“Life is for the living. / Death is for the dead. / Let life be like music. / And death a note unsaid.” -Langston Hughes
Some of us are overly-fascinated with death, and some of us try to ignore it altogether. But, like taxes, it is a certainty (although I do know a guy who has apparently avoided taxes for a while, but I’m not so sure how that’s going to turn out). Oh, I can hear you from the other side of the page: “Come on now Pastor Bob, it is finally Spring, so can we talk about something a little more cheery than death?” A fine idea, dear reader, and I shall get there soon enough, but according to my weather app, it is currently 32 degrees out, and the lawn is still under a blanket of bright white, so we’ve got at least a little more winter to endure. Not to mention the fact that just this morning some of us said farewell to one of the dearest of souls you’ll meet.
Even with our cultural obsession with youth and physical beauty, the language of death pervades: “My car battery died…my phone died…the game is now in sudden-death…” And you can’t go to the movies or turn on a show without some sort of life-or-death struggle on full display (like Black Panther, or This Is Us, for just two examples). So, for as much as we’d like to avoid it, death is here to stay. Or is it?
Christianity is all about God’s free offer of eternal life, so I find it incredibly ironic that our favorite symbol is a means of grisly death: the cross. Many of us wear a tiny one around our necks. I carry a little one in my pocket most days. Just this morning we sang about “The Old Rugged Cross.” But can you imagine how horrified we would be if our neighbors or weirdo relatives centered their religion around an electric chair, a guillotine, or even a noose? “Oh, our dear sweet niece Sally, we’re so proud that you’ve passed this milestone in our faith, so we got you these lovely electric chair earrings. Look, they even light up!” The symbol we cling to isn’t far from that, except that it has been sanitized and gilded over the last 2,000 years.
So why would our eternal-life faith emphasize a grisly-death so much? Perhaps because death is baked into the nature of reality. Yet there are hints of hope everywhere. Have you ever noticed that nature itself goes in cycles of life, death, and resurrection? Summer, fall, winter, and spring. Daytime, evening, night, and sunrise. Full moon, waning, new moon, and back toward full. Plants thrive, fruit, drop seeds into the earth, wait in the darkness, and spring to new life. Or a tree falls and its nutrients are returned to the earth for the new growth to thrive. History repeats itself, as our families, communities, and institutions reflect the same cycle: growth, abundance, decline, death, and then a new start. Stories and legends of life, death and resurrection abound. The phoenix rises from the ashes. This is all well and good for the world around us, but it seems we’re stuck in the death part of the cycle. Will it ever end?
There is hope, but there’s only one catch: you’re going to need some help. In fact, you’re going to need a whole lot of help. Like many of us, I’ve sat in far too many waiting rooms and beside way too many hospital beds, dreading what the doctors might say next. I’ve been to a lot of funerals, and the dearly departed always stays dead. After a while you come to realize how helpless you are on your own. But help is always there. Some might call it a Higher Power. Some might call it Divine Intervention. But his real name is Jesus.
The day we call “Good Friday” was the beginning of the end of death itself. When Jesus (God himself in the flesh) died a grisly death on the cross, he died the ultimate death for us. Humanity can’t break the cycle of death on our own. In fact, we got ourselves into this mess, and continue to do so, when we turn from God, who is the author and source of life. We’re stuck in the cycle of death without hope for resurrection on our own. But God loved us so much that he sent his son Jesus to die the ultimate death, to break the cycle and bring us into resurrection life. Whoever receives this gift of eternal life by believing in Jesus is welcomed home into life as the un-dead. Our bodies may die, and we continue to experience life in a broken world. But those who trust in Jesus have a present and eternal hope, and have a new life to live now and forever. Our souls will live forever, and someday hopefully soon Jesus will return to bring resurrection life to all his people, and all of creation too.
Death itself has been defeated for us. This is what makes Good Friday so good, and Resurrection Sunday even better.
Bob Wiegers is the Pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington, which is honored to host this year’s Bennington Community Good Friday Service on March 30 at 7pm at 601 Main Street. Many area churches will be participating, and all are welcome to join us.