Religion That Helps You Die
This past week, Time Magazine ran a number of articles and vignettes on what one might do to live a longer life. And this was great news! After all, death is the worst! We’re all trying to avoid it, or at least put it off as long as possible. So, thankfully, Time Magazine has the secrets you need to live longer, happier!
One of the vignettes, written by one Jamie Ducharme, was entitled: Do Religious People Live Longer? It’s a short read, so you may want to take a look. But, if you aren’t much for reading short pieces on the Internet let me give you the quick answer: Yes! Hot dog! People who regularly attend some sort of worship service are more likely to live longer.
According to the article, regular church (or mosque, or temple) attendance provides all sorts of benefits that contribute to a long life. When you belong to a religious organization you have a “network of social support, an optimistic attitude, better self-control and a sense of purpose in life.” One doctor suggests it is the values religious institutions instill “such as ‘respect, compassion, gratitude, charity, humility, harmony, meditation and preservation of health’—that seem to predict longevity, not the dogma preached at the altar.” In other words, there is a real healthy cash value in going to your local religious establishment!
Now, I suppose as a pastor I should be happy about this sort of PR. I mean, I should probably be adding this kind of information to some tracts and taking it door-to-door. “Come to church! It’s good for you!” Shoot, I could even offer some kind of diet plan based on various texts from Daniel and Ezekiel 4:12 to really emphasize how Jesus came so we could live life to the fullest! I mean, this is great, isn’t it? What kind of pastor trying to draw people to church wouldn’t be happy to promote this sort of information? You’d have to be all kinds of cynical not to be encouraged by such news.
Well, call me all kinds of cynical. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to know that prayer and church attendance are good for us. I suppose it makes sense. God created us to live as creatures of faith and love, so prayer and community are going to be good, not just for the soul, but for these bodies God made.
But, it’s just that there’s one line from the piece that seems to stick in my craw. You saw it, didn’t you? Here it is again: “The values…seem to predict longevity, not the dogma preached at the altar.” Right. Because, at least in the Christian church, the “dogma preached from the altar” (or even the pulpit…) won’t promote long life at all! In fact, if it is dogma coming from the mouth of Jesus, it is going to bring death.
See, Jesus isn’t really thinking about how many years he can “tack-on” when he says:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” – Mark 8:34-36
Or, as Bonhoeffer summarizes, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.”
Well, now, this is beginning to sound bleak, isn’t it? Sure. But, fear not, we have something far better than mere longevity in mind. See, for the Christian, church is not about us being happy and healthy at all. It’s better than that. It is about Jesus; Jesus for us (specifically you!) to be sure. But, Jesus nonetheless. And, Jesus just may need you to die. He just may need to put to death anything in you that is standing in the way of your faith in Him. In fact, that is part of the whole deal: Jesus’ Law putting you to death; Jesus finding that old sinful you and putting you and your passions and desires on the cross (Gal 5:24). It is a return to your baptism where you were crucified (put to death) with Christ in His death (Rom 6:4-5).
We go to church to die!
I wonder what the saints and martyrs would think of such a life-worshipping faith as they were going from church to the coliseum. One wonders if there would be any place for a guy like Job who says, “Though He slay me, yet I will hope in him…” (Job 13:15). In our context, I wonder if anyone can still say these sorts of things. In fact, how could Job say that? Because, he knew that whatever death God may have brought about, there is a greater life that is beyond it! Not merely longer life in this veil of tears (something Job wasn’t all that keen on), but a life of resurrection.
Now, resurrection can only follow upon death. The good news is, it will! That is why God must put us to death when we gather to hear His Word, so that He might bring us to life! Life in His Son, true life in Jesus Christ. God must crucify us in our flesh so that He can raise us so that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us! (Gal 2:20)
I believe it was a pastor by the name of Ken Korby who said, “We should approach the Lord’s Supper like we are going to our grave, so that, we can approach our grave like we are going to the Lord’s Supper.” In either instance, we are going to see Jesus! When we have received Jesus, we no longer need to pursue a long life in this world, we simply trust that whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (Rom 14:8) As Luther writes:
“If we were able to believe firmly that God will keep His promises and that the oath with which He has pledged His deity and has given His Son as a sign will be sure, then we would regard death, want, shame, and hell as if they were life riches, glory, and heaven, just as they differ in no wise before God.” – Luther’s Works, vol. 4, pg. 146
There is a woman in my congregation who is 99 years old. Her secret? Eating a spoonful of gin-soaked raisins every morning. If you want a long life on the earth, booze and raisins are much easier than Christianity. We go to church, not to make it past 80, but to die to ourselves and be raised in Christ. So that, with Job, in our dying breath we can cry:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” – Job 19:25-27