Promises In Death
“This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said these words before he was executed in 1945 by the German Nazi regime. Even on his way to the gallows where he would hang by a wire, he was praying and proclaiming Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; the promise that gave him hope, even in certain death. Dietrich was acutely aware that his life on this earth, though very short, was not the end, but the beginning of life eternal in the Resurrection. For in Christ, whoever believes, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die (John 11:25-26).
It’s easy to trust in these promises when death seems far off. But what about when you meet it head on? When death is looking right at you with its dark, cold, sinister eyes, daring you to question its power. When you gaze into a casket upon the man holding his grandmother’s rosary and know that he is not going to open his eyes again. When death takes your husband in the middle of the night when you expected at least a dozen more years with him. How can we be certain of the promises that God gives to all who are in Christ?
Death struck the Family of God, again, twice over the weekend in dramatically different ways. About a month ago, a young man and his father began coming to the church. They were down on their luck, living in a van that traveled around the neighborhood and looking for any way to make a few extra dollars. Dad was working under the table (no taxes) and they were waiting on the son’s disability check so that they could get a new place and begin again. It was the perfect beginning to another “Just One More” success story for the Family of God. Until one rainy Sunday when Dad showed up to tell us that his son had overdosed in their van the previous night. He was 36 years old.
Disbelief and shock. Two weeks later, on Friday, Pastor Hill and I stared at this young man in the casket, arms crossed, donning his best suit, shiny earrings, and nicely trimmed and shaped beard. A good-looking young man. My heart absolutely shattered when his five kids came up to the casket, sobbing and asking, “When is daddy going to wake up?” What do you say to a four-year-old boy who has just lost his daddy? As we prepared our remarks at the funeral home, I asked the young man’s father if his son was baptized. He proudly said “yes, as a baby.” And so, we proclaimed at the beginning of the service, “In Holy Baptism, Nick was clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covered all his sin!” A wonderful promise to proclaim in the face of death.
The following Sunday was met with even more news of death (when it rains it pours, doesn’t it?). One of our staple members, who had been in and out of church during the Covid-19 pandemic, suddenly passed away in the middle of the night. His wife of 47 years, through tears on the phone, said to me, “He took his heart medication, plopped into the bed, we said goodnight, and that was it.” He never woke up. What do you say to a woman who is discombobulated after just losing her husband so suddenly? Especially since they had just started coming back to church darn near every day for the meal and the Bible study.
It was then that it occurred to me. Our Wednesday tradition at Family of God is to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I ran back the security camera to be assured that he was in attendance. Sure enough, at 19:52, he faithfully received the meal that was given to him by his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I wept openly, as I recalled the words that I said to him just four nights ago: “Take, eat and drink, this is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken and shed for you, Charlie, for the forgiveness of your sins.” A wonderful promise to cling to in the face of death.
Jesus gives us tangible promises, means of grace, to cling to in our times of trouble – moments when we stare down death, but fearless of its power. For Nick, it was the promise that was given and sealed in his Baptism 36 years ago. In Romans 6:4 Paul writes, “We were buried therefore with (Christ) by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” A promise of the certain resurrection when Christ returns to earth to usher in the new heaven and earth.
For Charlie, this promise was more recent. This promise was consumed in the partaking of a simple meal. Bread and wine that is also the body and blood of Jesus, his Savior. In John 6:54 Jesus promises us that “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks of my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” A promise of the certain resurrection when Christ returns to earth to usher in the new heaven and earth.
It is in the promises given in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper that Nick and Charlie have forgiveness and victory. It is in these promises that they will be raised up on the Last Day. It is precisely these promises that have released them, and you, from the chains of sin and the power of death, which no longer have the final say. They sit silent under Christ’s feet. For it is Christ that has the final say. And he says to you, “You are set free!” Free from sin, death, and the devil.
And if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. It is in this wonderful, beautiful, and complete promise that I know with absolute certainly that I will see Nick and Charlie again. For us it is not the end. But the beginning of life.
Thank you, Jesus.