Death and the Christian Hope

One of the deep realities of human life is that we live in the shadow of death; and we are used to hearing about death constantly: our newspapers and television news channels often contain more stories about death than they do about life!

The World Health Organisation says that every day 24,000 people die directly from hunger or hunger related diseases. The Cancer Foundation, if we asked them, could give us statistics about the number of people dying of cancer every day, the Heart Foundation could do the same in relation to cardiac-related deaths… all around us we see the signs that confirm that life for all of us will end with death.

But the reality of death does not generally touch us in the realm of statistics. Facts and figures, however large the numbers, rarely speak to us (inside us) about the realities which they convey. We know the deep sadness of death most powerfully, when it touches us personally, when someone who is close to us and who we love faces death themselves. That is why Woody Allen was able to write, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Although he also wrote, “there are worst things than death. If you have ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman you know exactly what I mean!”

Despite the fact that the various media outlets in our society trade on news of other people’s deaths, there is a great unwillingness, in the most part, for us to talk about death at a personal level, because it raises for us the uncomfortable reality of our own mortality. And yet right at the heart of our Christian faith is the conviction that Jesus himself conquered death on the cross, and rose again from the grave – the first fruits of all who have died, opening the way for us to one day rise with him in glory. The hope of our lives in Christ is that we will in some way live on forever in the eternal life of God. I am not speaking hypothetically about death this morning. The flowers in our church, which have been donated by Angela Faria’s family in her honour and memory, prevent me from being theoretical just a few days after we commended her to the love of God, and committed her body to be cremated.

In one sense the hope that we find in Christ, is expressed most deeply in our baptisms; because through the waters of baptism we believe that we have already died to sin and been raised as new creations, as members of the body of Christ. In the rituals of the monastic traditions, monks making binding vows for the rest of their lives to God, are covered in a funeral pall, the drape which is used to cover a coffin, to signify that through the vows which they will make, their death and resurrection are already taking place in this life. We do not do that at baptism with our babies, but the symbolism is the same – that is what baptism is all about. Those who are baptised into Christ – and most of us here have been baptised – have already died to the sin and decay of this world, and have risen again through the waters of baptism into the new life of Christ which will be never ending.

That does not mean that when the life of someone who we love comes to an end we should not rightly be sad, but it does mean that in Christ we have a greater hope, in faith, that we cannot see now (the eternal life of God) but which is already a reality for those who we see no longer. I say all of this this morning because I believe that death and life are right at the heart of the Gospel reading which we heard a few moments ago from the Gospel of Mark.

Last week, I was reminding us that when we approach miracle stories, our concern is not just to read them as history but to read them as theology as well. Or to put that another way, we are not just concerned with whether Jesus healed a paralysed man 2,000 years ago, but what that might mean for each of us this morning. This is a wonderful story. When I heard Luisa reading it to Isaac from the Children’s Bible a couple of nights ago, it brought back my own memories of being told the story right back in Sunday School, and being amazed by the tenacity and the creativity of the friends of the man, in their efforts to get him to Jesus. I think these friends are central to the story, even though we know very little about them. Because those people who want to tell us that our faith is essentially a private affair, or an individual thing, that we need to work out on our own in isolation (you know what I mean – the people who say do not talk about faith and religion to others, it isn’t polite), those people have clearly not seen the significance of the fact that over and over again, friends bring people to Jesus. That may be true for you, your friends and family may have brought you to baptism, they may have brought you to a place where Jesus is real for you. And it may be too, that there are special people in your lives who you could bring to know Christ as well, just as these friends who carry their friend to Jesus in the Gospel story this morning. So many people are crowding in to see Jesus that the friends of this paralysed man realise that there is no hope of them getting to the front of the crowd without doing something very drastic.

I have read this story many times, but I had never noticed until this week that all of this is taking place in Jesus’ own house. The Gospel tells us that Jesus has gone home and news has spread that he is there, and so people have gone to visit him at home, to learn from him. We do not often think of Jesus as someone who had a house, our dominant view (I think) is of him wandering in the wilderness, preaching from town to town. At any rate, he is at home and people have come to visit him, to learn from him. And so many people have come that it is not possible for them all to fit in the house. So the friends of this man who is paralysed carry him up on to the flat roof of the house, and they dig a whole in the roof, breaking open the wattle-and-daub which holds it together until there is a hole opening those inside the house to the skies above, and when the hole is big enough they lower down their friend, on a pallet, using ropes, until he is at the feet of Jesus. If someone removed part of the roof of my house instead of banging on the front door and waiting for me to answer it, I think that I would have a few things to say to them once they had lowered themselves into my living room, but Jesus’ response is quite different. Speaking through the air that must have been thick with dust and dirt from the broken roof, the first words of Jesus are not words of rebuke, they are words of forgiveness. He does not seem bothered that people have just vandalised his house, instead Jesus looks up to the friends who have lowered this man through the roof, and seeing their faith and the hope that they have put in him, he turns to the one who is paralysed, who is now laying at his feet, and he says, “son, your sins are forgiven.” Which angers the religious leaders, the scribes, who are present in the crowd because they know that only God can forgive sins, and they don’t know yet that Jesus is God, so they think that he is doing a terrible thing. Then Jesus asks this man who is unable to move by himself to stand and walk, and in obedience the man responds, and he gets up and he goes on his way – his life has been transformed, it is a new life, a better life now that he has met Jesus. Can you imagine the conversation between those friends on the way home? – They must have been excited!

The word which the Gospel records Jesus saying to the man isn’t quite what we find in our translation of the Bible. The word is the same word as “to resurrect,” – it is notjust about standing up – because, as I said a moment ago, I believe that this is a story about death and eternal life, transformed life in Christ. The Jews practised burial, they did not know about the possibilities of cremating bodies as we know about them today. And what they see played out before them in this miracle story is a sign of what happens when burial takes place. The gospel writer deliberately tells the story that way. The friends of the paralysed man dig into the roof, as if they were digging into the ground, and they lower the body on a pallet with ropes, just as they would lower a dead body into its resting place at burial. This story is deeply symbolic. It is like they are trusting their friend to God, as we do when someone who we loves dies and is buried. They lower their friend through the hole which they have dug, knowing that the only hope left for him is Jesus. Jesus acts out the two things which will be absolutely necessary at the end of each of our lives. He offers the man forgiveness, giving him the chance for a new fresh relationship with God, without anything from the past being in the way; and then Jesus calls him to rise up, to be resurrected, to be made new.

Do you know that that is the Christian hope for each one of us? It is right at the heart of the good news which Jesus represents for each one of us. That in him, we can be right with God, and through him – through our baptism into Christ – we can live now the new life which will go on long after our bodies have ceased to function, without any of the things which we have done getting in the way. That is why I pray each week in our liturgy that God will forgive our sins, because in Jesus it is truly possible for all that separates us from a relationship with God to be removed, to be discarded.

This is “God’s new thing” that Isaiah prophesied about in our first reading this morning, written hundreds of years before the time of Jesus. Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” This is God’s “new thing” in Jesus. What Paul calls God’s “Yes” in Christ in the letter to the Church in Corinth which we heard this morning. Its not just a story about a man who encounters Jesus 2,000 years ago, it is a story about us, and what happens when we encounter Christ.

None of this means that when we are separated from the people that we love because of death in this world, that somehow it is any easier for us. But what it does mean is that we have a hope greater than any of the possibilities put forward by this world, that in Christ all will be made new – like that paralysed man – that in Christ there will be transformed life which will never end. So I just want to say to you this morning take heart, take hold of the hope which is within you – that God who is in us in Christ, is greater than anything that stands to challenge us, greater even than death. Just like that man in the story this morning, Jesus offers us forgiveness, and a transformed life, which is not just for this world, but for eternity.