Lee Gatiss preaches the final part of "An Exhortation against the Fear of Death" from the Anglican Homilies.
In this sermon against the fear of death, two reasons have been given which commonly move worldly people to be very afraid to die. And yet those reasons do not trouble the faithful who live well, when death comes, but rather give them an opportunity greatly to rejoice, considering that they shall be delivered from the sorrow and misery of this world and be brought to the great joy and happiness of the life to come.
Blessed immortality Now, the third and special cause why death is indeed to be feared is the miserable state of worldly and ungodly people after their death. But this is no reason at all why godly and faithful people should fear death, but rather the opposite: their godly way of living in this life, and their belief in Christ, clinging continually to his merits, should make them long greatly for that life which undoubtedly waits for them after this bodily death. There are many plain places of scripture about this immortal state after this transitory life where we shall live forever in the presence of God in joy and rest after victory over all sickness, sorrows, sin, and death. These places confirm the weak conscience against the fear of all such distress, sickness, sin, and bodily death, to relieve such trembling and ungodly fear, and to encourage us with the comfort and hope of a blessed state after this life.
St. Paul wished for the Ephesians that “God, the Father of glory would give to them the spirit of wisdom and revelation, that the eyes of their hearts might have light to know him”, and to perceive what great things he had called them to, and how rich is the inheritance he has prepared after this life for those who belong to him (Ephesians 1:17-18). And St. Paul himself declared the desire of his heart, which was to be freed from his body and to be with Christ which, as he said, was much better for him, although to them it was more necessary that he should live, which he did not deny for their sakes (Philippians 1:23-26). Just as St. Martin said, “Good Lord, if I am still necessary for your people, to do good to them, I will refuse no labour. But otherwise, for my own self, I plead with you to take my soul.”
Now, the holy fathers of the old law, and all the faithful and righteous people who died before our saviour Christ’s ascension into heaven, by death departed from troubles to rest, from the hands of their enemies into the hands of God, from sorrows and sicknesses to joyful refreshing at Abraham’s side, a place of comfort and consolation as the scriptures plainly testify. And the book of Wisdom says that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed to the eyes of the foolish to die, and their death was counted miserable, and their departing out of this world as wretched. But they are in rest.” And another place says, “the righteous shall live forever, and their reward is with the Lord, and their minds are with God who is above all. Therefore, they shall receive a glorious kingdom and a beautiful crown at the Lord’s hand.” And in another place in the same book it says, “even if the righteous die prematurely, they will be at rest”, where they shall be refreshed. Concerning Abraham’s side, Christ’s words are so plain that a Christian needs no more proof of it (Luke 16:22-26).
To be with Christ Now then, if this is the state of the holy fathers and righteous people before the coming of our saviour, and before he was glorified, how much more then ought we all to have a steadfast faith and a sure hope of this blessed state and condition after our death? Our saviour has now performed the whole work of our redemption and is gloriously ascended into heaven to prepare our dwelling places with him (John 14:2). He said to his Father, “I want my servants to be with me where I am” (John 12:26, 17:24). And we know that whatever Christ wants, his Father wants the same, so it must be that if we are his faithful servants, our souls will be with him after we depart out of this present life.
Even in the midst of his torments as he was stoned to death, what was St. Stephen’s mind thinking about above all? “When he was full of the Holy Spirit,” says holy scripture, “he lifted up his eyes to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” After he had confessed this boldly before the enemies of Christ, they dragged him out of the city and there they stoned him. And he cried out to God saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:55-59). And does not our saviour say plainly in John’s Gospel, “Truly truly I say to you, the one who hears my word and believes in him who sent me has everlasting life and will not come into judgment but passes into life” (John 5:24)? Should we not then think of that death as precious, by which we pass into life? Therefore, it is a true saying of the prophet: “the death of holy and righteous people is precious in the Lord’s sight” (Psalm 116:15). Holy Simeon, after he had his heart’s desire and saw our saviour for whom he longed his whole life, embraced him in his arms and said, “Now Lord, let me depart in peace, for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations” (Luke 2:28-31).
It is true, therefore, that the death of the righteous is called peace and a benefit from God, as the Church says in the name of the righteous departed out of this world, “My soul, turn to your rest for the Lord has been good to you and rewarded you” (Psalm 116:7). As we see from holy scripture and other ancient histories of the martyrs, ever since Christ’s ascension the holy, faithful, and righteous have not doubted that in their death they were going in spirit to be with Christ, who is our life, health, wealth, and salvation.
In his holy Revelation, John saw one hundred and forty-four thousand virgins and innocents, of whom he said, “These follow the Lamb, Jesus Christ, wherever he goes” (Revelation 14:1-5). And shortly afterwards, in the same chapter, he says “I heard a voice from heaven saying to me ‘Write this: happy and blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ Surely, says the Spirit, they shall rest from their pains and labours, for their works will follow them” (Revelation 14:13). So then they shall reap with joy and comfort that which they sowed with labours and pains. “Those who sow to the Spirit, from the Spirit shall reap everlasting life. Let us therefore never be weary of doing good, for when the time of reaping or reward comes, we shall reap everlasting love without any weariness” (Galatians 6:8-10). Therefore, while we have time (as St. Paul exhorts us) let us do good to all people (Galatians 6:10), and not “lay up treasures on earth where rust and moths corrupt it (Matthew 6:19). This rust (as St. James says) shall, on the great day, bear witness against us, condemn us, and torment our flesh like a burning fire (James 5:3).
Consider the future Let us beware, therefore, as we steward our own wealth, that we are not in the number of those miserable covetous people who St. James bids to mourn and lament for their greedy accumulation and ungodly keeping of wealth (James 5:1-3). Let us be wise in our use of time, and learn to follow the wise example of the wicked steward in Jesus’s parable (Luke 16:1-9). Let us so prudently steward our goods and possessions, committed to us here by God for a season, that we may truly hear and obey this commandment of our saviour Christ’s: “I say to you, ‘Use your worldly wicked wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that they may receive you into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). He calls riches “wicked” because the world abuses them for wicked purposes, though they are otherwise a good gift from God and instruments by which God’s servants truly serve him in their use of them. He did not command them to make rich friends, to get high dignities and worldly possessions, and to give great gifts to rich people who have no need of them, but to make friends of the poor and pitiable. Whatever they give to those people, Christ accepts it as if given to him. And to these friends, Christ in the Gospel gives such great honour and preeminence, that he says they shall be received into everlasting dwellings. Not that people shall reward us for our good works, but that Christ will reward us and take whatever is done to such friends as if it was done to him.
Making poor wretches our friends like this, we make our saviour Christ our friend, whose members they are. Their misery he takes for his own misery, and their relief, comfort, and help he takes for his own comfort, relief, and help. He will as much thank us and reward us for our goodness shown to them, as if he himself had received the benefit at our hands, as he witnesses in the Gospel saying, “Whatever you have done to any of these simple people who believe in me, you have done that to me” (Matthew 10:42, 18:5, 25:40).
Therefore, let us be diligent that our faith and hope in Almighty God and in our saviour Christ does not fluctuate and fade, and that the love which we pretend to have for him does not turn cold. But let us be careful daily and diligently to show ourselves to be true lovers of God who honour him by keeping his commandments and by doing good deeds to our needy neighbours. And let us, by all means at our disposal relieve their poverty with our abundance, their ignorance with our wisdom and learning, and comfort their weakness with our strength and authority. Let us call everyone back from doing evil, by godly counsel and good example, still persevering in doing good as long as we live. And so we shall not need to fear death for any of the three reasons given before, or for any other reason that can be imagined.
But on the contrary, let us consider the manifold sicknesses, troubles, and sorrows of this present life, the dangers of this perilous pilgrimage, and the great burden which our spirit has in this sinful flesh and frail body subject to death. Let us consider also the manifest sorrows and dangerous deceits of this world on every side: the intolerable pride and covetousness and lechery in times of prosperity; the impatient murmuring of those who are worldly in times of adversity, which continually pull us back and pluck us away from God, our saviour Christ, our life, wealth, and eternal joy and salvation. Let us also consider the innumerable assaults of our spiritual enemy the Devil, with all his fiery darts of ambition, pride, lechery, vainglory, envy, malice, backbiting, and his other innumerable deceits, plots, and snares with which he busily tries to capture everyone under his dominion. He is always like a roaring lion, searching for people to devour by any means (1 Peter 5:8).
The faithful Christian considers all these miseries, perils, and inconveniences to which they are subject as long as they live here on earth. They also consider that blessed and comfortable state of the heavenly life to come, and the sweet condition of those who depart in the Lord, how they are delivered from the continual burdens of their mortal and sinful bodies, from all malice, schemes, and deceits of this world and from all the assaults of their spiritual enemy the Devil, to live in peace, rest, and perpetual quietness, to live in the fellowship of innumerable angels, and with the congregation of “the righteous made perfect” such as the patriarchs, prophets, martyrs, and confessors (Hebrews 12:22-23), and finally to come to the presence of Almighty God and our saviour Jesus Christ.
The one who considers all these things and confidently believes them from the bottom of their heart, is established in God, in this true faith, having a quiet conscience in Christ, a firm hope, and an assured trust in God’s mercy through the merits of Jesus Christ. They shall obtain this quietness, rest, and eternal joy, and shall be without fear of bodily death when it comes. Like St. Paul, they certainly shall (according to God’s will and when it pleases God to call them out of this life) gladly and greatly desire in their heart to be rid of all this evil, and live always for God’s pleasure in perfect obedience to his will with our saviour Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:23). May the Lord bring us to his gracious presence by his infinite mercy and grace, to reign with him in life everlasting. To him, with our heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory forever and ever. Amen.