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One of the most unusual elements of the Christian gospel is the fact that we celebrate the death of our leader. For most movements, for most religions, for most kingdoms or empires, the death of the leader is a moment of instability, chaos, disillusionment. But Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause I came to this hour” (Jn. 12:27). Or: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to me. This He said, signifying what death He should die” (Jn. 12:31-33). Jesus says that His entire life has been leading up to this point, and His death will be His great victory.
The first Christians came to understand that because of this and because of the way Jesus died, something radical had changed about the nature of death and therefore the death of every Christian. Paul would say, “to live is Christ but to die is gain.” Or he would remind the Corinthians that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord, and to put off this mortal body was to be one step closer to putting on an incorruptible body. And Paul says of his own impending death, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8). Paul looks forward to his death, seeing a crown laid up for him to be given to him on that day.
Ignatius, an elder in the Church in Antioch was arrested around 110 A.D. and sent to Rome. According to tradition, on the way he wrote a letter and sent it ahead to the Christians in Rome, begging them not to try to deliver him from martyrdom because that would deprive him of what he most longed for and hoped for. He wrote: “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing of visible or invisible things so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking bones and tearing limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus.” And when he was sentenced to be fed to lions and could hear their roaring, he was filled with desire to suffer for Christ and said, “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread.”
Athanasius describes the power of the cross like this: “A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offense against it and, instead of fearing it… trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest men were afraid of death and mourned the dead as those who perish… But now death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed… even children hasten to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women who used to be taken in by it, mock it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength… is it a slight indication of the Savior’s victory over [death] when boys and young girls who are in Christ look beyond this present life and train themselves to die? Everyone is by nature afraid of death; the marvel of marvels is that he who is enfolded in the faith of the cross despises this natural fear and for the sake of the cross is no longer cowardly in the face of it.”
Part of the way Christians lived out this boldness, part of how they trampled on death, despising the shame – was by their care for the dead. In the record of Polycarp’s martyrdom by stabbing and burning, the narrator says that Christians collected his bones, considering them “more precious than costly stones and more excellent than gold, and interred them in a decent place. There, the Lord will permit us, as far as possible, to assemble in rapturous joy and celebrate his martyrdom – his birthday – both in order to commemorate the heroes that have gone before, and to train and prepare the heroes yet to come.” Polycarp’s death day was considered his birthday, and they fully intended to celebrate.
You may know that in the early church, the first Christians sometimes gathered in the catacombs, burial grounds outside cities in the Roman Empire. From St. Stephen to Polycarp and beyond, Christians were known for caring for their own dead, and very soon this expanded to care for anyone who died. When plagues ravaged cities, pagans would flee while Christians stayed behind caring for the sick, burying the dead. Because of this care, Christians often tended the graves and cemeteries. Christians were often the grave keepers, the cemetery wardens. But as Christianity flourished and began owning land and building churches, they didn’t abandon the graves. Strikingly, they stayed with the dead. Many churches were built on the ancient cemeteries outside the cities. Other cemeteries were dug up, and the bodies were brought inside the city and reinterred inside and under existing churches. Sometimes when a missionary went out to plant a new church, he would take the bodies of saints with him to be buried on the site of the new church.
Is this creepy? Is this morbid? Superstitious? The Bible calls death the last enemy that will be put under Jesus’ feet at the end. And yet, even now this enemy has been defanged. “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56-57). Or Hebrews: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15) — That through death, He might destroy him who had the power of death.
In popular myth, Death is a monster come to prey on the mortal. His name is Hades, the god of the underworld. He is the Grim Reaper; or Thanatos, the winged messenger of death. The Irish called him Dulahan and the Scottish, cu Sith. In Hindu lore, it was Yama or Yamaraja, literally, the “lord of death.” Death comes like a demon, like a twisted spirit, a laughing skeleton, a foul suffocating breeze, a demented bureaucrat.
But when John saw Jesus on the Island of Patmos and fell at his feet as though dead, Jesus laid His right hand on him, and said, “Do not be afraid, I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives and was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore. And I have the keys of Hades and Death.” Who holds the power of death? Who is the Lord of Death? The One who holds the keys holds the power. Who holds the keys? Our Jesus.
In some ways the old stories are true, or they used to be true. There was once a Grim Reaper, Satan the Accuser, the Dragon of Old, the Devil, who held all men in the power of death, through the fear of death. And this is what we feared: we feared the justice of death. Every son and daughter of Adam knows they have sinned, they have rebelled, they have committed treason, they have rejected His grace. Everyone has turned aside and gone astray. But our Jesus endured the curse. Our Jesus suffered for sin. Our Jesus exhausted the wrath of God against sin, and now Satan has nothing. Christ took it all. Christ paid it all. And now when the Great Accuser looks down at his list, every sin, every fault, every failure, every betrayal, every evil deed, every lustful thought, every backbiting word, every abusive act, every accusation has been blotted out with the precious blood of Jesus and Satan has nothing on you.
There would be abuses and confusions that grew up in the Middle Ages. Relics and superstitions would blind and distract many from the central point of the gospel, but there is a reason why churches have so often been built in the graveyards. There is a reason why cemeteries have been planted around churches. There’s a reason why Christians are comfortable around the dead. It is because Christians are not afraid of death anymore. It is because Jesus holds the keys of Hades and Death in His hand. It is because our Savior has crushed the head of the Serpent on His cross. The prince of this world has been cast out. It is because our sins have been blotted out by His blood. It is because Satan has nothing on us. It is because there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and nothing can separate us from His love.
And so now even death must serve Him. Jesus broke the Satanic power of death, the meaninglessness of death, the nothingness of death, the punishment of death, and our Jesus has commandeered the vessel. Now death serves our Jesus. He holds the keys. So now, not only was the death of Jesus a crucial blow to death, now all who are joined to Him have a life to give, have a death to die. Now every Christian death is another blow to the Kingdom of darkness; every Christian body is a bomb ticking in the earth ready to blow at the last day. So we go willingly, we go gladly, we go to receive a crown. We stand with our Jesus who holds Death in His hand, ready to be used at His bidding. And we stand with all the saints who have gone before. We stand with the bones of Abraham and David and Stephen and Polycarp; we stand in the shadow of the graves of Sarah and Deborah and Esther and Mary. And we stand with a host of triumphant heroes whom we have known and loved, who have now received their crowns and have won their victories over death and the dark. We stand with Cesar Escobar, Luke Wullenwaber, Bessie Wilson, Levi Hicks, Justice Sumpter, Benedict O’Donnell, Mike Rench, Fran Atwood, Joel King, Sharon Howell, Jim Kirtly, Gwenyth Appel, Luke Hurt, Betty Appel, Chandler Carlson, Carolyn Gallagher, Alexa Wilson, Lois Garfield, and many, many more. For “they overcame the [Dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.” (Rev. 12:11)
In the new heavens and new earth “God will wipe away every tear; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain” (Rev. 21:4). But in the meantime, we are not afraid of death. Our King has tasted death for all, and so we eat and drink death at His table. We are at home in the graveyard, and we dance in the cemetery. Death has no more power here because our Jesus was crucified for sin, and now He lives forever more.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.