It may not be the most pleasant and cheery topic to talk about, but today we’re going to talk about death. What are we to think about it? How are we to think about it? And maybe the most important thing to say here is simply that we should think about death, because it’s going to happen to all of us. Unless our Lord comes again before we die, none of us are going to escape the experience of death. And so, we should think it. We should think about what it is – and isn’t, what comes next – and doesn’t.
Of all people, the Christian ought to be able to think and speak about death without fear or avoidance or having to dance around the topic. Because the very heart and soul of the faith that we confess is based on death – the death of our Lord – who was not at all hesitant to speak about death, and who wants us to think deeply about our own dying and death IN THE LIGHT OF HIS.
We believe and confess that Jesus Christ died and was buried and on the 3rd day, rose from the dead. If we are willing to learn anything at all about death from Jesus Christ, we ought to learn at least these two things: first, death is not the end of life – which apart from Jesus Christ is about the only conclusion you could reasonably come to. And second, the life that comes after death is somehow mysteriously all wrapped up in the afterlife of Christ Himself.
In our epistle reading for today, we heard St. Paul speak hopefully and confidently about his death. And we want to draw from his hope and confidence to think and speak the same way about our own death. “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Paul compares his physical body to a tent. If anyone knows something about tents, Paul certainly does having been a tentmaker by trade. Tents are meant to be temporary living quarters, not permanent. As tents get older they start to sag in certain places and it doesn’t hang on the poles the way it used to, and sometimes it leaks. (It shouldn’t be too hard to see the connection.)
Tents are for people on a journey. When Israel was on the move from Egypt to the Promised Land, they lived in tents. Even God lived in a tent – the Tabernacle. But once you reach your final destination, you want something permanent. And that’s the way Paul describes our life after death.
- From ‘TENT’ to ‘BUILDING.’
- From ‘MADE WITH HANDS,’ to ‘NOT MADE WITH HANDS.’
- From ‘DESTROYED’ to ‘ETERNAL IN THE HEAVENS.’
Paul is talking about the PHYSICAL BODY. When writing to the Philippians, he puts it like this, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform OUR LOWLY BODY TO BE LIKE HIS GLORIOUS BODY, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21).
What Paul makes clear here is that ‘death’ is NEITHER THE END OF LIFE, NOR IS THE A ‘BODILESS’ EXISTENCE. In fact, the physical body that you have now will be your spiritual body after death. Christ our Lord will TRANSFORM our LOWLY BODY TO BE LIKE HIS GLORIOUS BODY. He will TRANSFORM this saggedy and leaky old tent into a BUILDING, ETERNAL IN THE HEAVENS.
And where does Paul get this? Not from the philosophers and spiritual gurus or new age movement of his day that had nothing more than their imagination to go by.
No, Paul gets this radical idea about the transformation of the earthly body after death from Jesus Christ, who was raised WITH A BODY – that is physical – see the marks of the nails and the spear and that gets hungry and asks for something to eat.
But it’s not same kind of physical as it was. With this body, Jesus walks right through locked doors and ascends into heaven – and is present in, with and under bread and wine – a GLORIOUS BODY.
If there is one thing that the Christian faith has no room for, it’s the idea that our physical bodies are nothing more than disposable containers to be flushed away or thrown to the wind or scattered here and there at death. The Judeo / Christian tradition of setting aside plots of land for cemeteries for the purpose of reverently marking the location of a believer’s body, is the confession of faith that God is not finished with this body – but will transform this body from a tent to a building, eternal in the heavens – as only He is able to do.
When Paul thinks about death – his own death – he puts it like this, “For in this tent, we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened – not that we would be unclothed but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
This “groaning” that Paul says ‘we’ all do as long as we are in this ‘earthly tent’ hardly requires an explanation. We all know what this “groaning” is.
- It’s the “groaning” of the aches and pains and sickness and diseases and the ‘aging process.’
- It’s the ‘groaning’ of Israel in Egypt because of their slavery. (Ex.2:23)
- It’s the “groaning” of Job, “my groanings are poured out like water.” (Job 3:24).
- It’s the “groaning” of the Psalmist who prays, “Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my groaning.” “For when I kept silent I wasted away for my groaning all day long.” “I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” (Psalm 5:1; 32:3; 38:8).
This “groaning” is not just physical. It’s also the emotional and psychological pains and weariness of everyday life in this world, filled with sin and frustration and disappointment that causes us to “groan.”
In his “groaning,” Paul does not long to get rid of his body. He does not want to be “found naked.” Ever since sin entered the world, ‘nakedness’ and ‘shame’ go together. The Greeks were famous for their statues and paintings displaying the naked body. But never the Jews. The terrible ‘shame’ of the cross was that the crucified hung naked, totally unclothed.
We do not want to be NAKED SPIRIT or NAKED SOUL. But rather, says Paul, we want to be “further clothed.” Clothed with a covering unlike the ‘earthly tent’ but that clothes our spirit in a more glorious and wonderful way. We want to be clothed with the BUILDING, that is ETERNAL IN THE HEAVENS – in which there is no “groaning.”
Listen, when Paul thinks and speaks of death – his death – HE ISN’T THINKING ABOUT THE ‘END OF LIFE.’ He’s thinking about the NEW LIFE that death is the bridge to. He describes is beautifully in this incredible phrase, “that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
Paul is simply building his faith on the word of God from the prophet Isaiah who spoke about how the Messiah would SWALLOW UP DEATH. “And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. HE WILL SWALLOW UP DEATH FOREVER…” (Is. 25:7)
Earlier in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul spoke of death in terms of being “FURTHER COLTHED,” saying that when “the perishable PUTS ON the imperishable, and the mortal PUTS ON immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP IN VICTORY.’” (1 Cor. 15:54).
Paul can think and speak about his death with such confidence and hope because “He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
See how much God wants you to believe Him and put your trust in Him – especially when it comes to thinking and speaking about death? He knows how weak our faith is and how easily we fall into temptations to doubt and disbelief. So He ‘deposits’ the Holy Spirit in you. The Holy Spirit is God’s ‘down payment’ that assures you that He will ‘SWALLOW YOU UP IN LIFE.’
And how can you be confident that God has “given you the Spirit as a guarantee?”
- Don’t rely on your feelings. Feelings change from day to day and you know fickle our feelings can be.
- And don’t rely on the outward circumstances of your life, which are impossible to interpret.
Rely only on His Word, spoken TO YOU, by name, in your Baptism. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you,” says the apostle Peter, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38). You received the Holy Spirit in your baptism. You have God’s guarantee DEPOSITED in you.
And so, “we are always of good courage.” See what thinking about and speaking about DEATH does for your life of faith? Knowing that our life and our death is safely in the hands of the Lord of life and death, we are not paralyzed by fear or timid in our WALK WITH THE LORD. “We are always of good courage.”
“Always!” In good times and bad. In sickness and in health. In times of deep ‘groanings’ AND times of highest “praise.” When we know that our death is all taken care of, and that it’s not only NOT THE END, but the beginning of a new and glorious life with our Lord, “we are always be of good courage.”
“We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Which means that for now, “we walk by faith and not by sight.” We live on this side of the BRIDGE by hearing. We HEAR His Word and we follow His VOICE. But on the other side of the BRIDGE, we will live by SIGHT. We shall SEE HIM as He is.
So, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”
It IS good to think and speak about death – our own death. And we can do so without fear, without tiptoeing around the subject, without avoiding the inescapable reality of death- because our Lord has gone ahead of us. And when we think and speak of death like this, we give a good testimony to others of the wonderful DEPOSIT that the Lord has given us.
Our Lord has swallowed up death forever. And we long to be SWALLOWED UP BY LIFE. But until we are, “we are always of good courage,’, ‘we walk by faith and not by sight,’ and ‘we make it our aim to please him.’