Please accept my apologies for missing my last two turns in the rotation for this column. I have been gone a lot this summer, visiting my father, who died Aug. 9 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Much as I miss my dad, I know and firmly believe I will see him again in heaven, where he is with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It ought to be no surprise, then, that my father has been on my mind a lot lately, but so has the issue of death. It is on the latter that I address in this column — namely, what death means for those who believe in Jesus.
Death. Contrary to what you’ve heard said, it is not a part of life. Quite the contrary. Truth be told, death is the antithesis — the opposite — of life. Death is the absence of life. Death is the end of life, but it is never a part of life; however, for the Christian, death marks the beginning of life: eternal life with Christ in heaven. The unbelieving world doesn’t understand this; all it sees is a casket or an urn, and it hears the preacher tell us we are gathered to say goodbye to our deceased loved one. The funeral is not a time for us to say goodbye to a fellow believer in Christ; it’s a time to say “See you later!” We know and firmly believe that, by the grace of God that is with us, we will see them again, and we will see them with the risen Christ.
Such a confession of faith has become more challenging in a world that would seek to silence Christians and destroy the Church. We live in what is called a post-Christian society, one that shows little interest in the Holy One of God or in His holy things. They call the scriptures archaic and patriarchal, of little use in any conversations. We are in a time of increased skepticism and cynicism, if not outright unbelief. They don’t believe in the Jesus of the Bible and, sadly, don’t believe in the real died-to-take-away-the-sin-of-the-world Jesus.
We also struggle in our hearts with death. It’s not right! Why did it have to happen to someone we loved? What did he do to deserve this? Why did she get cancer and die? Why did he die from Alzheimer’s? Why did she die from a heart attack? Why? We are beset with all the emotions that come with losing a loved one. We decry the unfairness of it all. We struggle with accepting that our loved ones are gone from this valley of sorrow. Death hurts the survivors. The answer, my friends, is really very simple. The answer is very short. The answer, however, is not one we want to hear. The answer is simply this: sin. St. Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death. God Himself tells us that the soul that sins shall die. That’s what happens to all who sin — to all of us because we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. Like the Psalmist, we were all conceived and born in sin, sin we inherited from our parents going all the way back to Adam and Eve, sin we pass along to our children, sin which will kill us, sin which will kill you and me. What does this mean for us? It means we need to repent of our sins.
This also means God graciously forgives all who come to Him in repentance and faith. That’s the beauty of God’s grace: He showers us with His love, a love we don’t deserve. God’s love is a self-sacrificing love, coming down from heaven so that His only-begotten Son Jesus would bring us to our heavenly home, where our loved ones who have gone before us in the faith now reside. That divine self-sacrifice came as Jesus died on the cross to take away the sin of the world, including the sins of our forebears in the faith, as well as your sins and mine.
Jesus took all of our sins, the sins of the whole world, upon Himself and became our sin, dying our death upon the cross. Jesus faced total separation from God so we wouldn’t have to. Jesus experienced hell while on the cross so we wouldn’t have to face it at all. Jesus died to give us life — eternal life! But wait. There’s more. Jesus rose again the third day according to the scriptures. What does this mean to the Christian? It means that death is not your last stop. It means you will see the fullness of eternal life that God promised you at your baptism. It means you will behold the Living Word who through your pilgrimage proclaimed His saving Word to you, for His words are spirit and they are life! It means you will one day no longer have any need for the Lord’s Supper, no longer have any need to receive the forgiveness of sins, no longer have any need for the foretaste of the feast to come because you will be at that marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. It means you will one day be part of all the company of heaven, thanks be to God!
Mark Schlamann is pastor of First Lutheran Church in Tooele.