Acquainted with Death

by

Many today boast of near-death experiences. I do not. I have never had a near-death experience. But I am not intimidated by those who have, because I can boast, too. I have never been near death, but I have died many times.

Before I was born, I was living in a warm and cozy, if somewhat damp, environment, minding my business and sucking my thumb. Birth was a death for me, a death to the womb, a death to protection and security, a death to a life of blissful and careless dependency. I cried when I was born, not because I was being born but because I was dying. And I had not yet heard that there was a Resurrection.

Just when home had become another womb, I was forced out into the wide world of kindergarten. I died, and cried, again. For some reason, eating at school was particularly traumatic, and I can remember my mother, kindest soul, visiting during lunch to comfort me.

Many years later, I sat on the front row of a small church in Birmingham, Ala., during my ordination service. The pastor who was assigned the task of exhorting me told me that my ordination was a call to die and that I was being set apart to pour myself out like a drink offering for the sake of the people of that church. My ordination was not just a call to death, it was itself a death. As hands were laid on me, what I had been—a lay church member—ceased to exist, and a new man was made, a pastor.

I left that pastorate after six years. We had and still have many dear friends in that church, and leaving there was like toppling a tree whose roots have burrowed deeper than anyone can know. Weeks later, my wife and I, along with our seven children, found ourselves standing at the bus station in Cambridge, England, far from friends and relatives, and having absolutely no idea how to get where we wanted to go. I did not cry, but I wondered that night as I stared, sleepless and jet-lagged, at the shadows on the ceiling of our room in St. Peter’s Terrace, whether the death of leaving my pastorate would be followed by a resurrection. Was this the end of my life or its beginning?

I have died many times. So have you, for life is a series of such deaths.

To speak of resurrection is to say that death never has the last word, that a rising is promised for every dying, a new beginning for every ending. To trust in Jesus the Risen One is to trust that God will call us to new life after each death. This is the Gospel that we need to hear in the midst of a world of death and deaths.

And it is the Gospel that has always been preached and heard. True faith has always been resurrection faith. What has Abraham, our forefather, found? “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac … concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense” (Heb. 11:17–19). Abraham was confident that Isaac would be resurrected because Isaac’s very conception was a kind of resurrection. He “did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (Rom. 4:19b). Death did not discourage him, but instead he hoped against hope, “strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform” (Rom. 4:20b). Abraham believed the God “who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Rom. 4:17b). Trudging up to the peak of Moriah alongside his son, Abraham did not waver in faith, for he walked beside his son, who had risen from the dead once before.

And what have the apostles, our fathers, found? They were traitors all, cowards in the face of the Jews’ attack on Jesus, sheep who fled when the shepherd was struck, leaving Him to die alone. The cross was for them the end of hope (Luke 24:21), the end of their dreams for Jesus and for themselves. Judas betrayed Jesus to the Jews, but the other apostles were likewise complicit in His death.

Still, these men were among the first to see the risen Jesus. As Rowan Williams has put it, the apostles were preached to before they began to preach, and the message they heard and believed was the message of resurrection. Easter after Calvary means, for us as for the apostles, “that our betrayal is not the ultimate fact in the world. We may betray, but the world characterized by betrayal is now interwoven with a reality incapable of betrayal.… The incarnate truth, ‘risen from the dead,’ establishes that faithfulness as the ground of inexhaustible hope in the world, even in the midst of our self-deceits.” The cross was the foundation for reconciliation, and the Resurrection brought that reconciliation to reality, as the Betrayed re-established table fellowship with His betrayers (John 21). Resurrection is not just a moment in the life story of the apostles or of those who have believed through their witness. If we stopped with that, we would be liberals. Resurrection is also, and more fundamentally, a moment in the life story of Jesus. He died as a convicted criminal, condemned to a form of execution reserved for rebels against the Roman state. But that verdict was not endorsed by heaven. In the Resurrection, God passed His verdict in the cases of Jesus vs. Rome and Jesus vs. Judaism, reversing the decisions of the human courts and judges, and declaring Him to be “the Son of God with power” (Rom. 1:4). The Resurrection was the vindication of Jesus and the vindication of all He claimed. As Richard Gaffin has pointed out, this is what Paul meant when he spoke of the one who had been “manifested in the flesh [and] justified in the Spirit” (1 Tim. 3:16); he was saying Jesus was vindicated by the Resurrection. If Jesus did not rise, then the sentences passed by the Pilates, Herods, and Caiaphases of this world stand unchallenged, and we can only conclude that God the Father has conceded the victory to them.

This is why the Resurrection is as essential to our justification as the death of Jesus. If Jesus had died and remained dead, the public verdict on Him would have remained “Guilty as charged.” But the Father did not let that verdict stand. He passed His own verdict on Jesus, and when He did so, He passed His verdict on us as well, we who were chosen “in Him” before the foundation of the world. Because we are in Jesus, and because Jesus has been declared the Righteous One in His resurrection, we also are declared righteous. He was “delivered up because of our offenses,” Paul writes, “and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25).

And more, the Resurrection that is a moment in the life story of Jesus is the key moment in the life story of creation. Because of Adam’s sin, death spread to all men, until the world was one great boiling pot of death and deadly threats. Death reigned. Death, for example, was at the heart of the Old Testament system of uncleanness. If an Israelite made love to his wife at certain times, he became unclean, a form of death. If she had a child, she became unclean. If he attended his father’s funeral, he became defiled by the corpse, even if all he did was enter the room. If a blemish appeared on his arm, he had to go see a priest, who would determine whether it was skin disease; his skin might be dying. For Paul, the whole creation participated in death, subject to futility (Rom. 8:20–21).

Death reigned, but it reigns no longer. I can make love to my wife on Sunday morning, then get up and go to church. I can embrace the breathless body of my mother and not have her death spread to me. However pockmarked my skin becomes, it will not keep me from the presence of God. And all these reversals of the reign of death are promises that the creation-wide corruption that is not yet overcome will someday be reversed as well.

But Jesus’ resurrection is not only a promise of future resurrection and of the future restoration of creation. It is the actual beginning of that process. For old covenant Israel, the resurrection was an event hoped for at the end of days, an eschatological event, the event that would usher in a new world. In the midst of the history of death, God began to reverse death. Resurrection is not only something promised, but a present reality, and we enjoy the down payment of that promise. We who are in Christ not only have died with Him, we also are raised with Him to new life and know His resurrection power working in us (Eph. 1:15–23).

A Gospel without resurrection is, as Paul emphasized, no Gospel at all (1 Cor. 15:12–19). If there were no resurrection, Abraham would have been left without an heir, his future, and the future of God’s promise, doomed by Sarah’s barrenness. If there were no resurrection, the apostles would have been left without hope. Their last memories of Jesus would have been the mangled body on the cross and the solemn closing of the tomb. After three years of sharing Jesus’ table, they would have been left to stew in self-reproach and memories of betrayal, without hope that they would ever drink the cup anew in the kingdom of heaven. If there were no resurrection, the crying newborn would be doomed forever to mourn the loss of his first home.

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