The Last Sunday in the Church Year
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me….
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
The English poet, John Donne; a sonnet written about 1610, after he recovered from an illness that brought him close to death.
And what John Donne writes is how we Christians look at death. Because of Jesus Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life, despite all the dreadful might that death wields, and the fear which accompanies this “Last Enemy,” finally we do come to meet death with Christ…and that changes everything!
Someone asked me a few weeks ago why these three sermons about the Last Things proceeded backwards. I started with the resurrection, then moved to the last judgment, and now today, death. You might think that it should be the other way around. It would certainly be more pleasant to end this Church Year on the resurrection than to end it with death.
But we know death! A person doesn’t need any faith at all to know death. The resurrection? That’s all faith! Oh, to be sure, there is enough historical evidence to support that Jesus did rise from the dead…enough so to give credence to the disciples’ announcement that He was alive. But that we too will rise from the dead? Ah…for that we have only God’s promise…and it is faith alone which seizes upon that promise.
The last judgment? That too is an element of faith…although we do know that judgment in part. We see it in this world. That nature can be so violent is a sign that the world lives under judgment. That the good can suffer and the evil can prosper, this too is a sign of God’s judgment on humanity. Still, it remains faith, and faith alone, which holds to God’s pardon in Christ. Faith alone confesses that though our sin be as scarlet, though we experience the judgment of God in this sinful world…yet we are washed white as snow, God call us guiltless for Christ’s sake.
So, ultimately, the resurrection and the last judgment belong to faith. But death…oh, as Shakespeare once wrote, The weariest and most loathed worldly life / That age, ache, penury and imprisonment / Can lay on nature, is a paradise / To what we fear of death. That we shall die we know; ‘tis but the time / And drawing days out, that men stand upon.
And in drawing out these days how often our Christian faith becomes a kind of opiate to numb ourselves against the fear of death. Attendance in worship on the Sunday of Easter is many, many times greater than the number of those who will sit in the darkness of the Good Friday service. We all want to go to heaven…but no one wants to die to get there!
So we create euphemisms just so we can avoid having to actually use the word death to say what happens to a person. Funerals give way to celebrations of life. And listening to some sermons at these things, you’d never guess that anyone had died!
Why, even our Reading from St. Luke avoids it. It stops with Jesus’ famous words to that thief: “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Ah…a happy ending! Clearly it’s Good Friday but no one dies in this Reading. Not the thieves. Not even Jesus. The Reading stops three verses short of Jesus’ death. And in so doing it robs us of everything else He says in this text! For there can be no “Today with Me in Paradise”…there can be no “Father, forgive them”…unless Jesus commends His spirit into His Father’s hands and breathes His last. Jesus must die…or else we got nothing!
Martin Luther’s Easter hymn which we are singing on each side of this sermon is a reminder of how once upon a time we Lutherans didn’t separate Easter from Good Friday. Once upon a time we recognized that you can’t have the one without the other!
“It was a strange and dreadful strife When life and death contended; The victory remained with life, The reign of death was ended. Holy Scripture plainly saith That death is swallowed up by death, Its sting is lost forever. Alleluia!”
Ah, but with this Alleluia, Luther doesn’t mean that Easter is the next act in the play after Good Friday. The Resurrection is right there in Good Friday. That’s why St. Luke includes the saying about Paradise. That’s a Resurrection word! And the Last Judgment is there on Good Friday. So St. Luke includes the word about “Father, forgive them.” These do not have to wait to come. It’s all right there—Judgment, Resurrection—in the grim darkness of that Friday of death.
So as he did with everything, Luther and the Reformation turned the whole art of dying on its head. Coming out of the Middle Ages, Christians were encouraged to prepare for death by making sure that their credit report with God was in good standing. The faithful were to busy themselves improving that credit report by doing certain pious works that built up your score with God. Woe to the person who dies with a poor credit score!
But Luther & Co. said, “It’s NOT by works…not by what we do!” So to prepare for death, don’t look to yourself. Look to Christ! Particularly, Luther insisted, look to Christ’s death! Oh yes, the resurrection is also important for Luther, but Christ’s death is the best thing to contemplate for our own death.
It is the best thing because we see in Christ’s death what we do not see in our own. In our own all we can see is the fear, the powerlessness, the loss, the empty darkness. And when death brushes near, oh, it’s all the more overwhelming and intimidating.
But in Christ’s death we see death swallowed up by death. In Christ’s death we see that victory over death and the grave comes by death and the grave. In Christ, death is not something to get over and done with so as to get on to heaven’s happily ever after. His death shows us that Paradise, the Resurrection, is there in death. That divine judgment has pronounced pardon in that powerlessness, so there is peace is there that in fear. And the light of life everlasting shines right there in the void of that empty darkness. So we contemplate what we see in Christ’s death, so that we may see this in our own, because we are in Christ!
“So let us feast on Christ!” Luther has us sing. And so we do. In Christ, death is no longer this grim Last Thing. It becomes our daily thing. Death is daily swallowed up in Christ. This is our confidence in being baptized. In Holy Baptism we die with Christ and are raised up again with Christ. So each day we live, we baptized people live as already having died. We live as already being raised up, seated at God’s right hand.
This is why Luther encourages us in his Catechism to make the sign of the cross first thing in the morning. It’s a reminder that the sign of the cross was made over us in Holy Baptism; a reminder that we have died with Christ and shared the grave with Him, divine judgment has passed; a reminder that we are raised with Christ, Resurrection today. We make that sign of the cross and then, as Luther writes, “go joyfully to your work,” knowing that the Last Things are firmly, eternally settled today and each day in Christ.
One of my favorite quotable theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once said in a sermon: “How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world? Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” Because Christ has transformed death by His death, and so in Christ we are transformed, our death is transformed from an ending to a new beginning.
In his short life of 39 years before his execution by the Nazis, Bonhoeffer contemplated the death of Christ within the crucible of that pagan Nazi regime. So when his executioners came for him, Bonhoeffer said simply, “This is the end…for me the beginning of life.”
Like Herr Bonhoeffer, we contemplate this last thing called death today. But we contemplate it today in Christ, and so we sing the words of Herr Luther: “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands For our offences given; But now at God’s right hand He stands And brings us life from heaven. Therefore let us joyful be And sing to God right thankfully Loud songs of alleluia.” And with the word which declares a beginning within our ending, we sing “Alleluia!” For in Christ it shall be so!