“Dying and Eternal Life” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on March 18th, 2018. (Readings for the 5th of Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33)
One of my favorite prayers is the prayer of absolution that we say after our confession: “Almighty God, have mercy on us. Forgive us our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, keep us in Eternal life.”
“Keep us in eternal life.” Some of us have been taught to think of eternal life as the heavenly life you come to after you die. But that doesn’t make sense if we, the living, are praying “keep us in eternal life,” so, what are we talking about when we talk about eternal life?
My understanding of eternal life is that it’s related to the vision of salvation that we find in the psalms. In the psalms salvation is a word used to talk about being delivered from different kinds of death—here in our lives in this world. The psalms present us with a vision of how death can reign in the midst of life, how it is possible for living people to find themselves deep under the waters of Sheol—the watery underworld of the dead.
In the psalms we find there are a variety of things that can leaves us feeling like we’re living under these dark waters, that can leave you feeling like you can’t breathe and have no energy or life within you, among them are: grief, fear, shame, guilt, threats, violence, imprisonment, oppression, abandonment, neglect, hunger, loneliness, illness, and the death or loss of a loved one. Thus, when the psalms talk about salvation they are almost always talking about being delivered from one of these specific realities that has left the person, or people collectively, feeling like the living dead. Salvation is the experience of being brought back into the land of the living.
Though our psalm today, Psalm 51, doesn’t specifically refer to the waters of Sheol, we can see this at work there. The author expresses a sense of guilt so great that it has left them feeling like “a sinner from my mother’s womb.” From the Hebrew perspective, it was not possible for a baby to be a sinner, but the image certainly captures how awful that person is feeling and how much they are needing freedom from their guilt and shame in order to feel spirit and life reigning in them again. Our reading from Jeremiah today also speaks to how our sense of guilt can cut us from experiencing the love of God, such that the experience of forgiveness is vital for us to know God. This whole vision of salvation as deliverance from specific forms of the dominion of death, of coming to a place where we feel life reigning in the midst of our lives, makes so much more sense to me than the ways we so often hear salvation talked about in our culture.
But just as death can reign in life, so too, the psalms speak of how life can reign not only in life—but even in the midst of such deathly realities. As Psalm 139 says—”even if I make my bed in Sheol—you are there.” As Psalm 23 says: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me” and “you prepare a banquet before me in the presence of my enemies.” This is what I think we’re talking about when we talk about eternal life—staying connected to God, staying part of the cycle of loving and being loved, of understanding and being understood—even in the midst of such deathly realities. Though Jesus didn’t seem to focus on it much in his teachings, the story of his resurrection tells us that life can reign even after death. And so, we make our prayer—”keep us in eternal life—now and always.”
This understanding of eternal life is helpful if we are to understand Jesus words today: “Those who love their life will lose it.” Those words make no sense if we take them literally because only those who love life can love God with all their hearts, minds and souls because our love is our response to that goodness. Instead, I think what’s being referred to is what I was talking about last week about how our fear of death or dying can kill us, can leave us living in-human lives. How, by becoming shut down, cut off, living with hearts of stone—we lose our lives.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Here I hear Jesus talking about death and dying as part of the natural cycle of life that we see in the life of plants. By embracing death and dying as a part of heavenly life, the life of loving and being loved, not only will death and dying not separate us from the love of God, but they can be a means through which we express our love for God and others and a means through which we can know the love of God and the love of others.
This is a very simple message, but one that has powerful implications for how we live our lives. I see so many doing all they can to withdraw into cocoons of materialism, spiritualism, post-modernism and various other ideologies, which all seem designed to keep us from experiencing death. For myself, I take Jesus warning that while people think they are protecting themselves when they do this—it is in reality a kind of spiritual suicide, it deadens us, it cuts us off from the cycle of loving and being loved which we know of as eternal life. We can come up with all sorts of ways of doing this. Often Christianity itself is envisioned as a way of never having to experience real suffering or death, but I’ve not encountered any true love that doesn’t also lead to great suffering.
Wealth and success in our society are often presented as a life with every comfort and no real discomforts. It seems bourgeois society has decided the privileged have a right never to feel uncomfortable. It’s clear how this idea has justified every kind of segregation, gated communities, and institutional isolation because what makes us feel uncomfortable is often simply the presence of people who are different and so we set up institutions and processes so we don’t have to encounter them. But whatever version of trying to live a life in which we don’t experience death or dying or discomfort, it’s consequences are profound. You lose your life. In a real way, you live cut off from the cycle of loving and being loved.
While I don’t like being uncomfortable—I’ve accepted it as a part of daily life. However, I want to be clear, I still hate death. Some kinds of death I’ve experienced, particularly mental illness, terrify me. I love both the life of the senses and life making sense and often death involves some kind of significant loss in terms of the life of the senses and periods of time where life seems senseless. So, I don’t want to romanticize death in any way. It’s just that as I get older it’s becoming more and more apparent to me that those who give their lives to loving others are going to experience death and dying and probably a lot of it. And from where I stand, I haven’t seen anyone figure out a way not to die, except not to live fully and I’m unwilling to do that. This means that if love is what I most value, if love is what comes closest to my understanding of what is the life of God, then death and dying are part of the life I must embrace. Yuck.
At the same time, I don’t want to say that death and dying are all bad. As much as I don’t like death and dying, they have also become a precious part of life for me, or at least a way of my experiencing what is most precious in life for me.
This was perhaps first most evident to me in the death of my father. My father who seemed so powerful, even scary, as he began to die began to seem so vulnerable. In that vulnerability, I could finally see him in the midst of his simple humanity and just love him for who he was—not how I imagined him to be. That experience and many more since then have shown me that there is something about vulnerable human beings coming together in the face of death that can bring forth real tenderness. I’ve discovered that dying can be an experience of great great love and connection, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, pure love, grace. It is in the finiteness of the lives of people I love that I have found something infinitely precious.
I’m not saying this happens all the time, but at least through this community I’ve found it often happens and all this is such a contrast to how I used to experience death, which was as something simultaneously meaningless and yet also somehow all about shame and judgment: what I had done or failed to do for someone, or they for me. But when death becomes simply about loving, in the midst of that darkness I experience something very different, something that feels very close to the mystery that I experienced in the birth of my children.
Christianity professes a God so much greater than death that death is absorbed within her or him. St. Francis even refers to death as his beloved sister. That vision of God can help us hold death and dying. It can transform our experience of death and dying from being an experience of judgment, condemnation, shame, isolation, or meaninglessness, into being a means of acceptance, of loving and being loved, and of seeing what is most meaningful and precious. In the process, we begin to see how not only our lives, but even our death and dying, can become precious gifts, not only the death and dying which we will each face one day, but the many kinds of death and dying we experience everyday, if we are awake, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to love. For if we are willing God is able, and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen
P.S.: A brief postscript on practicing what you preach, or the cost of not practicing it. After writing this sermon last night I watched the NCAA playoff game between the University of Michigan and Houston. Michigan did not play really well all night. None of its best players had great games and I thought the coaching was off. I turned off the game with 3.9 seconds to go because Michigan was two points down and had done nothing with the ball the last two times they had it except to manage to foul the guy who had made Houston’s previous six points – a man who seemed to have a perfect foul shot. I couldn’t see anyway that they could win and I just didn’t want to watch their incredible disappointment as a team that many thought could go all the way saw their hopes dashed.
I woke up this morning listening to the radio and learned Michigan had won the game. I could barely believe it. Fortunately, I had recorded the game so I got up and watched those last 3.9 seconds. I watched as Houston’s incredible player missed both his foul shots. Then Houston mistakenly didn’t guard Isaiah Livers throwing the ball in so he was able to make a perfect half court throw to Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman who passed the ball perfectly to Jordan Poole (who hadn’t made a basket in the whole second half of the game) who then—with a big guy coming right up at him sank a long 3 point shot to win the game. I don’t know what the odds were on all that happening, but I think they were incredibly low. All a further lesson in how avoiding death can keep us from knowing victory and how foolish we can be in being so certain we know how things are going to turn out. I’m grateful for the reminder.