Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why do we have to die?

Questions from our Culture:  Week 1 Recap

The Science fiction series Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) spoke about many of the issues of faith that people in our time are wresting with.  It did this by taking elements of  different faiths and dividing them up between the different characters of the drama.  In no way do the religions of the show completely conform to an actual human belief system, but they do have ideas in common with contemporary and even historical faith communities.  The result is fascinating portrayal of a life in a universe with competing religious ideas. We are using this portrayal at Holy Cross to engage some of life's most important questions.  These are not only found on TV but in the Bible itself-even better-the Bible begins to lead us to some answers.

"To Live Meaningful Lives We Must Die"

In the episode Guess What's Coming to Dinner (Season 4 Episode 9) the quote above is uttered by the character Cylon # 6 as confronts her former human enemies about joining forces to meet their common enemy.   She begins to build trust by appealing to what holds her in common with human beings: death.   This was a new experience for her kind.  In the show these cylons do not normally die.  When their cloned bodies are destroyed their consciousness is uploaded to an awaiting spaceship where it is then downloaded into a new cloned body.   So they can not die.    As viewers of the show soon realize this endless cycle is not blissful at all.  In fact, the show depicts it as draining any joy there can be in life as the harmful experiences of life add up through each successive reincarnation. Because they live in a universe plagued by violence, the hurts begin to pile up on top of each other making life dark, sad, and most of all meaningless.

The change in heart that allows some of the cylons to ally themselves with human beings happens as the spacecraft that provide the reincarnation are being destroyed in battles with humans and other cylons.   What was first an unthinkable tragedy for them, quickly becomes something else: an opportunity.   Once able to die, the cylons begin to see that their life has purpose, each moment has meaning, each choice will matter.  When one can not die choices are irrelevant, when one does, choices become important.

The real world competition of ideas depicted in this part of the story of Battlestar Galactica are those between the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and those of  Eastern Religions.  To simplify the contrast, in Christianity you only get one life; in Eastern Religions you cycle through many.   The pregnant question behind this story arc of Battlestar Galactica is, "why do we have to die?"

A Biblical Reason for Death

In the Bible the reason for death is tied up with the reality that because there is sin in the world we must die.   The biggest misconception that people have of this idea is that death is exclusively related to punishment.  When one sees the biblical witness in its fullness one sees that there is definitely more to the story.    Death is explained in the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  

(Genesis 3:22) the LORD God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"--  (NRSV)

Most of us have tended to view the reasons behind this as one of maintaining purity.   However there is a more powerful scriptural reason for death, love.   God is not just concerned with abstract ideas of justice and purity, God created people to be in relationship with Him.   As Battlestar Galactica demonstrates an unreconciled eternal life is a meaningless one.   It is also devoid of any real joy or happiness.   God does not create human beings so that they will just be meaninglessly alive.   That kind of life leads only to despair or destruction.  God wants life to be as He intended it, good. If we lived eternally unreconciled to God, others, and our world, the violence, sin, and pain of it would weigh us down to the point where we would no longer even be really alive.  We would just be the undead.   So God gives us the gift of death.  (JRR Tolkein called death "the gift of men")  Without the gift of death we would just destroy our world, others and selves.   This point is also revisited in Genesis 6 and 11.   The truth is that eternal life without forgiveness is not Heaven; it is Hell!

"I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."

Says Jesus in John 10:10 (NRSV). The God behind all of this is loving and good.   God wants us to have a real life of purpose and meaning, therefore paradoxically death must be a part of it.  The death that leads to a truly reconciled and good eternal life must be a real one.   This is shown by the cross and tomb. One week after that first Easter Jesus comes to the disciples huddled in locked room: (John 20:27) Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."  (NRSV)

Notice that in the genuine abundant life that the wounds are critical.  It is the only way that the disciples can recognize Jesus.  Everything Jesus did in his 33 years of walking among us mattered-just as your decisions matter-the wounds of Jesus show this.  Peter himself would later demonstrate his understanding of this when he wrote "by his wounds you are healed" (1Peter 2:24 NRSV).  It was not just the teachings and miracles who showed us the true Jesus but also his wounds.   The same goes for you - every moment matters- your choices are not your prison- they make you who you are.  Your true self is not just revealed in your redeeming qualities and successes, but also in your wounds and failures.  So Christians do not believe in an endless treadmill of reincarnation hoping to better next time; we believe in a one time resurrection.   God values every aspect of our life and fills it with meaning, then through the forgiveness offered at the cross decides to offer us the promise of a true and abundant life.  You are then reconciled into eternal life.  The gift of the death on the cross is the gift of a preparation for you to be able live eternally.   

We know this is all tangible and real through the gift of baptism.  Paul writes tot the Christians in Rome; we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  (Romans 6:4 NRSV)  We are reconciled by the cross of Christ and we participate in the journey from death to life-through time and space-through the medium of the water and the Word.   We are given the promise that God will make us ready to live eternal, meaningful, good lives of purpose.   The good intention for life begun in Genesis is fulfilled in the cross and resurrection.    So God not only provides the gift of death, but more importantly the gift of Hope.  

In the episode Guess What's Coming to Dinner (Season 4 Episode 9) Cylon # 6 speaks about all the work we do avoiding death.   When I saw this I thought of my own temptation to go on Rogaine or start dying my hair.  It is not just those harmless aspects that result from this avoidance.   Many of our most hurtful moments for self, others and world happen because we act out of a place where we fear death.  We begin to believe the devil's lie that we can somehow by our own effort avoid death.   Many unbelievers think that Christians believe because they fear death.  Quite the opposite is true; we believe because (we unlike most in our culture)  face death head on knowing that it is part of God's plan.  Now it is OK to fear dying, there might be pain, we have uncertainty etc.   However the hope of the cross of Christ commands- Do not fear death!  The God behind death and life is the God who sent Jesus to transform it.

So the life of faith we proclaim uses every moment so that we do not so much add years to our life, but life to our years.  The life offered by Jesus can be lived out fully through faith and prayer.   Our life of Christian practice reinforces our hope in true life, discerns our purpose for each moment, and reminds us of the Triune God's love for us. 

Stay tuned for Week 2- Why does the Bible matter?

Keep the Faith, 
Pastor Knecht 

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