There is no doubt that
In making one of those hospital calls that could not be refused, I came to grips with this puzzling verse. “Pastor,” one of my members said, grabbing me by the arm as she went out of church, “my cousin Bessie is in the hospital, could you stop in to see her when you’re there? They don’t have a church.” Two days later I was at the hospital and went by Bessie’s room. She was in bed and her husband sat in the chair facing her. I wasn’t there to sign them up for membership but in the preliminary part of the conversation, as we exchanged information about each other, she very forthrightly said, “We don’t go to church. We don’t figure we’d live any differently if we did, so we don’t.”
I hadn’t heard that one before. If I had been thinking fast and remembering my Word and Witness training, I’d have said something to focus on the positive, like, “You figure you lead pretty good lives as it is,” letting them know I heard and understood while not necessarily agreeing. As it was, I stood there with my mouth open, not knowing what to say, stammering for an answer.
What can you say to the statement, “We would not live any differently if we went to church”? It’s true, I suppose, for a lot of people. There are a lot of folks in church who don’t live any differently. There are scoundrels in the pew every Sunday and there are upstanding, good-living folks who never darken the church door. Of course a person can believe without going to church, even a preacher would have to grant that. But there was more at issue in her comment than church-going alone. The implication was clear that they were good, decent, hard-working people and that was the basis on which they would live.
“We wouldn’t live any differently,” she had said. I might grant her that. But I think we’d die a whole lot differently. It is finally not the way we live but the way we die that matters. Just like for Jesus on the cross.
That would have been the rejoinder that would have cut to the heart of the matter. I probably would not have said that to strangers even if I had thought it in time. But in retrospect it seems so obvious for one lying in a hospital bed with a serious ailment, she and her husband already in their seventies. “Okay, so it won’t make any difference in how you live. How about for how you die? Have you thought about that?” That turns the whole question around.
Death means the way we live does not make any difference. It makes the way you live beside the point. Good, hard-working, decent people and scoundrels go to the grave regardless of how they have lived. So the question for Holy Week is not how shall we live, but how shall we die? That is the question for chief priests and passers-by who, mocking at Jesus’ helplessness in the face of death, forgot their own mortality.
The answer lies outside ourselves. The way we live is helpless in the face of death. Death reveals us to be dust. For the answer we look to Him who in death is revealed to be the Son of God. How He dies is very much to the point; He dies rejected by men. Just a week previously they had shouted His praises; now they shout for His death. His own disciples rejected Him in favor of a safe distance. But that isn’t half the scandal of the cross: He also dies forsaken by God. Yet in that abandonment, in that apparent shame and weakness, the awesome power of the cross is shown. For in dying rejected and forsaken, Jesus brings God to those who, like Himself, are rejected and forsaken.
There are people in this world for whom forsakenness is a way of life; sufferings which make our existential angst trivial. But there is one place all of us have as common ground in forsakenness; we will all taste death alone. Even though friends and family members surround us it is finally something we have to do alone.
Death would also separate us from God were it not for Jesus who brings God into the shadow of death, to those who are rejected and forsaken. Rejected and forsaken no more. The mystery of it is that the shadow of death is dispelled by His death. For He brings God into even that shadowy place.
You and I will die. In death there will be Jesus. How we shall die therefore will be in the hope of the resurrection, in confidence that God is with us. I think that bears a great deal on how we live. We live also in hope. We are secured not by the way we live, but by Jesus’ life and death for us.