The last enemy

Notes from above ground

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I am not getting older. Unfortunately, my body is, much to my annoyance. I can’t run as fast as I could when I was younger. In fact, I’m not sure I can still run at all. An awareness of my mortality is a constant factor in my life, with every ache and pain, and with every new prescription my doctor writes for me. I am by no means alone in this experience, of course. We all, every one of us, either do, or will experience the same thing, though it is not something people like to talk about. When you think about it, it is absolutely amazing how unwilling people generally are to think about, much less talk about death. It is the one great experience every single one of us have in common.

We use euphemisms: “passed away”, “departed”, “no longer with us” – anything rather than say “died”. This can lead to funny situations, like in a movie I saw where a character refers to his dear departed wife. When he’s asked, in solemn tones, “Is she dead?”, his response is: “no, just departed”. Human beings have an astonishing ability to ignore something that they don’t want to acknowledge about themselves. But it is increasingly difficult in this connected world of ours to ignore the fact that people are dying every day, many in the most tragic ways: suicide bombers killing dozens, disease and hunger taking men, women and children without mercy.

Death is something that is a fact of life as we know it. Another quote from a movie: “Someone has died: that’s life!” Christians have an interesting attitude to death. On the one hand, Paul calls death “the last enemy” and Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus. On the other hand, to fully quote Paul: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15.26). Perhaps we react so negatively to the idea of death because it is not “natural” in a way. Death was never meant to be part of the human experience, according to Christian teaching. It is a major effect of the Fall, something that came into human experience through rebellion against God. 

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that one of the main results of the life and death of Jesus is that death itself has been conquered and the power of death over us has been broken. What does that mean? Look at what the writer says: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2.14-15). 

The fear of death has driven people to murder, war, hatred and, on a more mundane level, spending millions of dollars on health regimes, exercise machines and surgery. We are bombarded with advertisements for things that will make us look younger and feel younger. We want to deny that, not only are we ageing, but that we cannot, no matter what we do, escape the inevitability of death. The fear of death, as the writer says, holds us in captivity.

I know that the popping of one little brain cell could kill me. The misbehaviour of a few cells can result in a fatal disease. We are surrounded by dangers and we cannot completely shield ourselves or our loved ones.

There are differing ways of responding. Ignore the whole thing and drift into death with eyes averted. Others revolt in anger and, like Dylan Thomas, declare: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Others accept the inevitable with resignation, believing that death is the end, so why fear nothingness?

Christians have a different attitude, one based on knowledge of what has happened in Christ: “He has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1.9-10). Jesus conquered death for me when he died and rose again. Death is not the end, and the darkness holds no fear any longer for those who know him who came back in victory.

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11.25-26). Do you believe this? I do. Here are great lyrics by Iris DeMent, to sum it up:

“When my morning comes around, from a new cup I’ll be drinking
And for once I won’t be thinking  there’s something wrong with me
And I’ll wake up and find that my faults have been forgiven
Oh and that’s when I’ll start living, when my morning comes around”.

Amen. 

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