“The right to die is an important principle.” That quote stood in the middle of an otherwise hopeful article in Time Magazine this week. Both research and experience (which, after all, are the same thing) is now demonstrating that people in a “coma” or “non-responsive” state are more alive than previously thought. In some cases, such people can respond to stimuli, especially a few months after the trauma that led to the brain injury. If you know and love someone who has suffered such an injury, read the article. I can only imagine the longing that you must have to know that they are there, in that body, after all. But, the article reminds us, “The right to die is an important principle.” I rarely get angry at something I’ve read, but those words made me angry.
I read those words on Sunday night, after the Last Sunday in the Church Year, after hearing words from 1 Cor 15: “So also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (ESV). And that same day I finished teaching a ten or twelve week Bible study at Church of the Resurrection in Sunset Hills on 1 Corinthians, the last two weeks on 1 Cor 15. And last week Dr. Jeff Gibbs, Rev. Gary Ellul and I recorded some sessions for a Bible study on 1 Corinthians 15 (coming from Concordia Seminary soon). It is not by accident that the Apostle ends that letter to Corinth with the Resurrection of the Body on the Last Day. It is not by accident that the church ends its year on that note of hope. It was sort of by accident that we recorded the Bible study, but only because we had a hard time finding a day when everyone was available. Regardless, I’ve had resurrection on the brain.
So you can understand my anger when someone urges a “right to die.” A “right”? Rights are something that I demand, that I expect, that I control, that cannot be taken away from me. In America we have certain “inalienable rights,” and no one better deny me mine (said with an appropriately firm stomp of the foot and thrust-out chin). I want to pursue my happiness, and if dying makes me happy, then I demand the right to die. Wow.
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). Death is not a right; it is a curse. It is to be shunned. It is to be prevented – in the old Latin meaning of praevenio (note the veni part) – to outstrip, to anticipate so as to avoid. Death sucks.
But how do you prevent death?
I don’t know where you are at as this church year ends, how your health is, how your family’s health is. As for me, some who are very close to me are far too near to death. Hearing 1 Corinthians 15 was different for me this year; teaching it was very different, because I’m different. Death is too concrete. Too often when we (or at least I) teach and preach on “resurrection” it can become, I don’t know, distant. A can to kick down the road for later. A hope, and a real hope, but not one that I want to experience just yet. But after Bible study Sunday one person came up to me and told me how much he appreciated the discussion; his mother had died the night before. He doesn’t want the can kicked down the road. He wants resurrection. veni, veni.
It’s a bit jarring the way Thanksgiving Day follows so quickly after the end of the church year. One day we’re saying “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!” and four days later we’re tucking into pumpkin pie and saying “More ice cream, please.” Which is it? “Come quickly!” or “More, please!” Don’t get me wrong, it is good and just to thank our Creator for his provision of daily bread. But maybe around your Thanksgiving table will be someone whose body is breaking down. Or someone who should be there but is too weak to make it over for dinner. Or someone who last year carved the turkey but this year is at rest. Death sucks.
The Last Sunday in the Church Year or the beginning of a new church year could end up making us feel a bit like the prisoner in the cell, scratching another line in the stone as another year passes, still behind bars. Death coming, maybe distant, maybe near, but coming, with no hope. How long, O Lord? But not if we do it right. Because The Last Sunday in the Church Year is a Sunday. It is the third day, a day which began with the frightened Marys and Peter and John and it is a day which is still stretching on, even to this very hour, as we wait for the sun to set. The harvest has started, but only the firstfruits has been brought in so far. The messengers have been sent out to gather the harvest from the four corners, but they haven’t yet finished the work of the master. Only then will this day end. We are now living in that last day. Death always wins, you see, except once. And if death lost once, it can lose again. The only thing that prevents death — that anticipate so as to avoid it — is resurrection. No, I didn’t say that in the wrong order. Death is prevented by resurrection. Our death is prevented by Christ’s resurrection. And now we get to do the taunting: “Where is your sting.”
Unfortunately our teaching and preaching too often stops before we get to resurrection. Pretty much all sermons will talk about Jesus; many will somehow bring in cross and forgiveness; too few mention Jesus’ resurrection; and virtually none ever mention Jesus coming again and giving us our new bodies. But, Lord willing, another church year begins this Sunday. Black Friday will have us all in “More, please” mode. But the epistle lesson for this Sunday, from the other end of 1 Corinthians (1:3-9), points us to “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly”: “with the result that you lack in nothing given by the Spirit as you await the revealing of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who will keep you firm to the end, blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful.” Venio cito! Amen, veni Domine Iesu.
BTW, if you’re looking for tips on preaching the resurrection, I’d highly recommend Glenn Nielsen’s presentation from the 2006 Symposium on the Resurrection of the Body at Concordia Seminary. The entire symposium is available at our iTunesU site.
Larry McGurer November 25, 2011
I appreciate the regular reminder to include the return of Christ and the resurrection in our preaching. I agree with the assessment of the seminary professors that this is often lacking in our preaching. By making a point to include the various aspects of the Gospel as it happened in the past (Christ’s Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Ascension), as it happens today (Word and Sacrament) and as it will happen in the future (Christ’s Return, Our Bodily Resurrection, New Creation) we take a big step toward keeping it fresh for us and our hearers.
Pastor Roy Olsen November 28, 2011
Thank you so much brother for this wonderful reminder of the power of resurrection theology. In the parish I can not tell you how many times I have heard something about how wonderful it will be after we die we go to heaven.It is as if it is the end of the story! There is so much more in the reality of Christ’s resurrection; the beautiful gift given to us in our Baptism and the pure joy on the last day of experiencing in full the gift of the resurrection procured by Christ for us.(1 Pet. 1:3-5) I do not think we can preach it enough, and I certainly have been reminded by your words of the dire need for this within our congregations and our classrooms.
Looking forward to standing next to you brother on that last day as death, for the last time, is reminded of its losing status and then it’s voice shall be silenced forever!