In life, we all have a lot of different experiences. Some are good; some are fantastic; some are difficult; some are terrible. And no matter what we face — even death — we never have to face it alone.
The Apostle Paul never shied away from addressing some of the most difficult of experiences. He was always open about the difficulties he experienced in his life — and he also he sets these difficult experiences of his life into a larger context.
In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul lists some of the hardest and seemingly most powerful kinds of experiences we can have: famine, nakedness, peril, sword. In our time we would probably speak of hunger, poverty, violence, terrorism.
And then he asks, “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? If God is for us, then who is against us?” And then he goes on to say, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Paul then wrote to the Romans a few chapters later, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:7-9)
When I was in college, I remember hearing a speaker who spoke very eloquently about death. He was a young man, and he talked about how death is really our friend — and how it is just a natural part of life. He even called death “necessary” in the cycle of life.
He spoke of the trees shedding their leaves to enable new growth in the spring — and how we, too, fall like the leaves to make room for the generations to come. He spoke in almost mystical, poetic terms about death. He was a really good speaker, and we —mostly in our late teens and early twenties — were solidly impressed. For us at that time, death was something in the vast and safe distance, and it only rarely invaded our lives.
It was only a few months later when I stood in the hospital room of a man named John, a friend of mine who was in his fifties. I barely recognized John as he lay there, prepared to breathe his last. The grief of his family gathered around him was palpable. Death did not seem so much like a friend, then. How empty the speaker’s words felt in that moment.
Throughout my ministry, I have experienced the pain of death with people I loved — as pastor, brother, son, son-in-law, and as friend. In those times I couldn’t help but think of that eloquent speaker and how most of the time his words now ring hollow. Only some of the time does death seem like a friend. Most of the time, however, death is an enemy.
The scriptures — and our own personal experiences — make this very clear. Death separates us from the people we love. To use Fred Craddock’s words, “whether death puts on bloody boots and tromps through a battlefield, steals silently into a room — or marches down the highway to take a child out of twisted wreckage — death is the enemy.”
Even so, my friend, John, and many others I have known have faced death with remarkable peace, poise, and courage — even humor at times. What allowed him to do that? As John was dealing with the hardest of hard things — death itself — God was right there with him. As large as death loomed for John and his family, when the time came for John to draw his last breath, he did so knowing that the victory was his, just as Paul affirms in our scripture from Corinthians 15. In this chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul is making a direct connection between the resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection to eternal life. It is there that Paul declares, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” . . . But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the affirmation of faith from the United Church of Canada, we say, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.” In all the ups and downs we face in our lives, no matter what happens, God is always with us. Even death does not separate us from God.
I look forward to exploring with you how holding this truth dear can impact our lives and experiences — this Sunday in the Sanctuary.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster