holy Week and found myself constantly going back to responses I received after last’s week’s lesson.

Certainly, one of the lessons we should have learned from the pandemic is how fragile we are. For a year now, one of the lead stories on the nightly news has been how many people have died from the COVID virus. The statistics have often been accompanied by accounts from harried nurses or doctors about the horrors of putting people on ventilators and then holding their hands as they died alone. Many times, these gentle, caring bleary-eyed persons ended their report with the plea, “Just wear the damned mask.”

We also learned how afraid we are of dying. Every day we felt we were risking our lives by just leaving our homes. We faced death when we entered a store to shop for food, or when we passed by someone on a walk. We did not feel safe going to church or hugging our loved ones.

Of course, some denied their fear. They were the people we met without masks trying to prove to themselves and others that they were not afraid of the virus. They might have said that they were patriots fighting for freedom or believers who relied on God for protection, but we know they were the most afraid of all.

Hopefully, we will learn the lessons and not rush back to things the way they were before the pandemic. Back then nobody wanted to think about death. It was a subject to be avoided until a loved one died or you were diagnosed with a terminal illness. Nobody wanted to talk about death and when you were forced to, you sugarcoated it with words like “passing.” It might have been more comfortable to say a loved one passed on, but it surely did not express the reality of “she died.” Polite people concentrated on business as usual, keeping the economy going, accumulating possessions and experiences– all those things that helped us ignore that we were all going to die. But as the Bible repeatedly says, what good is it to gain the entire world if you forfeit your life.

The first thing our Christian faith can do is simply help us think and talk about death. When I was in the active ministry, people often asked me what Christians did better than anyone else. The first thing that came to mind was coping with death. I was the pastor of a large church in a small town, and I did a lot of funerals for both people who worshipped regularly and people who never set foot inside the door of a church. I noticed over time that churchgoers handled death much better than those who did not go. And that, quite frankly, helped them have a more realistic perspective on life as well.

When I tried to figure out what was going on, I decided it might be because churchgoers are forced to think about death at least twice every year. At the beginning of Lent, we are reminded how fragile we are when the pastor marks us with ashes and tells us to remember, “You are dust and to dust, you shall return.” And then during Holy Week we relive Jesus’ death and are forced again to consider our own.

That does not mean Christians lose all their fear of death. In the lesson, John writes Jesus was troubled facing his own death. And Mark includes an episode in the Garden of Gethsemane where he was so distressed that he threw himself on the ground in agony. However, when we can realistically talk about death with one another, we are better able to cope with our fear.

“Realistically” is the important word, because there are a lot of silly, pseudo-Christian ideas out there like God takes someone because he needs another angel, and a lot of just as silly pseudo-scientific ones like we shall be recycled as a blade of grass. That doesn’t do much for me, especially when I imagine a guy coming at me with his lawnmower.

Christianity is much more realistic. From beginning to end, the Bible maintains we really die. There is nothing that lives on. It’s all over.

That was brought back to me when I recently reread Mark’s Passion Story with my discussion group. His bare-bones account pictures Jesus dying utterly alone. One by one everyone abandons him, first the religious and political leaders of his nation, then the general public who cheered for him on Palm Sunday, then all of his friends, and finally, God, his Father. Remember in Mark, Jesus only speaks once from the Cross and that is the anguished cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The second theme that runs through Mark’s story is mockery. As people abandon Jesus, they mock him. Right before Jesus dies, the evangelist lists all those who mocked him and it includes everyone, even the two thieves. At this point in the narrative, at this point, the execution indicates that Jesus’ whole ministry, his whole life, has been lived in vain. All is lost.

Reading the story forces us to ask if our own death proves that our life has also been only vanity. Have all our accomplishments been in vain? Are all of our possessions and experiences pure vanity?

Here Christianity contributes to the story. The Passion is followed by Easter that proclaims God loves Jesus so much he resurrects him from death. All depends on God’s grace, God’s action, God’s love. He raises the dead Jesus to life.

So too, if we have any hope for life after death, it depends on God’s love. This was first brought home to me by Robert Calhoun, one of the greatest historical theologians of the last century. During one of his classes, a student asked permission to pose a personal question: Did this great mind believe in life after death? Calhoun without hesitation replied that he saw no evidence for that and did not put much credence in any of the colorful biblical pictures of heaven. Nonetheless, he had hope, because Jesus described God knowing the number of hairs on his head and mourning the fall of even a sparrow in his creation. He had hope for life after death based entirely on God’s love

That is the bottom line in Christianity: love casts out fear, even the fear of death. And that enables us to consider what life is all about. Unlike the common belief that thinking and talking about death diverts us from living life to its fullest, Christianity maintains being realistic about death opens up real life. One of our most important sayings is “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake and the gospel, will save it”.

Once I am not obsessed with my own survival and begin to share what I have, I find a truly meaningful and beautiful life. When I am not afraid to move beyond my own needs and pleasures into a loving relationship with God and other people, when I am willing to give myself for another, I not only find life for myself but all those around me do as well.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Jesus.

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