May We All Die Twice
I’ve been thinking about how I might die today. In fact, for the last several days, I’ve been looking for good ways to die. It started when I watched The Revenant.
The Leonardo DiCaprio saga that swept the Oscars this year follows the true story of a fur trapper named Hugh Glass who survived incredible hardship to avenge an enemy who left him for dead. At a critical point in the film, DiCaprio gets to speak this line:
"I ain't afraid to die. I already done it."
It’s a cool line that makes sense because Glass had been on the brink of death, and thought dead by the rest of his company. But as soon as I heard Leo say it, I realized there was a Bible lesson in it. Every Christ-follower should be able to say that. In fact, it should be the pattern that most clearly marks our lives.
We follow a leader whose very purpose was to die — to sacrifice himself on behalf of others. Whatever Greek syntax and three-point patterns we might ferret out from our study of Jesus’ life, this one, obvious pattern outstrips all the rest. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. The example for us to follow is one of sacrifice.
Jesus himself makes it explicit:
"“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it."
"Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me."
"Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it."
We serve a God of miracles and resurrection but resurrection always, necessarily, follows death. Jesus’ cross came before his crown. Our life in Christ truly begins only after we die. Saint Francis had it right: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
This pattern is foreshadowed in the Old Testament as well. Jonah is buried at sea. Abraham gives up Isaac for dead. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are willing to fry for their faith. And Jacob’s tears of mourning drip onto Joseph's technicolor dreamcoat. And every one of those resurrections comes as a surprise.
Jonah figured his running from God had caught up with him and that was the end of his story. No one thrown overboard expects to live. While the sailors lifted him over the gunwale, Jonah wasn’t thinking of whales and second chances. He was making his peace with death.
With the heat from the furnace on their backs, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego affirmed that the God of Israel was certainly capable of saving them, but not obliged to. They said, "If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Because we know the stories about a giant fish and a fiery furnace, we have lost our horror at the cost of following and our surprise at resurrection. We think of Jonah in the sea or Jesus in the grave as a “setback” or an “interlude” — a waiting room where successful treatment is just minutes away, guaranteed by insurance premiums. But that is not the nature of death. Death is permanent and resurrection is always a surprise. With the possible exception of Jesus, none of the martyrs of our faith tradition knew what was coming next. All of them gave up hope of life in favor of dying in faith.
From the prophets of the Old Testament to the martyrs of church history, the most faithful followers of Jesus have been marked by a willingness to die.
So I’m thinking about how to follow their example. It’s unlikely that my martyrdom will come from a gun barrel or Roman cross, but don’t I face smaller tortures every day? What if my patience with a difficult relative were a sacrificial death? What if I could die to my life of comfort on behalf of an enemy? What would it say if I was willing to lose a friend, or an argument, or a job title in order to write a story of grace? And what would that look like in your life?
There’s another production I’ve been watching called Peaky Blinders. It’s about British cops and mobsters in 1919. In a scene I watched last night, a circle of honorable thieves have gathered to mourn a fallen comrade named Danny Whizz-Bang whose death they had faked weeks before. Raising a glass, one of them men toasts, “To Danny Whizz-Bang. May we all die twice.”
If you’re a follower of Jesus, that is my toast to you as well. With Hugh Glass and Danny Whizz-Bang, I raise my cup to say:
May today, and every day of your life, be your dying day. May you and I follow the Son who died so that we an more deeply know the Father of life.