09.11.16 The Hope of a Good Death Philippians 1:20-30 Sermon Summary
Most people spend a lot of time and money pursuing the good life, when what they really want is a good death.
- The Dynamics of Death and the Rise of God
- How God Became Angry and Wrathful
- Three Outlooks on Life
- The Option Jesus Brings of a Good Death
- Three Characteristics of a Good Death
- Three Suggestions for Ensuring a Good Death
Something happens when we encounter and become aware of death. It is a “dynamic of death” that we see across cultures, religions, and among the non-religious. We witness death, and along the way decay, dying, and loss, and it raises questions for us. Questions of why, of purpose, and of trying to make sense. It also raises various feelings within us, including sadness, fear, and disorientation.
Eventually God enters the picture. Even if we didn’t know about God beforehand, the dynamics of death can cause us to look for God. In the face of death and dying, we reach out for something eternal, something undying, something forever strong to counter the weakness we see exposed by death.
Psalm 90 makes the contrast quite poetically. “God,” it says, “is from everlasting to everlasting.” And by contrast, we humans, “return to dust.” No matter how far humanity progresses, or how high we climb, the divine still says to us, “Turn back!” for we are merely “mortal.”
Still, the Bible teaches that we are made in God’s image. God has placed “eternity in our hearts,” as the New International Version renders Ecclesiastes 3:11. For this reason if not for more mundane ones, we resist death. We consider death our enemy. We avoid it, even talking about it. Death becomes something we dislike, maybe even hate.
And the dynamics of death evolve. After bringing God to our consciousness, the “why” question takes a predictable turn. We assume God is powerful, good, and just. Or perhaps we simply have a primitive fear of the deity. And so we assume that our death must be justified. The religious conclusion is that our death is the result of our sin. And God, if not feared before, becomes fearful as the judge, jury, and executioner related to our sinfulness.
This is how, as also in Psalm 90, we come to talk of God’s “anger and wrath.” We deserve to die. Death is the result of our lives, and an angry and wrathful God metes out the punishment.
The assumption of an angry deity who punishes an unholy sinner leads to three outlooks on our lives, whether we are conscious of them or not. One outlook is to hate our lives. We agree with God and pre-judge ourselves unworthy sinners who should be better. This attitude leads to various forms of self-destructive behavior, from cutting and drug use to competitiveness and isolation.
Another outlook is that we can redeem our lives. Following an enlightenment and repentance, we believe we can justify our lives before the judge. We can make up for our bad behavior with good behavior. We try to avoid judgment and condemnation by doing better and pursuing perfection.
A third outlook is to disengage from this sinful life. The “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” attitude articulated in Ecclesiastes. We reduce our lives to being “hard, then you die.”
The best Psalm 90 can come up with is the plea for God to, “satisfy us with your love in the morning, and we will live this day in joy and praise.” (This is the opening collect in daily morning prayer, by the way.) In other words, the best we can do is worship God. (Here we must note that the use of “fear” in Psalm 90, while related to the “anger” and “wrath” of God, more closely refers to the reverence of God.) As part of this worship, we live our lives according to accumulated wisdom. The hope that Psalm 90, along with the rest of the Older Testament, gives us is that we can live thankfully aware of God’s presence, making continual progress in wisdom. It’s not a bad conclusion, given the dynamics of death.
But then Jesus enters the picture. He showed that there are more than three options. First, he didn’t hate his life. Given what we know about him and his last hours, Jesus loved his life. And while he believed in redemption, he didn’t look to his own work for it, but he trusted God to work it out in his life. And Jesus was far from resigned. Instead he fully engaged life. He even found the energy to love his enemies, to serve the undesirables, and to party with the drunks.
Jesus faced death just like all of us. But he faced it with faith and trust in God. His God was not the god of wrath, but the faithful and trustworthy God. And his God showed his faithfulness and trustworthiness by resurrecting Christ from the dead, thereby making Christ’s death a demonstration not of divine wrath, but of love.
In other words, after Christ’s resurrection, death is no longer a dreaded fear but a hopeful good. This means that we, like Christ, can also have the hope of a good death. Here are three characteristics of the good death we learn from the death of Christ.
First, the good death is an act of surrender to God. The one dying a good death leaves this world in the hope of a better one. Someone may have seen good in this life. Others maybe saw only pain and sadness. In either case, the good death sees it as a crossing over to better place. This gives us the ability to be gracious and hopeful for those who died as the result of their addiction or depression.
The good death is like the state border. We enter a new state, and death is the border we have to cross into that state. Death itself isn’t a state. Having crossed the border, we simply live in God in a new way.
Second, the good death follows a good life. Normally we think of the “good life” as enjoying leisure, the finer things, and pleasure seeking. But if Jesus models the good death, he also models the good life. Since the good death is a surrender to God, so the good life is also. Jesus’ life was characterized by love, which my seminary professor Diogenes Allen in a book by that title defined as “self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other.”
By this definition, the human ego is not naturally loving. It is self-preserving and hedonistic. Basically the human ego naturally avoids suffering.
But the good life is a life properly balanced by love. It doesn’t avoid suffering, but it doesn’t pursue it either. Instead, it pursues love, and if suffering comes with love, then we endure the suffering for the beloved’s sake. This is what Jesus did. And it’s what Paul aspired to do.
He writes that he, “desires to depart to be with Christ, for that is far better.” But he is willing to “remain in the flesh” and to suffer because that is better for the Philippians. Paul counted such a life a “privilege” and saw it as “evidence of salvation,” because part of salvation is overcoming the ego’s self-preserving, hedonistic orientation. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul invites us to this good life.
“For me,” Paul writes, “living is Christ”—that is, we can live the good life; and “dying is gain”—that is, the good death represents the end of suffering. For Paul, however, that good death wouldn’t come before he suffered loving the Philippians. The good death follows a good life.
Third, the good death extends the good life. It was only after Jesus’s ascension, following his death and resurrection, that the power of the Spirit came at Pentecost. The Spirit fills and empowers us to live as followers of Christ, to be Christ’s Body. In other words, the good life of Christ extends through us as we, like him and by his Spirit, surrender ourselves to God and serve others in love.
Paul envisioned the same thing for his life. He hoped that Christ would be exalted in his body, “now as always, whether by life or by death.” Paul saw that his life would continue in the “fruit of his labor,” namely, in the Philippians’ “progress and joy in the faith.”
So the good death (1) surrenders our future life to God, (2) concludes a good life also surrendered to God, and (3) begins the extension of our good life through others.
It is appropriate to conclude with this question: will we have a good death? Will our good life extend beyond our good death? Here are three practical suggestions. One, invest in the faith of others who will outlive you. This obviously includes children, but more essentially it is an attitude that assumes the good we do outlives us. What can you do to enhance the faith of someone else today?
Two, include your church in your will. You may have children of your own and other good organizations you want to support with the material fruit of your labor. But also remember that every time you witnessed baptism you promised to care for the children of God within the church. Your final gift helps ensure that you fulfill this baptismal promise.
Third, recommit yourself to living the good life from this moment forward. If you surrender your life to God in meditative prayer, he will show you how to live. If you follow God’s leading moment by moment, you will live the good life, and ensure a good death.