Life, Death, and Resurrection
Posted On March 9, 2023
These three words make up a central tenet of our faith. But do we really grasp what it is we are saying when we say we believe these things?
The easiest one may be life because we are living. We think we know what life is. We are most familiar with it after all. But are we? Do we live life to the fullest? Or do we block of parts of life? Do we wall off parts of life that we prefer not to experience? Do we compartmentalize portions of life?
What is life after all? Isn’t life a full range of things – some pleasant and some not so pleasant. Life is composed of joy and suffering, happy and sad, sickness and health, good and bad, a full range. In fact, it’s more than all of that because it’s not just opposites. It’s more like a scale that keeps shifting. It’s never an all or nothing situation. Our culture wants us to believe that we live in some kind of all or nothing world, a sort of A or B only type of world. But that world doesn’t exist. It never has. That kind of simplicity is unrealistic – a fantasy. Or actually a nightmare. Who would want to live in a world where the contrast is so stark that crossing a line puts you into one option or the other without any complexity or perplexity? Without a third or fourth or any other option? Without the possibility of seeing the unity of both options, and that maybe, just maybe both are wrong and right at the same time?
What is life? What does it mean for the church? And what do we assume about life? One unspoken assumption that I think exists about life in the church is that churches and congregations are supposed to live forever and that churches and congregations that close or die are somehow failures. That’s the unspoken assumption. You can hear it whenever conversation comes up about a congregation that is talking about closing. You can also hear it in a different way in the pride of a congregation when they talk about being open for 150 or 250 years – like they are somehow beating death.
But what of Paul’s congregations – none of them exist today. Were those congregations a failure? I don’t think they were. They were lively and Spirit-filled. They carried out the mission. They existed for a time. They were the very definition of life.
And like all things that live, their time of life came to an end.
See, we struggle with the second word of our three word tenet – death. We don’t like the word. If we are honest and vulnerable, we would say that there is a sense of finality to it. Oh we know the theology. We know that death has been defeated. We intellectually believe in resurrection, but do we really believe? We intellectually believe, but in practice, do we really believe? Or are we just agnostic – doubting. And so what if we are?
Death is a scary thing because we aren’t in control after all. Maybe that’s why we struggle with it. Control. Our biggest challenge. We want control. We’ve control since the garden. We want to know and we want to be in control. That’s what the Fall was all about after all. We want to be like gods. Death reminds us that we aren’t in control. And so we struggle with it. Death reminds us of humility, that we need God. That we can’t save ourselves. Ash Wednesday is an in our face (quite literally) reminder of our mortality – remember that you are dust and to dust you will return. You are going to die. And there is nothing you can do about it. How very humbling.
How do we handle this in the church? Not very well. We’ve gotten worse about this I think, especially as we’ve seen decline happen in the church. We have people who have turned to nostalgia – to some time in the past, or to a time that never existed. People who yearn for the past as a time that was the best of the church, instead of what we have been claiming all along – that the best is yet to come. The best is yet to come – yes, even with the decline of the institution and membership and money and the church as the center of the culture, etc. Yes, the best days of the church are yet to come because the facade of the church and the fairness that goes with it will be washed away. Not that everything was fake, it certainly wasn’t. There was plenty of good things. But there was plenty that wasn’t too – abuse that was covered up, narcissism, toxic cultures in congregations, congregations and pastors who refused to work with anyone else, congregations who turned inward and became members only clubs. All of that needs to die off. Death can be a cleansing.
You see, there’s opportunity that the church has never embraced when it comes to the second tenet in these three words. Because I think there has been fear around the idea of death in recent time. We even fear using the word. But why? I thought we believed that death didn’t have the final say, right? But we sure do act like it does.
Here’s an opportunity – what if we launched a congregation that knew when it was going to “die.” In other words, a mission launch that had a set date of when it would end – a death date. A congregation that from the very beginning lived into the very idea of life, death, and resurrection. Pick a time frame – 25 years? A generation? 75 years – a lifetime? Take a pick. All living things die eventually. It’s natural. It should be natural for institutions as well.
I wonder how knowing when you would close would impact what the structure would look like. I wonder how knowing when you would close would impact the congregation’s mission and ministry, its staffing, its use of resources, and so much more. I wonder how it would move towards that death date and consider resurrection and what the options of resurrection would look like. I wonder how death would be approached and mourned and life celebrated and appreciated. So much to consider.
Which leads to resurrection. You can’t get to resurrection until you go through death. You can’t. It’s just not possible. Death is the letting go of things. Of everything. Control being the biggest thing we have to let go of. How do we let go of control in the church? I think we’re terrible at letting go of control in the church. We’re an institution after all and institutions exist to maintain the status quo, which is all about control. Imagine what it would mean to let go of control in the church? To stop trying to put God in a box. To stop trying to push people to only know about God from a head knowledge perspective, but to actually encounter God in a full body manner – physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, etc. To unleash God. Wow. That would certainly rattle the folks who live in a A/B world where there are only two options and you are either in one or the other.
But resurrected life doesn’t play by the rules of life per-death. It’s different. It’s set free. It looks different too. It encounters God differently. It sees the world differently. It knows differently. It sees death differently. Without fear. Because why fear something which cannot destroy you.
What would resurrection in the church mean? It would be bold, but not arrogant. It would be loving. It would not be reactive, but would certainly respond. It would not accommodate the desire for personal comfort over justice. It would not ignore or make excuses. It would not label or scapegoat. It would not attach itself to ideologies or politicians or economic systems. It would offer a way forward that moves the church and the world towards shalom – towards wholeness, completeness. It would create environments where people encounter God as fully as possible. It would help people to see the image of God in others as much as possible. It would help people to participate in the unfolding of the reign of God right here and right now in ways that transform lives, systems, communities, and more.
Imagine life, death, and resurrection lived. Imagine embracing these three words as fully as we can. Imagine the church taking them from faith ideas to living faith models that transform lives and communities. Imagine.