The final verse of Romans, chapter 8, slightly truncated – ‘Neither death nor life … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.
One of the most troubling aspects of the culture in which we live is the inability of so many people to have any idea how to approach the matter of death. I am not talking here about the fanatical and barbaric inhumanity that shocked the world a few days ago in the events in Brussels, although I will return to this. I am talking about what we might call everyday death, and particularly the death of people – whether through accident or illness – that may happen ‘before their time’ (whatever that may actually mean). One reaction is to claim that the person was somehow extraordinary – brilliantly clever, immensely popular, the life and soul of every gathering. We rarely hear that they were just pleasant straightforward people, which they may well have been.
A quite different approach is to imply that death is no big deal anyway. People who have died are still really around, ‘looking down on us’, presumably from some celestial balcony – ‘Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away to the next room’, as those lines from Henry Scott Holland begin, at one time used with great regularity at funerals. In fact, it is generally reckoned by those who know what they are talking about that Scott Holland was presenting this view almost as a parody of what many people seem to believe about death. It certainly is at variance with St Paul’s conviction that death is an enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed. Our Lord certainly did not embrace death, either in the Garden of Gethsemene or on the cross itself – it was not, for him, ‘nothing at all’. Perhaps the most troubling question is as to why any preacher on Easter Day should be talking about death, when surely Easter is all about resurrection and happiness, and certainly not about such a tasteless topic as death! It is only because I believe that unless we take on board the reality of death as a real event in the order of nature – a real ending – that we can make sense of Easter Day, and rejoice and be glad.
What I believe the Gospels are saying is that human death is indeed the full stop on much of what we are. However, the events of Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter are the eternal proclamation that those who can trust utterly in God in this world, and can live and die within that trust in the love of God, need not fear that the God of Love, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ – yes, the really dead Lord Jesus Christ – will not, in his love, re-create them in a closer and greater life with him. We cannot be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus, in life or in death. This is the message of Good Friday and Easter, and of the entire Christian proclamation through the centuries.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Song of Solomon, we hear something of the same theme (familiar to some of you, I’m sure, in that beautiful church anthem by John Ireland), ‘Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it’: to live with love for God in this life, and to know that His love for us transcends the sad and troubling fact of death, means that death cannot have the last word. Hence Good Friday and Easter belong together, and must belong together within our spiritual lives.
John Donne in one of his Holy Sonnets, attacks death directly:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so…
Further into the poem, Donne makes the strange but powerful suggestion that death is not always the master, in that at times others, including ‘kings and desperate men’ take control of death. This is in many ways what we see in the cult of death in today’s world that would kill others indiscriminately to make a political or even a religious point, and even use a staged suicide for their ends. If we were in any doubt (which we should not be), it should be absolutely certain that it can never be acceptable to the Christian disciple that the life of another may be taken indiscriminately or that one’s own life may be taken, in order to advance any cause, religious or political.
Christ himself may have indeed known where the path of his life of perfect love would ultimately and inevitably carry him, but that does not make Calvary the fufilment of a death-wish. We need to be very careful with our use of the word ‘sacrifice’ in this or any context. Christ’s agony in Gethsemene was real. Death was an enemy, even for him. On the cross, he felt abandoned and handed over to death. None of the Christian martyrs from the first century right through to the present day ever asked for death, even if they knew that this was the almost certain outcome of their life of witness to their faith.
What makes Easter a celebration of victory and hope is the witness of Christ’s resurrection to the truth that divine love is stronger than earthly death, and that those who put their trust in that love of God and live their earthly lives fully within that redeeming love may indeed know with a full certainty that nothing – neither death nor life nor anything else in all creation – will be able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the message of Easter that resounds through time and through eternity.