Lee Gatiss preaches Part 2 of “An Exhortation against the Fear of Death”, from the Anglican Homilies.
So far it has been shown to you that there are three reasons why people commonly fear death. First, the sorrowful departing from worldly goods and pleasures; second, the fear of the pangs and pains that come with death; and finally the principal cause is the horrible fear of extreme misery and perpetual damnation in time to come. And yet none of these three reasons trouble good people, because they reassure themselves by true faith, perfect love, and the sure hope of endless joy and everlasting bliss.
The gains of death
Therefore, all those who are joined to Christ with true faith, steadfast hope, and perfect love have great cause to be full of joy, and not to fear death or everlasting damnation. For death cannot deprive them of Jesus Christ, and no sin can condemn them (Romans 8:1). They are are safely grafted into him who is their only joy, treasure, and life. Let us repent of our sins, amend our lives, trust in his mercy and satisfaction, and death can neither take him from us, nor us from him. For as St. Paul says, “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” And again he says, “Christ died and rose again so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:8-9). So if we are the Lord’s, when we are dead, it must therefore follow that such temporal death cannot harm us, but also that it will be much to our profit and join us to God more perfectly.
The Christian heart may surely be convinced of this by the infallible truth of holy scripture. God has prepared us for immortality, says St. Paul, and given us the Spirit as a deposit guaranteeing what is to come (2 Corinthians 5:5). Therefore, let us always be confident, for we know that as long as we are in the body we are (as it were) far from God in a foreign country, subject to many perils, walking without perfect sight and knowledge of Almighty God, only seeing him by faith in the holy scriptures. But we have courage and a desire to be at home with God and our saviour Christ, far from the body (2 Corinthians 5:6-8), where we may behold his godhead, as he is, face to face, to our everlasting comfort (1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 13:12). These are, in effect, St. Paul’s words, by which we may perceive that life in this world is compared to a pilgrimage in a foreign country far from God. And we see that death, delivering us from our bodies, sends us straight home to our own country, and makes us dwell in the presence of God for ever, in perpetual rest and quietness. So to die is no loss, but profit and winning, for all true Christian people (Philippians 1:21).
What did the thief who hung on a cross with Christ lose by his bodily death? Indeed, how much did he gain by it? Did not our saviour say to him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)? And Lazarus, that pitiable person who lay at the rich man’s gate afflicted with sores and pining with hunger: did not death highly profit and promote him? By the ministry of angels he was sent to Abraham’s side, a place of rest, joy, and heavenly consolation (Luke 16:20-22). Let us not think otherwise (good Christian people) than that Christ has prepared the same joy and happiness for us, which he prepared for Lazarus and the thief. Therefore, let us stick to his salvation and gracious redemption, and believe his word, serve him from our hearts, and obey him. And whatever we have done before which is contrary to his most holy will, let us repent of it now, and in future be careful to correct our life. And we will undoubtedly find him as merciful to us as he was to both Lazarus and the thief. Their examples are written in holy scripture for the comfort of those who are sinners and subject to sorrows, miseries, and calamities in this world, that they should not despair of God’s mercy but always trust to have forgiveness of their sins by it, and everlasting life, as Lazarus and the thief had.
So, I trust every Christian perceives by the infallible word of God that bodily death cannot harm or hinder those who truly believe in Christ. On the contrary, it shall profit and promote Christian souls who, being truly penitent for their offences, depart in perfect love and in sure trust that God is merciful to them, forgiving their sins for the merits of Jesus Christ, his only natural Son.
Pain before gain
The second reason why some fear death is the terrible sickness and grievous pains which partly come before death, and partly accompany death wherever it comes. This fear is the fear of our frail flesh, and a natural emotion belonging to the nature of a mortal person. But true faith in God’s promises, and a regard for the pains and pangs which Christ suffered on the cross for us pitiable sinners, with a consideration of the joy and everlasting life to come in heaven, will lessen those pains and moderate this fear. So it shall never be able to overthrow the hearty desire and gladness that the Christian soul has to be separated from this corrupt body so that it may come to the gracious presence of our saviour Jesus Christ.
If we steadfastly believe the word of God, we shall perceive that such bodily sickness, pangs of death, or whatever distressing pains we suffer whether before or with death, are nothing else for Christians but the discipline of our heavenly and loving Father. With this discipline, he mercifully corrects us, to test and declare the faith of his patient children that they may be found praiseworthy, glorious, and honourable in his sight when Jesus Christ shall be openly revealed as judge of all the world; or else he chastises us to amend in us whatever offends his fatherly and gracious goodness, so that we should not perish everlastingly. And this correcting discipline is common to all those who are truly his.
Therefore, let us cast away the burden of sin that lies so heavily on our necks, and return to God by true repentance and amendment of our lives. Let us with patience run this race that is appointed, suffering for the sake of him who died for our salvation all the sorrows and pangs of death, and death itself joyfully, when God sends it to us, having our eyes always fixed on the head and captain of our faith, Jesus Christ. For the joy that was set before him, he cared neither for the shame or pain of death, but willingly conformed his will to his Father’s will, most patiently suffering the most shameful and painful death of the cross, even though he was innocent (Hebrews 12:1-2). And now, therefore, he is exalted in heaven and sits forever on the right hand of the throne of God the Father (Philippians 2:9).
Let us remember, therefore, the life and joys of heaven which are kept for all of those who patiently suffer here with Christ. And let us consider that Christ suffered all these pains at the hands of sinners, and for sinners, and then we shall with patience more easily suffer such sorrows and pains when they come. Let us not make light of the discipline of the Lord, nor hold a grudge against him or fall away from him when we are corrected by him. For the Lord loves those whom he corrects and chastens everyone he accepts as his child. What child is there whom the Father loves, says St. Paul, whom he does not also chastise? If you are not corrected by God (which all his well beloved and true children are) then you are not truly recognised by God as his children. Therefore, seeing as when we have human fathers here on earth we respect them and reverently submit to their correction, how much more should we be in subjection to our spiritual Father, from whom we shall have eternal life? Our human fathers may sometimes correct us as seems best to them, without cause. But this Father justly corrects us, either for our sin so that we can change, or for our benefit and good, to make us by this partakers of his holiness. Furthermore, all the correction which God sends us in this present time seems to have no joy and comfort, but only sorrow and pain; yet it brings with it a taste of God’s mercy and goodness towards those who are thus corrected, and a sure hope of God’s everlasting consolation in heaven (Hebrews 12:5-11).
These sorrows, diseases, and sicknesses, and also death itself, are nothing else but our heavenly Father’s discipline. By these he assures us of his love and gracious favour. By these he tests and purifies us. And by these he gives to us holiness and assures us that we are his children and he is our merciful Father. And so should we not then, with all humility, as obedient and loving children, joyfully embrace this discipline and always say in our heart, with our saviour Jesus Christ: Father, if this anguish and sorrow which I feel, and death which I see approaching, may not pass, but your will is that I must suffer them, then may your will be done (Matthew 26:42).