Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Safely and Painfully Dead

The worst of all evils is death, or so modern thought has it. Death is to be avoided, evaded, delayed and denied at all costs. And definitely not discussed.

This prioritizing of the length of human existence over its actual quality is the reason that in most countries of the world there is no longer a death penalty. Even in U.S. states where it’s still legal, almost nobody gets executed anymore. Older concepts of justice, fairness and “an eye for an eye” have given way to a frantic collective scrambling around to keep everyone on the planet as long as possible, whether they deserve it or not.

Except for unborn children. Logical consistency is not our strong point.

Apart from Christ, we don’t know why we’re here, and much of the time we’re not sure if we like it. But you can bet most of us would pull out our own fingernails hanging on to every last second of it.

It’s one of the reasons we’re on the way to bankrupting our healthcare systems. We can keep the body alive long after the brain has ceased to function and all enjoyment of life is long gone. It’s unbelievably expensive, but we’re doing it all the time.

Keeping human beings ‘safe’ is a massive industry, especially in North America. A relatively tiny number of statistical fatalities justifies the development of expensive new ways of securing us and protecting us in our cars, bringing home the troops from anywhere they might actually be shot at or blown up, campaigning for gun control, body scanners in airports and schools, closed-circuit cameras practically anywhere and everywhere, and so on. Most North Americans could be sold on practically any kind of government intervention in the interests of safety.

Except where the tobacco, alcohol and drug industries are concerned but, as mentioned, logical consistency is not our strong point.

There are no causes left so important that we are — officially, anyway — willing to risk human lives for them.

We couch it in polite terms like “respect for human life”, but it’s often just plain old fear.

Fear for our own safety drives us to do things — evil, unworthy, shameful things — that we would not otherwise do. Peter denied his Lord three times. Why? He was afraid for his safety. In the back of his mind, I’m sure, was If they’ll do this to him, they’ll certainly do it to me. He was enslaved by his fear, and it controlled his actions, against his better judgement.

The apostle Paul and I use a different dictionary. He talks about safety to Timothy:
 “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” (2 Timothy 4:18)
By ‘safely’, Paul meant ‘painfully dead’, as in executed for his faith. That was how he expected to enter the “heavenly kingdom”. Scripture does not record when or how this happened. Fortunately there is Wikipedia, which tells us “Ignatius, probably around 110, writes that Paul was martyred. Christian tradition holds that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Nero around the mid-60s at Tre Fontane Abbey”.

Feel free to conjecture about my level of interest in that subject from the quality of my source material. No, seriously, I take the position that if we’re not told in the word of God, we don’t need to know. And in any case, what’s important for us to observe is Paul’s state of mind as he looked forward to his own death, not what actually took place.

That Paul fully anticipated martyrdom is evident from the very same passage of scripture, in which Paul tells Timothy “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come”.

In fact, every step of Paul’s pathway to martyrdom was calculated. He tells the elders in Ephesus that “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me”. That he expected the worst is evident, since he adds, “none of you … will see my face again”. Then he goes to Tyre, where the prophets among the disciples there tell him “through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem”. Finally, in Ptolemais, a prophet named Agabus travels all the way from Judea , takes Paul’s belt, binds his own feet with it and tells Paul, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ” 

So when Paul subsequently finds himself in a Roman jail awaiting trial and quite probably the end of his days on earth, it is clearly no accident. And no surprise.

It’s entirely consistent with Paul’s earlier ministry, in which he is concerned primarily with the preservation and safety of the spirit and soul, not the body. He tells the Corinthian believers to deliver a sinning believer “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”. What happens to a man or woman in this life, Paul taught, is of little consequence compared to the stakes in eternity.

Paul has a very different definition of safety in mind than we do. And his definition is not something he concocted himself in the thrall of personal guilt or cultic devotion to Jesus Christ. His own Master said it first: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” following which he provided the ultimate evidence of believing his own words.

Fear of death is a form of slavery, stifling our enjoyment of our time on earth and potentially stunting our Christian testimony if we find ourselves absorbing the mindset of the world around us. The writer to the Hebrews tells us: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

When it comes to safety, we’re using a different dictionary, Paul and I.

Maybe I should be using his.

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