“Why are we Christians so afraid of death?” A fellow Christian asked me this during a discussion of whether or not we should close our churches during the pandemic.
It strikes me as the wrong way of looking at this. Christians have no need to be afraid of death, even if we are at times. We know that death has been defeated, his sting removed. “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15: 54-58). We have this victory over death through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Out of love for life, Jesus sacrificed his life for the life of the world.
Precisely for this reason, Christians do not embrace death but cherish life. We are not a death cult, but what we might call a “life cult.” We worship him who is Life itself, Jesus Christ. Cults of death embrace death as a means of preserving their own lives. Cults of death sacrifice the lives of others to gain their own salvation, temporal or otherwise. In a lust for life they taunt death by dancing around volcanoes. But we follow the example of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. Out of love for life, Jesus sacrificed his life for the life of the world. We make sacrifices not for ourselves, but out of love for those whom Christ loves.
Perhaps, we don’t always comprehend this in our daily lives. Christians live in the same world as everyone else. We often struggle with the same fears and temptations as the rest of the world. We give in to the temptations of bravado and even gallows humor. We may think this is an act of faith, but it’s often nothing more than a mask hiding fear.
We know not to fear death, but to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28). This makes some hesitant to change our way of life, or close our churches, merely because it could make us and our loved ones sick, or even cause their death. We think we have higher priorities.
There is a paradox to the Christian life. We who have nothing to fear from death, value life even more because of the victory over death that we have been given through the Lamb of God. It is precisely because we know that the sufferings of this world are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us that we cherish life in this world. We cherish our own lives and especially the lives of our neighbors, friends, family and others in the community where God has placed us (Romans 8:18).
Of course, this brings an added paradox to the Christian life because it is often harder to love the people in our own communities than it is to love people at a distance. It is much harder to idealize the people who cut you off in traffic or stay parked three seconds too long at a greenlight. Loving people in your immediate vicinity takes work, patience, and sacrifice. Or, as Christ showed us, love is a matter of blood, sweat and tears in the here and now, dirty and sinful world racked with pain and suffering, disease and death.
In a world without Christ, death is the only certainty.
We have hope, and we hold out hope. We let hope shine in this world. We have a hope that surpasses and transcends the limited and often selfish hopes of this world. Without Jesus Christ and his victory over death, the hopes of this world are worldly at best. Everyone instinctively knows that these worldly hopes are going to wither like the grass and fade like the flowers of the field. In a world without Christ, death is the only certainty. Death robs life of meaning, joy, love and hope. And death reigns in this world not through hope, but through fear. On the other hand, we have not been given a spirit “of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Jesus has not only given us a community in which to share this love. He has also given us channels through which to share this hope, this spirit of power, love and self-control. We share this hope with our children by baptizing them into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We share this hope by raising them in a church where the word of God nourishes them through the repetition of the liturgy, the preached word, the sacrament of the altar, Bible Study, and Sunday School. We share this love with members of our Christian community by kneeling with them at the altar to share in the forgiveness of sins. We share this hope with others in the community by fighting for the preservation and improvement of life in this world. We do this by donating to charities and food banks. Historically, Christians have done this by establishing hospitals and schools, even if that has been in large part taken over by secular entities in the west. We share this hope with the community when we protest abortion clinics.
We know that life has value, even if the world does not recognize the value of life. Every person we encounter is one for whom Christ died, one he purchased with his blood, sweat, and tears.
Even though some avenues for sharing hope with the rest of the world are closed for now, others remain.
During this current pandemic, Christ has temporarily and painfully closed some avenues through which we share this hope with the rest of the world. The government authorities, with the recommendation of medical experts, have asked that we limit public gatherings to less than ten. In response, many congregations are temporarily not gathering for worship in order to protect the safety and health of loved ones in our communities. Staying home now for the sake of others is not a breaking of the third commandment. These congregations are acting out of love, just as it would be an act of love to stay home if we knew we were sick.
Even though some avenues for sharing hope with the rest of the world are closed for now, others remain open. For instance, we can show the love of Christ for the members of our community by praying for them at home as we share devotions with our families. With our families and friends, we can listen to sermons that pastors upload, or watch live streaming services. We can continue to support our congregations financially through online giving. We can also call neighbors or the elderly who need assistance and offer to help them in any way possible. In a variety of ways, even in these troubled and unusual times, we can follow the lead of our Savior, to do everything we can for the life, welfare, and health of our neighbor.