First Mennonite Church
April 6, 2014
Living and Dying in Light of the Easter Hope
Text: Matthew 16: 21-24
For us Christians, the church, that is the fellowship of believers, with its practices, rituals, and its sacred Scriptures, plays a special role in our lives. Week in and week out, from birth to old age the church accompanies us. The church blesses the union when two lives join together in marriage. The church welcomes our children when they are born and nourishes them and us when we are born-again.
The church offers us guidance on how to walk in life and shapes our thought processes to make the best choices in life. And it is the church that celebrates our life after we part from this world to the world to which the church has always been pointing us.
Very often, however, the church not only misses to prepare us for a crucial point in our lives and but also fails to accompany us during that transitioning point of our lives into the next. And that crucial point is our end-of-life journey. The church usually talks about death, but death is a condition or state. The church should talk about life and life’s stages and processes. Preachers talk about death when people die or when we celebrate Easter. Church folks go to funerals and to memorial services of their friends; but so often when you ask them when was the last time they talked or visited with the deceased, some cannot remember when that last time was.
The church talks about death in light of the promise of resurrection. But when it comes to that transitioning period between life and death—the dying process, the church often abdicates its vital ministry to life’s full journey from beginning to end. The church fails to speak to the dying person, not only God’s truths about human life, but also God’s comforting grace which goes beyond this earthly life.
You see, the church accompanies us through life and attempts to shape our living through its various rituals and practices, but when it comes to that period when we are coming to the end of our earthly life, the church often fails to be there.
This absence on the part of the church to walk with the person throughout life, including that critical period of dying, is not the will of God for us. It is an attitude adopted from the world. The world sees dying as the ultimate sign of defeat, which should be avoided at all costs. In the eyes of the world, dying is ugly and difficult to look at, at least when the dying one is someone close to us. This is contrary to the dying shown movies, or of those caused by natural disasters or accidents and captured by spectators. Therefore, if the church deals with dying and end-of-life moments just as the world does, where will the dying person turn to, if the church has the same attitude as the world? Who will attempt to answer those existential questions people have during this critical point in their lives? Who will be there to give them support, comfort, and presence when our friends are coming to the end of their lives?
Why the avoidance of the topic of dying? The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer in his book The Pornography of Death shows the similarity there is between the ways modern people treat sexuality, particularly in pornographic form, and dying. He points out that just as pornography is a taboo subject, dying too is also considered a shameful topic, which should be prudently avoided in public.  Most logically, therefore, when the natural process of physical decaying begins to happen and when our bodies begin to show signs of an imminent end coming, modern people tend to see dying as too horrible to contemplate or discuss.
So the question we have before us today, is why do people hesitate or even repulsion to talk about this topic? That will be something I would like us to explore, but not only that. I would like us to see how Christian living and Christian dying go hand in hand in our witness to the hope we have of a resurrection.
During the following three Sundays, ending on Easter Sunday, I want to talk about this topic not frequently talked about. When Easter Sunday approaches, the topic about the resurrection comes to the fore. We should remember that it is only possible to talk about the resurrection if death has taken place and that means dying had been part of that process. For some, discussing the topic of dying is scary; for others it is morbid and unhealthy; and still for others it is redundant. People usually prefer talking about living and living life to its fullest. And often Christians prefer talking about our hope in the resurrection but not what happens before. There is joy in the Easter promise but for many, including Christians, talking about dying is very depressing and a spoiler of the good times we should enjoy.
Before we go further into the topic, let us watch two short video clips. These are from Everence Advice and Education for Adults. (To watch this video go to http://www.everence.com/showitem.aspx?id=12616)
Sessions 1 & 2 (Through projector)
Comments or questions based on the video
Text: Matthew 16: 21-24
21 From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead.
22 But Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. “Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” (NLB)
Here in Matthew chapter 16, is the first time Jesus spoke openly about his death. He sort of detailed to his disciples how his death would take place:
- He must go to Jerusalem
- Suffer terrible things
- Be killed
Jesus did not hide anything from his friends. He told them what was going to happen to him. Most naturally, his disciples were shocked and could not bear to hear such terrible news. They all had a vision for their future with Jesus with them. They anticipated that at some point in time Jesus would establish a kingdom and that they would have special roles to play in that kingdom. That worldview was suddenly contradicted and Peter reacted to that contradiction. He pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him: “Heaven forbid, Lord,” he said. “This will never happen to you!”
So why is speaking about dying a difficult and much avoided subject?
When a terminal diagnosis is given, the worldview of that person is contradicted. So the question we should ask ourselves as believers is: what is our worldview of life? Whose worldview do we have? And what are the components in that worldview?
Christians should have a worldview in which life is a gift from God. When we view life as a gift we have received from God, we then realize that we do not produce, and sustain, nor own it. We are recipients of this wonderful gift called life. It is a gift that we should share with others. It is a gift that as much as we care for it, in the end it belongs to God who gave it to us. Embedded in this view that life is a gift from God, faith also tells us that life then goes beyond the present and the physical. Our lives will surpass the existence of our bodies. This view of life in the light of faith, should give us peace of mind which surpasses all human understanding. Because whether we are alive or whether we are asleep, we will live with the Lord, the apostle Paul tells us (1Tessalonians 5:10)
As Christians we should also have a worldview in which we see ourselves as creatures and therefore we should have a creatureliness view of our lives. That is, we view ourselves as created beings. God alone is the Creator and our Creator. And that means that just as our life had a starting point it also will have an ending point—humanly speaking. The view that we are creatures of a Creator God should make us realize that we are not the ultimate owners of our own destiny. The true destiny of our lives should be with the One who created us to his glory.
A worldview in which we believe that we are owners of our own destiny is the greatest distortion of the worldview Christians should have. Without realizing it, many Christians have embraced the worldview of the American culture, where I determine what I do with my life. I decide how to live my life. I am the maker of who I want to be. And I decide when to die or not to die.
That view is enforced by science and all its technological advancements. We know so well that science is grounded in facts and on what is visible. Again, without any contempt towards the medical professionals, but to the contrary, I admit my admiration for them and their work, science has made it easier to believe in what we see and what we experience of its good benefits. But that which we can see and experience very often makes us trust more in it that in the God of life who we cannot see. And therefore very often we make medical doctors the prophets and priest of life rather than God, as the Everence speaker said in the video.
This morning I want to invite you to give thanks to God for the life He has given you. In Him you find your origin and in Him you find your true and only destiny. Commit to share this gift with others. Today, praise the Lord for making you the person you are. He is your Creator. And He designed you so special. There is no one like you.
This morning yield to God. He holds your life in the hollow of his hands. Nothing will happen to you unless allowed by him. Amen!
Cited by Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith and Joy V. Goldsmith, Speaking of Dying, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012) p. 28.
This video resource was made available to Mennonite congregations by Everence, thus its use for public viewing is rightful.
Cobb, Dying Soul, 56 (cited by Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith and Joy V. Goldsmith, Speaking of Dying, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012) p. 53.