This sermon was preached at our service of Morning Prayer on Sunday 17 May. You can find the order of service here.
I speak to you in the Name of Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Amen.
Friends, I want to begin with a question – and it may seem a rather morbid one at first. But I’m afraid it’s been thrust upon us by our readings this morning, which all have to do with the subject of Death.
So here’s the question: can there ever be such a thing as a good death?
I’d like you to spend some time thinking about that question this week; and one of the practical take-home suggestions I have is simply to encourage you to complete an advanced directive, a last will and testament, if you have not done so already.
Friends, I am here to tell you today that it is possible to die a good death; a good death requires some preparation, not just our own, but ultimately by the One who says to us today: I go to prepare a place for you (John 14:2)
So what do you think makes for a good death?
First of all, we need to realize that the way we go about answering this question as 21st century Canadians will be very different than those who lived in ages past.
The wonders of modern medicine and the affluence of our society have increased our average life span considerably. Many diseases that were once deadly are now easily cured or prevented altogether with a simple vaccine. Childbirth is no longer nearly as dangerous for the mother as it used to be. Children are now far more likely to survive their fragile infancy. All of these and more are wonderful blessings. But they’ve come with a bit of a problem.
You see, medicine got so good at saving lives, it almost had us convinced it had dealt with Death altogether. Thanks to these vast improvements in health care, the dark shadow of Death was no longer hanging over everyone all the time, and so, we thought, Death itself could be pushed into the shadows where we wouldn’t have to see it or be reminded of it every day.
Of course, the present coronavirus pandemic has brought Death out of the shadows again; and in that respect we are experiencing a taste of what our ancestors lived through.
It’s hard for us now to conceive of this, but even just 100 years ago, Death was everywhere. When your grandmother died her body would lie in the family living room for a time of waking before the burial. There were no separate funeral home businesses. Your house was the funeral home.
I can remember, a few years ago, in my previous parish, a middle-aged woman told me that she had never seen a dead body before. (Perhaps the same is true for you). We were preparing for her mother’s funeral. That would be her first face-to-face encounter with Death. 100 years before, she would have seen many corpses by that point in her life, including in her own house. Back then, in the midst of life you were always in death.
Our ancestors could have really related to our first reading today from the Book of Job. In fact, the graveside burial service in the old Book of Common Prayer used to begin with the opening verse of this passage:
‘Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.’
‘A short time to live, and full of misery’ - to us, that seems unnecessarily morbid and depressing. To our ancestors, it was simply self-evident. Today we expect that we will live many days (if not forever) and that our life will be full of happiness. Our lives may be, on average, more comfortable than those of our ancestors, but really, our end is just the same as theirs.
We need to learn from them what used to be called the Christian 'Art of Dying.’
After the Black Plague in Medieval Europe, Christians developed a manual, a handbook called the Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying – a sort of ‘Dying for Dummies’ - which offered guidance on how to die well.
It began by reminding the dying person that because Jesus Christ died and rose again, Death is not something to be ultimately afraid of. In fact, dying has a good side in that it’s what prepares us for the resurrection to eternal life in the new heaven and new earth to come.
We think death is what happens when our hearts stop beating and our lungs stop breathing - and of course that's true - but the very first mention of death in the Bible refers to separation from God (Genesis 2:17).
Because Jesus died for the sins of the world and rose again, because He has ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, Death no longer separates us from God, but rather prepares us to be brought closer to Him in the age to come.
The Art of Dying manual also gave advice on how to resist the common temptations experienced in the face of Death: lack of faith in God, despair, greed, spiritual pride and finally, impatience - that is, the urge to die quickly, before your appointed time and on your own terms, not God's. The book also exhorted the dying person to imitate the life of Jesus and included rules of behaviour for friends and family gathered at the deathbed.
What was the Art of Dying all about? In a word: preparation. In those days, there was no illusion that Death could be avoided, so preparing for a good death was a high priority. A good death was about committing oneself into the loving hands of Jesus, the Lord of life and death, who prepares a place for us.
Another historical tidbit: the old Book of Common Prayer I mentioned earlier has a Litany where you pray for all sorts of different things. It was first published in 1544 about 100 years after the Ars Moriendi.
One of the prayers is about avoiding, not Death itself, but bad forms of death. Here it is:
‘From lightning and tempest; from earthquake, fire and flood; from plague, pestilence and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death: Good Lord, deliver us.’
That last one on the list is striking to us, isn’t it? Deliver us from ‘sudden death’?!
I think if you were to ask most people today: ‘given that death is inevitable, how would you like to die?,’ they would say, ‘I would like to die quickly and without any pain or suffering.’ But you see, to die suddenly means you cannot prepare for a good death by practicing the Art of Dying.
A good death is the fitting capstone to a well-lived life, that is, a life lived in the faith, hope and love of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Speaking of a well-lived life, for the Christian faith, death is not a single moment in time (when your heart stops beating and your lungs stop breathing), a good death is the climax of a life-long process of dying to sin - all those things in our lives that separate us from God. We die to these old things so as to live more and more in the risen life of Jesus – with faith, hope and love. And so when we draw our last breath and are buried in the earth, we are well-prepared for the place Jesus has prepared for us.
Friends, in other words, Christ’s work of preparation in our lives starts now; in fact, it starts with our baptism and continues as we live our life with Him, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
By the way, that verse – where Jesus says I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life – forms the basis our course here at St. James called ‘Christian Foundations.’ This course lays the groundwork for a life lived with Jesus. Please speak to me if you’re interested and invite your friends and family – no church experience required. Here’s a little teaser:
For now, I just want to offer a few concluding thoughts on our verse of the day, where Jesus says: I go to prepare a place for you.
Why are we so connected to place? Because we’re personal, we have bodies, we live in time and space; therefore we’re localized. We need a place we can call home. Home is a place where you belong, where you’re accepted, where you can be yourself. People who do not have this kind of comfortable home really suffer in life.
But whether you’re blessed with a good earthly home or have lived in a bad one, our ultimate longing for home cannot be satisfied by anything in this world because things in this world are not permanent, they fade away. We can only find our ultimate family home in the house of God the Father. It has been said that if we have a desire that nothing on earth can satisfy, it’s because we were made for another world.
Our Father’s house, the new heaven and new earth to come, will be a place where the best experiences of home in this world will be magnified and perfected: we will love, laugh, learn, sing, enjoy good food and good company. We will have a love between one another we cannot fully imagine.
Jesus says, in my Father’s house there are many rooms, or dwelling places, or mansions. 'Mansion' is a good word here because it conveys a sense of comfort and roominess. Mansions can fit a lot of people, so this means there will be lots and lots of people in the new heaven and new earth to come.
I said the things in this world don’t last, but people last forever. Jesus said, I go to prepare a place for you, for people; and people have bodies. So Jesus will raise us from the dead with bodies. We will enjoy a perfectly embodied existence with our loved ones – not just our families, but all people will be our loved ones. The Bible promises that we will eat and drink the finest food and wine at the greatest family reunion feast ever – a reunion of the entire human family (Isaiah 25:6-9).
The hope of resurrection means people last forever, so that means here and now in this world: love people, invest in people, put your time and money into people, meet their bodily needs, comfort them, transform them. The hope of resurrection - I go to prepare a place for you - gives us the power to love people.
Finally, Jesus also says, Let not your heart be troubled. Do not let it be afraid. Notice that this is a command! So friends, if your heart is troubled this morning, Jesus says ‘stop’! That’s rather audacious, don't you think? How can He say that? Only if there’s something that can be done about your fear.
The Christian faith never minimizes our problems or our fears. It says, the problems, the fears and the evil you face are very real and there’s only one way to deal with it - if you believe this truth: that Jesus died on the cross and defeated the power of Sin and Death, that He rose from the dead with a body and ascended into heaven where He’s preparing a place for you, that He will come again on the last day and receive you to Himself.
I go to prepare a place for you.
So friends, let us then spend the rest of our lives preparing to meet Him face-to-face in that glorious place. Let not your heart be troubled.