A sermon on the vocabulary of faith
A couple of months ago, I started preaching through a series on the ‘vocabulary of faith’ – examining how Christians use those words which they share with the world at large. You can read more about the intentions of the series here. Having preached on ‘life’ last week, this week the subject was ‘death’. Unusually, I have produced the entire text here. I hope that to some it might be helpful, or that it may at least point you in the right direction.
‘Death is nothing at all’ Plenty of people have found those words to be a comfort. Often they are read out at funeral service or printed in a “with sympathy card”
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
I have to confess that I find those words no help at all. I have stood at front of too many crematorium chapels looking at faces pinched by grief.I have stood at head of too many graves looking down at the carefully chosen roses as they flutter down to land on polished wood.I have walked away from too many curtains closed for last time around hospital bed to feel it that death is ‘nothing at all’.
Last week I read these words from funny man Stan Laurel on the death of his lifelong comedy partner Oliver Hardy – ‘I miss him more than anyone will ever know and feel quite lost’.
Let’s come back to those words, though – ‘death is nothing at all’. They were preached by Canon Henry Scott Holland in St Paul’s Cathedral,on Pentecost Sunday 1910. Just up the road the body of King Edward VII lay in state at Westminster Hall. [ You can read his wonderful sermon in full here] As glorious sunshine streamed in through windows onto a coffin draped in black- so he drew on the contrasts which death brings out of us:– light and shade, hope and despair, triumph and loss
On the one hand he says it is tempting to look down on the peaceful face of dead person- their face still same, except a slight look which seems to say “I know secrets you don’t” …and to believe that death is ‘nothing at all’. On the other hand, the feeling does not last. In the very same same sermon goes on to say that feeling that ‘death is nothing at all’ evaporates as we walk away from the death bed – and ends up replaced with something else:
How black, how relentless, this total lack of tangible evidence for the certainty we believe in
As Christians, when talk about death we need to be fully aware of those contrasts, and to avoid either of two extremes.
1. Don’t minimize it
This passage is probably the account of resurrection written some 30 – 50 years after the event. It was written at a time when proper holy people not concerned with physical matters. This is not so with Paul- since the passage reflects an almost childlike fascination with the physical aspects of death:
v.35 What happens (physically) when you die?
v.43 – 44 What sort of physical existence follows after death?
These are questions we are bound to ask. Throughout our lives our every expression of our spirituality is expressed physically:
• Do we want to talk to God? –we move our lips & we pray
• Do we want to worship Him? – we stand, kneel, sing, play
• Do we want to show Him how we love him by caring for those He loves? – we cook them meals and drive them places and pick them up & set them down
Death prevents all of that – and as Christians even our underlying hope cannot eclipse the sense of loss that THAT person can do THOSE things no more. Consider the proposed Utoya memorial, with the artist’s description of the names in sight but beyond touch:
The names will be close enough to see and read clearly — yet ultimately out of reach. The cut is an acknowledgement of what is forever irreplaceable.- Jonas Dahlberg
Living in the world as we do – we dare not minimize such a loss.
2. Don’t maximise it
As honestly & humbly & tenderly as we acknowledge the physical loss of death – so we also embrace the certainty of the resurrection which follows it. Like Job standing in the smoking ruins of his life and saying ‘I know that my redeemer lives and in my flesh I shall see God’.
For every time Paul acknowledges physical and emotional loss in the passage he also affirms our belief in the glory which follows it.
v.42 “So it WILL be”
v.44 “There IS a spiritual body”
v.49 “We SHALL bear the image of the heavenly man”
These are statements of a great spiritual confidence.
v.50 Death is a necessary shedding of the restrictions of physicality so that we can inherit the riches of eternity which last forever.
v.51 “We WILL ALL BE changed”
V.52 Here we have one of those “came-from-the-KJV” phases – “in the twinkling of an eye”
v.54 Words of ancient promise spoken by Isaiah at least seven centuries before will at last come true.
Listen to Henry Scott Holland again ‘we can go out into the naked silence of the beyond, because still through being sons of God we have secured to us the very powers which will avail us in the untravelled land.’ Cut through archaic language and what is he saying? We can face death because God has assured us in life that he will always provide us with what we need.
Woody Allen’s words saying that ‘I’m not afraid of dying I just don’t want to be there when it happens’ are great fun; but that is not a choice we get to make. We all have to die. We all have to watch the people we love taken from us by the limitations of their own mortality. We all have to let slip the bonds of earth ourselves when the time comes.
So it is best to be ready – by taking death seriously, but by taking eternal life seriously too. Jesus said ‘if any man believes in me – though he die, yet shall he live. And if any man lives and believes in me he shall never die’. Read those words often to yourself. Do NOT wait to hear someone like me read them out as I precede a coffin up the aisle. Read them, believe them, bury them deep down in your heart where they will stay forever.
Before I finish – I have to pass on some practical advice. 9 out of 10 adults in the United Kingdom have never talked about dying. Doing so does not have to be as scary as it sounds. When talked about this on Disciple’s Way course, it was one of sessions people found most helpful. Take a look at these ‘five things’ cards available on dyingmatters.org – and maybe take one home with you to talk about it?
As Christians we DO NOT minimize death – it hurts, so much. As Christian we DO NOT maximize it either – we hope so much.
On 28th January 1986, the entire crew of space shuttle challenger were killed when it exploded in flight. Their memorial in Arlington National Cemetery bears the words of John Gillespie MacGee Jnr’s poem ‘High Flight’, and with it I close: