REFLECTIONS & ENCOURAGEMENTS: understanding and growing through the covid-19 challenge.
Bishop Peter Brain Reflection 26: Dying to live! Midwives not undertakers!
Jokes abound about death. Mostly to keep us from taking it seriously. Woody Allen’s is my favourite: I’m not afraid to die! I just don’t want to be there when it happens! To this humour he added the grim reality of his fear: of the constant struggle against annihilation and death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless.
Many find it easier to deny the reality of death, especially of judgement: The inscription on a grave stone outside of Boot Hill puts it comically: Here lies Les Moore/Four slugs from a 44? No Les no more, and Bertrand Russell: there is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.
The pandemic with all its sadness for many families across the globe has reminded us of the wonderful realism of the BCP funeral service: in the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for help, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? We are all the losers, where these realities, even in Christian funerals is absent. The pandemic has come to our aid as a merciful reminder, not only that death is real, but that the second death must be reckoned with. When this happens there is at least some chance that our peers might do the wise thing and prepare themselves to meet their maker. Ecclesiastes, helps us face this realism: it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart (7:2). The whole world is a house of mourning, and we need to be prepared. Our Lord taught us to be the light of the world (Matt 5:14-16), the blessed peacemakers (5:9), who show mourners how to be comforted (5:4) as they own their poverty of spirit before God (5:3) and experience the marvellous righteousness of Christ and filling with His Spirit (5:6).
But since denial of death and judgement continue, we need to be ready to share the real gospel of Jesus with those in whom, by the merciful providence of God, a fear of dying has been exposed by the pandemic. Let me suggest some things we must avoid, like the plague, if our friends raise their thoughts about death. It will not, if we love them, be a time for platitudes or sentimentality, but for truth gently and lovingly made clear.
- We must not agree with others who may be saying “of course you will go to heaven, you are such a good person”. We know that they and we are not good enough to meet God’s standard of perfection. Our experience is congruent with Scripture from cover to cover (Gen.3; 1 Kings 8:46; Ps 143:2; Prov. 20:9; Mk. 7:20-23; Rom. 3:1-12, 19, 23, 5:12-17; Eph.2:1-3; James 3:2; 1 John 1:8-10). How good it is to be able to speak of Jesus who took the curse for our sin (Gal. 3:13-14), as our sin-bearer (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet 3:18), who offers repentant sinners (Mk.1:14) grace for pardon, adoption and new life (Matt. 11:28-30; Eph. 2:4-10).
- We will not let people find comfort in their being baptised, especially as infants, since we know that it is what the sacrament signifies that saves. Not the outward act but the affirmation that Jesus Christ is our personal Saviour and Lord (Jn 3:16,36, 20:30-31; Acts 2:38-39; 4:12; Rom. 10:9-13; 1 Thess. 1:8-10) and who brings salvation and assurance (1 Jn 5:11-12). The question from EE is most helpful in discovering who/what a person is relying upon for salvation. It runs: suppose you were to die tonight and face God, and He was to ask you ‘why should I let you into my heaven’, what would you say? If their answer runs “because I am trying…am a good person…am baptised…sincere…spiritual”, like a wise doctor we point them away from themselves, to the Great Physician, who by dealing with sin’s penalty on the cross, can alone bring salvation.
- Dick, who was staring death in the face after a cancer diagnosis, said to me ‘I have been a ratbag you know’. Knowing that he had been a respected scout master, freemason, husband and father I said ‘that is correct Dick, do you want to know what to do about it?” Mercifully he did want to know, and I have great confidence that he did the only thing that every person should do: turned to Christ. A sentimental pastor or friend, who withhold the realities of sin & Jesus, is about as much use as a doctor, knowing the diagnosis and prognosis, refuses to offer the best available remedy, for fear of upsetting his patient or their family.
- Our position is much stronger than the physician since we have a certain diagnosis: all are sinners under God’s just judgement. We know that the cure works 100% of the time when people take the medicine. Clinical trials in every culture, age group and age are conclusive, since they are based on three truths: The Father’s express will to save all who repent (Ezek.18:23/32). The Son’s, gracious death in our place and confirmatory bodily resurrection to deal with sin (Mk 10:45, Acts 2:22-36, 17:29-31), and the Holy Spirit clinically convicting us of sin and kindly enabling us to repent and receive Christ (Jn.16:5-11, Acts 2:37).
- This hour is opportunity: to be midwives rather than undertakers. In dying to self we can bring life to others.
SOME THOUGHTS and SCRIPTURE about death THAT MIGHT HELP US WITNESS.
- An English nobleman gave a jester a wand, “saying keep this until you find a greater fool than yourself.” The jester laughingly accepted the wand and flourished it on festive occasions. One day the nobleman lay dying. Calling the jester to his bedside he said: “I am going on a long journey”. “Where to”, asked the jester. “I do not know came the reply. “How long will you be gone?” asked the jester. “I shall be gone forever”, said the dying man. “What provisions have you made for the trip?” the jester asked. The nobleman shrugged his shoulders. “None at all”. “Then”, said the jester, “take this”. And placing the wand in the nobleman’s hands, he added, “This belongs to you.”
- “There is but one step between me and death” (David to his friend Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20:3).
- “Grim death took me without any warning, I was well at night and dead in the morning”. (Anon).
- “Though you forget the way to the temple, There is one who remembers the way to your door, Life you may evade, but death you shall not. You shall not deny the Stranger.” (T S Eliot).
- “If there is no after life, then life is just a sick joke, braying across the centuries.” (H G Wells).
Classic denials of death and judgement.
- “Death should not be real, ‘It’s un-American’, writes historian Arnold Toynbee, ‘an affront to the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. Eric Fromm gives the psychological rationale for the repression of death. He urges people to keep from even thinking about death. So much for reality therapy from a prominent psychologist.” (Gladys Hunt).
- “The philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was a great atheist, was once asked, ‘what he would say to God, if he found after death that He existed after all? Russell said he’d say’ I’m sorry but you did not give us enough clues. I think I’d say’ Good heavens, here after all? And I’m sure He and I could have a very good talk.’ (Night and Day 3/6/2001 UK magazine). A few scriptures that come to mind exposing his folly and wishful thinking include: Psalm 14:1;19:1-14, Romans 1:18-32; 2:19, 5:8; John 20:30-31, Hebrews 9:27-29).
- “Men fear death like children fear to go out in to the dark”. (Francis Bacon).
The confidence we may have if we are trusting in Christ as our Saviour and Lord.
- “He whose head is in Heaven need not fear to put his feet in to the grave”. (Matthew Henry).
- “Death has been described as the old family servant who opens the door to welcome the children home”. (David Watson. Discipleship: page 133).
- “Death is an enemy (1 Cor 15:26) but it cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:38-39). (Leon Morris. Romans: page 428 on 14:8).
- “Faith [in Jesus] is not escapism; on the contrary, it is the only ultimate realism. For as Howard Marshall reminds us, ‘it rests foursquare on the fact that Jesus has defeated death, and anybody who can defeat death can defeat anything’. (David Jackman: on 1 John 5:5. page 144).
- The Apostle Paul’s confidence expressed in Philippians 1:21-24: “is not a death wish, not disappointment with life, nor a desire to be done with trials, but the assessment of one whose immediate future is uncertain but ultimate future is both certain and to be desired.” (Gordon Fee).
- “The man who is born once dies twice, whereas the man who is born twice dies once.” (Year 7 student quoting his pastor, Des Nelson, in a SRE class at East Maddington PS in the 1980’s; on Jn 3:3-5 & 11:25-26).
- John Newton said to his friend Wm. Jay in the last days of his life: “I am packed and sealed and waiting for the post” and “I am like a person going on a journey in a stage coach, who expects its arrival every hour and is frequently looking out of the window for it”. And the basis for this assurance? Is summed up in his words: “My memory is nearly gone but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour”. (Jonathan Aitken: John Newton, from disgrace to amazing grace. Crossway 2007.)
Passages that could be shared to encourage people to turn to Christ.
The road to Christ: Romans 3:23, 6:23, 5:8, 10:9-13, 5:1-5, 8:1, 12-17 and 12:1-2.
The road with Christ: Matthew 3:17, 4:17, 7:13-14, 24-27, 11:28-30,16:24-27,18:12-14, 20:28, 22:37-40.
Assurance for those trusting Christ: John 3:36, 5:24, 6:35-40, 10:7-18,27-30, 11;25-26,14:1-7, 20:30-31.
Peter Brain 26th June, 2020