Why Death Matters to a Gospel Centered Life
There are many things that have changed in our culture since I have been alive. But I think one of the worst changes is that churches no longer have graveyards.
Once upon a time when you were walking into your church you would pass the headstones of people who once stood next to you while singing Amazing Grace. You would have seen the dates of the birth and death of the ladies who had prepared potluck suppers, the men who had marshalled their families into the pews, and yes, sometimes the young who were gone far too soon, who had too recently been baptized in that very building.
While walking through the doors into a building to worship the one who made you from the earth, you would be reminded that you were one day going to rest right there under that very piece of it.
But we have pushed that aside. We have made death something unmentionable. We have kept death reverent, but also very much in its place. We no longer want to be reminded weekly of the destination we are all marching toward.
Now, you might expect for a pastor to say we need to be reminded of this so that we could feel the pressure to “get right with Jesus” before it’s too late. Please allow me to dash that thought to pieces before we go any further together here today. That is not why we need to remember that death is a reality.
We need death to be a part of our lives so that our worship will be influenced by death. We need lives that are shaped by authentic worship. Worship that points to one greater than ourselves. Keeping our own brief lives in the balance helps that process.
You see, a little bit ago I was listening to Losing My Religion by REM. Michael Stipe has said of the song that it is about unrequited love. Don’t let the title fool you, the song has nothing to do with losing faith, the title comes from an old southern expression that means the same thing as coming to “the end of my rope.”
Stipe says the song is about reaching out in love and vulnerability toward another.
I love that idea. I believe strongly that a life fully lived is a life of vulnerability and authenticity. If you want to hear more about that idea I would highly recommend two separate TED talks by Brene’ Brown.
I want to live vulnerably. I believe that this is what makes a life worth living. No one comes to the end of their days and says, “I wish had been more secretive,” or “I wish I had had less relationships and more work.”
The depressing reality that I witness every day is that most of us tend to live self protective lives buried in our duties and hiding our truest selves from everyone. We even tend to ignore our own truest identities.
Work is easier than vulnerability. So we work really hard.
Play is easier than vulnerability so we distract ourselves with sports scores, gaming, or online addictions.
We want vulnerability, but we struggle to have it so we abandon those closest to us in an endless cycle of serial monogamy because the first taste of authentic relationships deceives us into believing we can find what we want with this person, no, this person, no this person. And then instead of reaching our death beds with a full life behind us we lie there with a string of broken relationships never having found what we were looking for.
But every day the grave is closer than the day before. We may not want to be reminded of that, but we desperately need to be. Because it is the truth. And because it has the power to shape our life.
I believe that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus deals with a debt we can never pay, allowing us to have a life after we are planted like seeds under that looming headstone. But I also believe that the church has stressed that for long enough without also pointing out an equally valid truth – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus allows us to have a life before we get planted in the ground.
My fear of authenticity springs up from the knowledge that I am not enough. It springs up from the heart wrenching fear that Michael Stipe is right. The fear that when I reach out for love my hand will be slapped away. The shame in knowing that my weaknesses and regrets and doubts will come bubbling to the surface and you will see the man behind the mask and you will not love me any longer.
The gospel that we believe; this good news about Jesus that I try to preach every Sunday, doesn’t merely mean that new life can grow from my planted remains. It means I can plant my remains today. It means I can take off my mask because all of my weaknesses, doubts, shames, fears and regrets have already been dealt with.
It means that if I reach out and you slap my hand away, it’s ok, because there is one bigger than you who is reaching out his hand to me.
The good news about Jesus is that I can never really lose my religion, that I can never be unwelcome, unloved or unaccepted. Because I already have been. I am right now.
When we live under the shadow of death, it may very well help us to remember that we have a reason to live fully now even while we march toward something else.
The death of our worst selves does not have to be something yet to come. Since Jesus has already died, it can be something that dies today.