Sunday, June 24, 2018

why fear death?

May my words be in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was being interviewed for the Theological College, as part of the process to discern whether I would go forward for training for ordained ministry, one of the interviewers asked me an interesting question. He said 'What would your reaction be if you found out that you only had a short time to live?' Now as it happens I had had not long before had something of a health scare. A large and rather painful lump had appeared on my hand; I hadn't bumped it or suffered any injury to it that I was aware of. And, naturally enough, the first thought that pops into anyone's head under such circumstances is – what if it is cancer? And if it is cancer, then what are my chances of surviving this? It turned out not to be very serious. I had been overdoing the DIY and the lump on my hand was only what is called a ganglion – basically a kind of fluid filled cyst that disappeared on its own after a few weeks.

So as close-calls with death go it doesn't really compare with the one faced by the apostles in today's Gospel reading. They are caught in a sudden and violent storm in a small boat miles from shore on the Sea of Galilee. Many among them are fishermen who not long before had earned their living in these waters. They would have been very familiar with the sudden squalls that could come out of nowhere; and they better than anyone would have known how dangerous they could be. So if they felt their lives were in danger that day – that at any moment they might day – then we have to accept their expert testimony as to how serious the risks they faced were.

Christ's response to their terror is therefore interesting indeed. He rebukes them for their lack of faith. What does he mean by this? It might mean that their fear indicates a lack of faith in him, because they thought they might die even though he was in the boat with them. And yet their response to the storm was to wake him – they had taken their very immediate problem straight to Christ – and their asking him did he not care that they were perishing seems indicative of their belief that he could do something about it.

No, it would seem that his rebuke his aimed at something else, something deeper – their fear of death itself. The message conveyed by our Lord's response is that the Christian should not fear physical death – because they know that this life is not all there is. There is something greater beyond it; and those who are strong in their faith need never fear death.

And if the Christian should not fear what we might call ordinary death – death that comes as part of the usual course of life such as disease, accident, or – hopefully for most of us – old age – much less should they fear death when it is suffered for the sake of the faith. Physical danger has always been a real consequence of faith. See, for example, our Old Testament reading today when King Saul tries to kill David, the Lord's anointed. He feared him because God was with him. And we read of many places elsewhere in Scripture where Saul attempts to bring about David's destruction, deliberately trying to thwart God's plan for Israel.

Yes, faith is a risky business and always has been. Look at the litany of ill treatment that St Paul gives us in our Epistle today – he suffered much for the sake of the Gospel during his life … and finally he died for it. In doing so he was simply walking in the footsteps of his master – and our master also – the one who suffered and died for our sins. And did so willingly. Long before Calvary he said that it would be so. And he also said that only those who would deny themselves and take up their own cross could follow him.

So to be a Christian is to take up the cross. But why should anyone wish to do so? Let me suggest three. The first is naked self interest. We wish to be saved and when this life ends spend eternity in heaven. This may not be the noblest of motives, but it is a practical one … and it is perhaps somewhere to begin for those who struggle with the demands of the faith. For I do not think that one lives the faith for even such a reason can long resist doing it for a higher one.

The next reason, which is a higher one, is out of love of God. He is the Father who created us, the Son who came into the world to save us, and the Holy Spirit who inspires us and leads us into all truth. Love is the natural response to the Holy and Undivided Trinity; and those who love God will wish to show that love by humble obedience to his commandments – no matter what the cost.
The third reason I will put forward is the love of others. We are called not only to love God but to love our neighbour. And to love someone is to want what is truly the best for them – which, it should go without saying, may not always be what they claim to want for themselves. And this 'true best' that we should will for all others is that they will at the end of their lives be welcomed into heaven. And as Christ has told us that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him then we must show our love for them by doing all we can to bring them to Christ. It is not an easy task; the world, the flesh, and the devil will do more than resist, they will fight against us tooth and nail. But we have Christ on our side. If we suffer we suffer in a good cause; and we die then we receive a martyr's crown and the reward of eternal life.

But waiting on a diagnosis for the little health scare I mentioned earlier had given me some time to reflect on the possibility that I might be facing the end. So when the interviewer asked the question how I thought I would respond in such a situation, my honest response to that was that I was OK with that; this life comes to an end sooner or later … and what really matters is that you die in a state of grace so that you can return to the One Who made you. The interviewer must have been satisfied with my answer; had he not been I suppose I would not be standing before you today. But it is something I truly believe: death is not to be feared; the only thing we should ever fear is that after this life we do not gain the prize that Christ died that we might have – eternal life in heaven. And so I end with the prayer that, by faith, you will nothing fear, and that by faith you will live forever with God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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