Tomorrow at St. Mark’s Cathedral we will lay to rest Chief Petty Officer Robert Reeves, 32 years old. Rob was a Navy SEAL and among those who died in the downing of the Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan last week.
At the age of 90, the renowned Church of England priest and evangelical leader John Stott died quietly, surrounded by friends and listening to Handel’s Messiah, on July 27.
Just four days earlier the remarkably talented, addiction-afflicted singer Amy Winehouse died in her home for still undetermined causes. She was only 27.
Pondering death probably seems unnecessarily gloomy to some. And it certainly would be a morose exercise if the point were to wallow in sorrow or to flee in fear. But I want us to think about death for an entirely different reason. As Christians, a realistic acknowledgement of death can be the beginning of new life and inextinguishable hope.
Funerals are often called, at least in this part of the United States, a celebration of life. Eulogists will recount stories from childhood, remind us of admirable character traits, and highlight accomplishments. In essence, we say that the person we love but see no longer lived a commendable life.
This is fine and good as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far.
Rob Reeves laid down his life in defense of his nation and in the name of freedom and justice.
John Stott gave his entire life tirelessly teaching, preaching, and proclaiming the Good News of the Cross of Christ.
Amy Winehouse revived the R&B/soul sound with her unique voice and knack for catchy lyrics.
If this is all that is said at their memorial services, then those in attendance will have spent some time in bittersweet nostalgia, grief, and perhaps gratitude for the time they were given with the now departed person. But if the message ends here, the gathered worshippers will leave with a cold realization: well lived or not, short or long, that life is simply over.
Without intending to do so, we can forget the next life when we celebrate this life. And forgetting the next life robs this life of the glory, joy, strength and richness that God intends for us even now.
The accomplishments of this life should be praised. But recounting them and even memorializing them will not bring us abiding comfort. Our memories and even a person’s genuine greatness will not conquer death.
If we can only celebrate an exemplary life, death is the last word. None of our accomplishments, none of our most virtuous character traits, and none of our accumulated wealth will cheat death.
As St. Paul puts it, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)
But thanks be to God we do not hope in this life only. We can persevere through this life’s disappointments and injuries and sorrows and injustices with undiminished hope precisely because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He was not merely resuscitated. He passed through death to a new life, a life beyond death and sickness and weeping and suffering.
Continuing with St. Paul:
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 your victory?
O death, where is your 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 15:54-56)
No matter what befalls us in this life, and no matter what mistakes we make or sins we commit, Jesus Christ will make something of our lives. He will make our frail and fleeting life into eternal life.
You see, Christians derive our hope, our endurance, our perseverance and our joy from this. The point of our existence is not what we can make of our lives. The point is what Jesus will make of it for eternity.
(The image above is Benjamin Cuyp’s “The Angel Is Opening Christ Tomb” (1640) found at this link.)