What Is Death?
Last Sunday of the Church Year – A (Proper 29) LSB #’s 345 (tune LW 18), 747 (solo), 697
Text – 1 Corinthians 15:26
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
WHAT IS DEATH?
It sounds like a simple question to answer... until someone begins to question your reply; to dig deeper into the realm of something that all human beings instinctively fear. Death speaks to the very core of everything that is wrong with us, of everything that we cannot control. It’s easy to think we know what death is until someone challenges our answer.
What is death? The medical community would answer – when your heart stops beating, or when there are no more brain waves to detect.
People suffering with Alzheimer’s disease become disoriented with respect to time, place, function & person. With this terrible affliction come depression, personality change & sometimes the inability to remember loved ones. Though technically still alive, to the person whom the family once knew & loved, in a very real sense death has already come.
Maybe you’ve heard or read this verse from Revelation 21: “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, & all liars – their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (21:8 NLT)
From that, it’s clear that God’s Word teaches there is more than one death. In the 2nd chapter of Revelation it seems to refer to two deaths:
“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, & for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, & I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” (2:10-11 ESV)
Then, we can look at the Gospel of John chapter 5: “I tell you the truth, those who listen
to my message & believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life.” (5:24 NLT) There, God teaches that people who are yet alive on this earth have already died & passed into eternal life even though they have not yet suffered physical death.
Physical death, spiritual death, 1st death, 2nd death, dead while alive & alive while dead; the question, “What is death?” is a lot more complicated to answer than people realize. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good & evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17 ESV)
Sin has made such a mess of God’s creation that His highest creatures struggle even to explain what death is. Paul makes it clear in his letter to the church at Corinth that death is our enemy. In fact it’s the enemy of all God’s creation, & it will be the last enemy to be destroyed.
Some of our confusion comes from viewing life & death as mere biological facts. Paul’s proclamation echoes with the OT distinction between “life” & “death.” As Kathryn Tanner points out, the OT views life & death as metaphors for entire ways of living:
“…life refers to fruitfulness & abundance, longevity, communal flourishing & individual well-being, …death is a catch-all for such things as suffering, poverty, barrenness, oppression, social divisiveness & isolation” (Jesus, Humanity & the Trinity, p. 104-105).
Before the people of God are finally about to enter the Promised Land, Moses gives one last speech before God calls him to heaven. He encourages Israel to walk in the ways of God, “…then you shall live & multiply, & the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” (Deuteronomy 30:16 ESV)
Moses there equates life with walking in the ways of God. Then Moses warns them what will happen if they do not walk in the ways of God, “But if your heart turns away, & you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods & serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” (Deuteronomy 30:17-18a ESV) In setting before the people of God the choice between life & death, he equates life with walking in the ways of God, & He equates death with not walking in the ways of God.
“Therefore choose life that you & your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice & holding fast to Him, for He is your life & length of days…” (Deuteronomy 30:19b-20 ESV) Knowing the OT inside & out, this way of understanding life & death stands in the shadows of Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15.
What is death? It’s much more than lacking brain waves or a heartbeat. To be dead is to be separated from the source of life. Jesus is the Way & the Truth & the Life. Sin created a division between us & our Creator. The purpose of God is victory over everything that is against God, the last of which is death itself (15:26).
Standing at the edge of another Promised Land, the resurrected Christ pronounces the final victory of life over death. No more will we be faced with choosing life or death. Now, we endure all the “deaths” we suffer in our daily living knowing that they’ve already been “swallowed up” in the victory of Messiah, the holy Son of God (1 Cor 15:54).
In his letter to the church at Rome Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him 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 newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4 ESV)
That newness of life is so much more than just having brain waves or a heartbeat, even when it appears totally otherwise on the outside. In the Book of 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote the classic verse addressing this issue: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:16-18 ESV)
Those are perfect words to address a disease like Alzheimer’s where the physical body, even the brain waves, are wasting away, yet the inner self, the soul, is being renewed day by day.
All our living & dying is wrapped up within the daily dying & rising of our baptism; the waters that make His victory ours, right here, right now, whether you were baptized 80 years ago, or less than 28 minutes ago. The resurrection from the dead is built into Baptism. There we are united to The Resurrected One, & what is true of Messiah is true of those united to Him.
Even if you have Alzheimer’s disease & your mind is wasting away, as a child of God, that disease is not your identity. As the Lord God said to Ezekiel in the OT lesson, “I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered. …I will bring them into their own land.” (Ezekiel 34: ESV) He’s talking of the final Promised Land – the paradise of heaven.
That is how God has planned the assault on death. It will be destroyed, & will no longer have power or opportunity to destroy our minds & bodies as death does so powerfully today. The final defeat of Death at the general resurrection will constitute the collapse of all resistance to Christ’s power.
Life can be grim, dreary & even brutal. But the guarantee of the resurrection of the body & life everlasting in Christ Jesus cheers the child of God, the one who lives his life by the faith in the Son of God Who loved him & gave His life for him.
Paul, in the final verses of the Epistle reading, envisions the Last Day as the moment when Christ’s reign will be complete. It’s the day when His selfless ministry of mercy will be vindicated, & those of us who, like Him, were ready & willing to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel will be declared alive – forever! Amen.
No saint on earth lives life to self alone or dies alone, for we with Christ are one. So if we live, for alone we live, & if we die, to Christ our dying give. In living & in dying this confess: We are the Lord’s, safe in God’s faithfulness. For to this end our Lord by death was slain, that to new life He might rise again. Through sorrow on to triumph Christ has led, & reigns over all: the living & the dead. In living & in dying, Him we bless; we are the Lord’s, safe in God’s faithfulness. Amen. LSB 747.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet