Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations … Luke 24:44-47
There is something deep within the human character which admires a hero’s death.
Every culture in the history of the world has told tales of people who died proud and strong.
After all, to die is inevitable. But ancient human pride has always said that to die proud and strong is to die well.
No? This is what Timothy McVeigh believed …
What were his last words?
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
I’m sure he felt quite Stoical, the late McVeigh – a bit like Marcus Aurelius perhaps. I imagine if he wrote his own epitaph it would say something like:
“Here lies Timothy McVeigh, his soul Invictus. He faced death and wrath and justice on his own terms, by his own power, for his own reasons, and in his own time. Strength and Honor.”
Yes, say the scrolls of pride, “to die is inevitable, but to die well is immortal.”
This is one of the mottoes of the world — whether you read it On a Grecian Urn or in the defiant eyes of a young man who died last Monday at the age of 33.
It’s tempting to say that our own Christian faith is built on just such a principle.
And in fact, many do.
They say that ours is a religion founded by a martyred hero in the courageous proclamation of his brave disciples – all of whom stood fast, and died well. Just look at the crucifixion of Jesus and the deaths of his many disciples they say. Martyrs and heroes, gladiators for Christ.
They say that our religion is built on a series of beautiful myths woven from History, Hebrew Scripture, and Greek philosophy. Just look at the pagan origins of Christmas, they say, in the pre-Christian Roman festival of Sol Invictus – the Unconquerable Sun.
Yes, it is true our faith was founded by a man who died. No ordinary man indeed, but the most innocent man who ever
lived. A man who died nailed to a cross, charged with heresy, and for inciting the people. A man who taught nothing but the love of God, and the love of neighbor and of self. A man who came to forgive us for we know not what we do.
Yes, it is true our faith has been kept by thousands of martyrs. People who lived lives of deep faith, and who were killed for their beliefs.
Take the story of Thomas Cranmer for example. I suppose the world might say he, “died well.”
He was the Archbishop of Canterbury in the mid-1500’s. In his time, English Christians worshipped in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, as they had for a dozen centuries. Likewise, the only Bible they could read was in Latin. Therefore, most people, being uneducated and generally illiterate, in English let alone Latin, had almost no idea what was being said in Church every Sunday.
The ignorance of Latin was so deep that when the priest elevated the bread in communion and said, “Hoc est corpus meum,” which means “This is my Body,” a little bell would ring to let people know that something holy had happened. Over the centuries people thought that Hoc est corpus meum was some kind of magical incantation. And they would try to imitate the priest saying, “Hocus Pocus.”
Anyway, Cranmer had a good idea – he said, “Hey, let’s do it in English!”
His young king, Edward the Sixth, said, “Sounds good uncle Tom, whatever you say — let’s do it.”
And so, Thomas Cranmer wrote the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of the book you have in your pews today.
Well, the Bishop of Rome didn’t like the idea. He wanted everybody in the world to continue worshiping God in the language of the Roman legions – especially if they didn’t understand it. But Thomas Cranmer was protected from the Pope by his young king, and his work got done.
Unfortunately, the king died, and his sister became queen. She was loyal to the Pope, and so she went after Thomas Cranmer and many like him. Hundreds were charged with crimes against the Church, and they were burned at the stake.
Cranmer was forced to sign a paper saying he had sinned in going against the wishes of the pope and the Roman Church, and he was sentenced to death.
But Cranmer regained his courage, and he vocally revoked his recantation. He said that before he died he would punish his hand for signing such a pack of lies, and for going against his conscience.
On the day of his execution, Cranmer was tied to the stake, and the fire was started. Though the flames had not yet come close to him, he stuck out his hand, and thrust it into the encroaching fire, and while it burned he said, “This hand hath offended.”
By this powerful gesture, he stood bold, and he died well.
And for centuries in the Church of England and the Episcopal Church, this tale has been told about the great Archbishop.
But you know, it really doesn’t matter how he died.
What matters is what he did when he lived, and that he knew with all of his heart that he was not a glorious hero but a humiliated sinner, forgiven by a loving Lord.
For whether or not our religion paints its temple walls with the portraits of martyred heroes, the only thing that matters about our Christian faith, and the entire essence of our theology, is that we are forgiven sinners.
We are sinners. And we are forgiven. Thanks be to God, that is what it is all about. No matter what we have done, and no matter what we will do, Jesus lives to tell us, “your sins are forgiven, go in peace.” And we are made clean to come into the presence of the Lord.
This is what it means to be a Christian.
I’ve been one nearly all my life. Touched by grace, and shown the love of God from the moment of my baptism.
But I remember well that sacred chapter in my life – once upon a time – when I first grasped the reality, and the totality of the healing power of forgiveness which had been promised to me by
Jesus Christ – the Healer of every heart and soul – and it was only then that I knew that I had found a new way, a new life.
While not born again, for I had already been baptized into life in Christ, I nonetheless had a spiritual coming of age when I first owned the promise that I had been forgiven. And if Jesus had been there in the flesh, in those days of my coming of age in Christ, I would have been on the ground kissing his feet like a puppy.
And the good news is that now I live.
And, when I do inevitably die, it won’t matter if I die in pain, or in my sleep, or like a coward, or by accident, or in a bad mood, or while angry, or even in an act of sin.
Because I have been led to believe and know based on what the Lord has promised and delivered, that despite my sins, despite my weakness, and despite the curious whims of whatever clergy might come to visit me in the hospital — I will have eternal life.
And then I will have died well. Amen.