Archbishop’s Diary: April 2015

Posted on March 26, 2015

Death is not the end of the story

by Archbishop Colin Johnson

Archbishop Colin JohnsonWe sat at the back of the funeral home where hundreds of people filed past my grandfather’s open coffin and paid respects to the family. Our son was almost eight and was watching pensively. To comfort him, I said, “Gram’pa looks peaceful, just as if he’s asleep, doesn’t he?”

“No,” Timothy said, “he looks dead.”

Direct, accurate, no minced words, no gentle skirting around reality. Death is death.

On Good Friday, Jesus was dead.

Some early Christian followers couldn’t abide that notion – they became known as Gnostics and Docetists – so they taught that he just appeared to have died; he didn’t or perhaps couldn’t die. So to make the truth clear, the church placed in its creed the clause: Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead.”

We know a lot about death, both physically and metaphorically. Loved ones die. Dreams fade. We live in a world that invests heavily in denying death even while perpetrating it. Advertisers ply us with promises of eternal youth, while around the corner poverty, environmental abuse, violence and war obliterate both young and old.

We need to have a serious discussion about death. Each one of us will face it. What are we to do in the face of death? The recent decision of the Supreme Court removing the total ban on physician-assisted death in some yet-to-be-defined instances has raised the issue more pressingly.

What does a good death mean? What choices do we rightly have legally, ethically and morally? Is suffering an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs or is there ever anything redemptive in suffering? Who decides that? How do we balance individual autonomy and life within community? How do we care compassionately for the dying? What constitutes “dignity” and how does that define a good life and a good death? What are the limits of technology, both to extend life and to end it? What does it say to us that we want and need to have such control?

We need these conversations in the church, among our friends, with our families, with our leaders and with our caregivers. That can be quite practical to start with. Have you got an (updated) will? Have you assigned a power of attorney for personal care and for property? Have you discussed this with your loved ones or anyone other than your lawyer? (I answer “yes” to all of these.) Have you considered what sort of legacy will you leave – not just your money but, as importantly, your contribution to the world around you?

Death, of course, is not the end of the story.

“On the third day, he rose again.” The disciples who met their risen Lord might have been mostly skeptical at first but were so changed by their encounter that nothing could stop them from proclaiming the life-changing news. This Gospel upended everything and has transformed individuals and whole cultures ever since.

We are not so experienced with resurrection as with death. Yet it is true and real. The God who calls us into existence and loves in this life, does not abandon us at death but welcomes us into the new creation that fulfills God’s eternal intentions for creation. Jesus Christ is the first fruits of that new creation. “For since by a man came death, by a man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:21-22).

The resurrection of Jesus and our hope of resurrection in him leads us to have a quite different discussion about death and shapes our perspective on it. For Christians, death is still a real fact we all must deal with. Unfortunately the only way to be resurrected is to have died. But, as the Easter hymn, (which I hope will be sung at my funeral), declares:

Jesus lives! Thy terrors now
Can no more, O death, appal us.
Jesus lives! By this we know
Thou, O grave, canst not enthral us. Alleluia!