On Death

For some time, I have felt Death’s shadow cast over our path as our church, society, world, and many of us individually walk through an unending valley (Psalm 23:4). More recently, I resonate with First Peter’s observation: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (5:8). First Peter identifies our adversary as “the devil,” whose existence we can debate. I identify our adversary as Death in all its forms, whose prowling, devouring reality we cannot deny. 

Make no mistake. I am not publicly pleading for personal pastoral care. I am naming an existential reality that has reared its ugly head. Like a roaring lion, our adversary Death prowls around looking for someone to devour. Not that many years ago, I regularly conversed with people who challenged the gospel because they considered death natural, even necessary, for humanity and the planet to evolve. COVID-19 changed that perspective as Death became personal, powerful, pervasive, and, for a time, completely out of our control. 

I capitalize “Death” to emphasize just how personal, powerful, and pervasive Death is. Lewiston is the latest in the long list of communities where Death reigned, a list that includes Oxford and East Lansing, because our society seems to love our guns more than our children. We seem to think the ability to align ourselves with Death by protecting our right to pull the trigger will somehow protect and preserve us from Death. Now Death wars in Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Gaza. Closer to home, I can only say that cancer has become my hated, dreaded enemy for the lives it claimed. Death may be natural. Parents burying their children and congregations burying their pastor is not.

And Death is not content confining itself to devouring individuals. For some time now, like a hungry lion, Death has prowled around, looking to devour tangible expressions of Christ’s Church. In the same way we refer to our loved ones dying as “passing,” so we speak of congregations celebrating their “holy closure” and “completing their ministry.” Even when closing is the right decision, it brings the sting of Death. On All Saints Day, I remembered and prayed for the 17 congregations that died during my time as bishop. I prayed fully aware that there are more deaths of congregations to come.

When we can point to congregations celebrating their 150th anniversary, we can forget or deny that, like all living things, congregations have lifespans. We mistakenly conclude that churches are meant to endure forever. The death of congregations can be somewhat more acceptable when they have a long and revered history. But when their lives are short, when we know and remember those who invested so much of themselves to establish and maintain a congregation, or when we are those people ourselves, or when we have fought so hard to prolong a congregation’s life, we can be tempted to look for a reason, a person, a decision, or a circumstance that we can name as the cause of Death, someone or something that we can hold accountable for not defeating Death. Then, we think, at least we can make sure that no congregation will ever die again. 

Like a roaring lion, our adversary Death prowls around looking for someone to devour. Confronted by our own death, the death of a loved one, or the death of a congregation, we can blame, we can punish, and perhaps we can keep Death at bay, at least for a time. We cannot prevent Death. We cannot overcome Death. We cannot resurrect from Death…

[I invite you to pause and take this in, as I did, before reading on.]

Thankfully, Jesus can. Thankfully, Jesus does. Jesus resurrects. Jesus overcomes. Yet, Jesus does not prevent Death or keep Death forever at bay. Jesus tells a certain parable that I have come to love: “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house” (Mark 3:27). One interpretation of this parable holds that Jesus is referring to our adversary, whether we name “the strong man” the devil or Death.

Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) asserts that, to “bind” the devil and Death, Jesus, though innocent, allowed himself to be executed on the cross, thereby entering “the strong man’s house” or Satan’s dominion of death. Jesus overcame Satan through innocent suffering and plundered his property, namely, freeing humanity held captive by Satan in sin and death. 

Augustine’s understanding grows out of Christians’ reflection, since the second century, on the New Testament’s testimony about the cross, as a curse on the one hand and a ransom on the other (Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 1:18–19). In some passages, Jesus saved us by succumbing to evil in death but then victoriously overcoming it. In other texts, Jesus allowed Satan to seize him as the “ransom” in exchange for which Satan frees the descendants of Adam and Eve [Luke 11:21–22; Mark 10:45). The good news is that, while Death is inevitable, thanks to Jesus, Death is not invincible.

So, whether we are devoured by Death, held hostage by Death, or killing ourselves with our feeble attempts to outrun Death or keep Death at bay, Jesus delivers us from Death. More precisely, Jesus delivers us through death to new life. And this is as true for our beloved churches as it is for our beloved ones and for us ourselves.  

Notice I switched to a lowercase “d” to name death as a sign that death loses its power, its victory, its sting. We can live in confidence and hope, especially when the shadow of death is cast over our path as our church, society, world, and we ourselves walk through an unending  valley.

Pastor Sarah Samuelson recently said to me, “Sometimes it stinks. And all we have is Jesus. Thankfully, we do. We have Jesus.” Preach it, Pastor Sarah! It’s what we need to hear! Amen.

Walking alongside you,

The Rev. Craig Alan Satterlee, Ph.D., Bishop

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