Here is some really good news and some not so good news. The good news is that life expectancy is on the rise. A healthy 65-year-old man can expect to live another 20 years or so, while for a woman of the same age, it’s an additional 22 years. In fact, a 65 year-old man has about a 30 per cent probability of making it to age 90; a 65 year-old woman has a 40 per cent chance. And the chance that at least one member of a 65 year-old couple will still be alive at age 90 is as high as 60 per cent, according to Walter Updegrave in Money, (May 2012, p. 34).
That’s the good news. The not so good news is that all of us will still die; it’s only a matter of when.
The Hebrews knew that death comes to everyone. The psalmist says, “A human being, however firm he stands, is but a puff of wind” (Ps. 39:5-6). “Who can live and not see death? Who can save himself from the power of the grave?” (Ps. 89:48).
If death is inevitable, then how do we plan to deal with our dying and death? The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs tried diet and meditation to eliminate his cancer. When that failed, he spent more than $100,000 mapping his DNA in a desperate effort to save his life. Debbie Boone is now on television singing her way to youth by selling Lifestyle Lift in the U.S. This product claims to reverse the signs of aging. And then, there are all those diet and exercise books, vitamins and wonder drugs, Botox injections, cosmetics and hair dyes, cryogenics and cosmetic surgery, and even certain types of meditation techniques. It seems we will do anything to try to escape death.
I once found myself at a funeral home preparing to escort a body to the cemetery. As I waited in the lobby, I read some of the brochures put out by the funeral directors’ association. Every effort was made to minimize death, often by implying that death was no more than a prolonged vacation. I’m sure this was done out of genuine compassion for the bereaved, but the message simply wasn’t true. And yet, we want to believe it.
I’m always amazed at funeral visitations when I hear a well-meaning person trying to comfort a relative before an open casket by saying, “Doesn’t Uncle Jim look good! Why, I haven’t seen him look this good in years!”
Well, Uncle Jim doesn’t look good. Uncle Jim is dead.
What then, do we need to admit about death? Three things: First, death is tragic, because a unique person-the only one in the world-loses the greatest gift in the world: life. Second, death is painful, if not for the person who dies, then for those who survive, who grieve a loss and feel the heartbreak. And third, death is ugly, because a dead body is not a live body. As soon as death occurs, the body begins to decay. Embalming can slow the process, but it cannot stop it. The church is right to remind us every Ash Wednesday that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
So how do we face the inevitability of our death? We face it through the power of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus’ death on the cross was tragic, painful and ugly. It was everything our modern culture says death ought not to be. But in Christ’s resurrection there is hope-not found in our medicine or science or philosophy, but in God.
Isn’t that good news? Our life, our eternal life, doesn’t depend on us but on God?
Perhaps the most beloved psalm in the Bible is one that Christians interpret in light of the resurrection. Psalm 23, the Shepherd’s Prayer, assures us: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul… Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
And Jesus tells us: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Imagine: Jesus the good shepherd loves us so much that he gives his life to save our life. Simply put, love leads to life.
Back in 1986, at just about this time, I conducted a memorial service in the Princeton University Chapel for a dear friend who had passed away the week before. Ann and Art were happily married for 28 years. They were both professors of classics at different universities. When I came to the U.S. after serving in Quebec, I wrote Ann to tell her the news of my arrival. She sent back a card telling me how wonderful everything was with Art and her, and that they were soon to take a trip to Egypt. Then Ann concluded, “Things couldn’t be going better.”
Upon their return to Princeton, they were having breakfast in a coffee shop when Art suddenly developed a look of horror on his face. He fell to the floor unconscious, and a doctor in the coffee shop immediately tried to resuscitate him. The ambulance came within minutes and Art was rushed to the hospital, but pronounced dead on arrival. He was 54 years old.
As a priest, I found myself unable to explain how Art, who loved life so much, could be deprived of life so suddenly. It seemed cruel, unfair. As I struggled to write my sermon for the memorial service, I came across these remarkable words in the Burial Office: “All we go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
How incredible to praise God in the midst of death! How can we do this? I found a clue.
In Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a bridge collapses, resulting in the deaths of many people, all of whom just happen to be crossing the bridge at the same time. A priest, looking back over the past and wondering, what was the sense, the purpose, the meaning of all that had happened, concluded, “Love is the only survival, the only meaning.”
Love is the only thing that goes on when all else is lost. Love lies deep down inside human existence, with all its joys and in all its sorrows. But the point of the quotation is that love is also the cosmic meaning, not only of human life but of God’s life.
That’s the heart of our Christian faith. Even in death, God will be with us. Jesus who is the resurrection and the life will give us life. So we don’t have to be afraid of dying. We don’t have to second-guess whether this life is all there is. We don’t have to be anxious whether there is anything beyond the grave. Because Jesus lives, so shall we.
That, dear people, is the good news we need to hear this Good Shepherd Sunday: that even when we die, God’s love never dies; and that we who abide in God’s love will share God’s life forever. Love leads to life.
A parishioner shared with me a wonderful story about an Anglican lay reader in Toronto. Originally from Newfoundland, George moved to Toronto where for 30 years he worked as a bus driver for the Toronto Transit Authority. In his first week on the job, he was being getting ready to start driving the various routes, but Toronto Transit ran into a problem on a major holiday weekend and George got called to take an extra bus run during the heavy passenger time. George felt very apprehensive because he did not really know the route. As he put it, “I really did not know where I was going.”
The day finished successfully with some directions and help from the passengers. Now retired, George continues his ministry as a Lay Reader with his faith increasing daily as he grows older. “I can live each day with enthusiasm and joy because each day is a new day, full of challenges and opportunities and experiences but [I] always [approach it] with confidence because now I know where I am going.”
Yes, we Christians know where we are going when we die-straight into the arms of Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster Church in London, Ont.
Text – Psalm 23; John 10:11-18