Are you afraid of death? Is losing your life for Jesus’ sake or for the sake of the gospel the same thing as being unafraid of death? Is Jesus trying to show us that those who think that preserving this life is more important than entering the next will lose everything?
Death is a funny thing. It happens to everyone, but we’re still afraid to talk about it. The closer I get to death—the older I get—the easier it is for me to talk about it. But the closer you get to death—the older you get—the harder it is for me to talk to you about it. Why is that? Why is death such a sensitive topic?
Do you remember the movie Patch Adams? Yeah, it's been a while, huh? Anyway, there's a scene in the movie in which Robin Williams' character approaches an intractable man who has a terminal diagnosis. He's known for throwing things at nurses and yelling at doctors. Williams' character, Patch Adams, appears as an angel who begins asking them man about his upcoming death. Using one euphemism after another, the patient and Adams search for colorful ways to describe "kicking the bucket" or "buying the farm." In the end, of course, the man is relieved because someone was finally willing to acknowledge that he was dying.
I remember when I discovered that life was fragile. I was a teenager, and I was mountain-biking along a rural highway, following a path that weaved in and out of the woods along the road. I started down a steep decline when I suddenly lost control. Before I knew what was happening, I was careening towards the highway on a collision course with a truck that hadn’t seen me and wouldn’t realize I was there until the bump let him know he had rolled over something. Instinctively, I dove off my bike and into a ditch, and I lay there, realizing for the first time that my life was fragile.
I remember when I discovered that this life wasn’t everything. Some people call it a moment of salvation, but I recall that moment when I understood for the first time that no matter what happened to me in this life God would take care of me in the next. I wouldn’t say that the response to that discovery was foolhardiness, but it did come with a sense of relief. It made things like running with the bulls in Pamplona possible. And that willingness to yield this life to the next stayed with me for a long time.
Then, I had children. And suddenly I feared death again—not because of what would happen to me but now because of what would happen to them. That’s the place where I still am now. I’m trying to accept that God is able to take care of my family better than I ever could, but it’s an exercise in faith. I’m having to learn to let go of my attachment with this life all over again.
What about you? Are you more attached to this life or the next? Does it depend on your age? Does it depend on your circumstance? From what Jesus says, it also depends on our faith. Following Jesus is an exercise in faith. It means discovering and accepting and persisting in that reality that says that this life is worth nothing compared with the next. That’s the ultimate truth, and there are lots of little truths that point us there. Those are things like God’s preference for the poor, humility triumphing over arrogance, weakness displaying real strength. All of the counter-intuitive aspects of the gospel and the Christian faith are leading us to that one huge and scary reality—death is not the enemy; an over-attachment to this life is what we should really fear.
Are we following Jesus? Are we learning to accept the upside-down nature of our faith? Have we reached the point where we know that death is not something to fear but something to embrace?