Many years ago, Rocky Aoki – the founder and owner of Benihana Restaurants – remarked, “Life is a one-hundred yard dash with a brick wall at the finish line.” With these words, he expressed a sentiment many have when they have no hope beyond this life. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” is how Rocky Aoki might have put it if he had lived in Paul’s day.
All of us must vote in what Bruce Thornton calls “the bleak democracy of death.” That is a fact which we cannot change. But we need not all vote for Rocky Aoki’s candidate. Paul, you see, offered a hopeful alternative. Christ rose again, and so can we if we put our faith in him.
Paul believed, as do all Christians, that death is not the brick wall at the end of life’s race. Rather, it is the thin tape stretched across the finish line that we must run through if we are to participate in the victory celebration. To switch metaphors, Paul believed that death is a nap, a short sleep from which we will awake when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.
And when Christ returns, “we will all be changed.” Here is another metaphor for death and resurrection. It is a change of garments – “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
All of these metaphors point to a single truth: Death is a fact of life, but not the only fact of life. The great fact of life is that “Death has been swallowed up in victory” by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death, therefore, is not to be feared by those who have put their hope in Christ for a better life.
In the seventeenth century, John Donne wrote a marvelous “holy sonnet” addressed to death. Donne, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, lived and ministered during the horrible years when three waves of bubonic plague devastated the population of London. Rather than flee to the countryside for safety, Donne remained in London, preaching the comforting gospel to those in imminent peril of plague. In his “holy sonnet,” he wrote:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;
From rest and sleep, which by thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke, why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
For those who have put their faith in Christ, all that separates this life from the next is a comma, a brief pause to catch a breath. We live, we die, we rise again. In Christ, death is not so much to be feared as pitied, for in the end, death will die, but we will awake to the glorious morning of resurrection.