Is this life or is this death? That’s perhaps the central question of the whole Bible. Because the People of God so often went through death experiences which turned out to be life, or experiences of life from death. That’s why the biblical story begins with light from darkness, fullness from emptiness, order from chaos. That was the truth of ancient Israel’s historical experience, certainly her experience of God – the God who, against all the odds, brings babies from barren wombs and slaves from Egypt just as he brought light from darkness in the beginning.
It’s no less the question at the heart of the New Testament than of the Old. It’s the question at the heart of Easter. Jesus had died in the most atrocious way: but what did his death mean? Was it death or was it in some strange way life? Certainly it looked like death, and death of a devastating kind. In Matthew 24, Jesus says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but do not be alarmed. Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes from place to place. But all these are the beginning of the birth-pangs” (vv. 6-8). What he describes seem very much like death-pangs: war, famine, earthquake – it could hardly be worse. But no: these, we’re told, are the pangs not of death but of birth. Both are painful; both involve the break-up of the world we’ve known. But we’re caught in the most basic confusion of all if we can’t distinguish birth-pangs from death-pangs, if we can’t rightly interpret the pain.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us what we know: that the prophets were reviled. But why were they reviled? Because the answer they gave to the question, Is this death or life? wasn’t what the rulers and the people wanted to hear. Jeremiah is the classic case. In an emergency, the rulers and people were looking to military and political tactics for life. But according to the prophet, these are death not life. The only way to avoid death and find life, he insisted, was obedience to the Law of the Lord – which, for the rulers and most of the people, was pious nonsense they didn’t want or need in a time of crisis. It was no different with Jesus. The answer he gave to the question, Is this life or death? was not what the rulers and most of the people wanted to hear; so he went not down into the pit like Jeremiah but up on the Cross. He suffered a death that seemed to show he was wrong; but the death was in fact a life which proved he was right.
Here this evening we ask the same question, Is this life or is it death? We stand before the death of disunity that has so darkened our way through the centuries. We acknowledge that disunity among Christians is not just discomfort but death. We acknowledge too that another kind of death is needed if we are to find our way to a new kind of unity, into the communion of God. Unity requires that we die the death of Jesus. We can be saved from disunity only by blood, and the blood is his. There’s no way out of our seemingly hopeless situation except the way of self-sacrifice which is always bloody. It may look wrong or feel wrong; but we will be right only if we take that path.
We say with St Paul that we have been baptized into the death of Jesus. That isn’t just something which happened years ago when we were brought or came to the font. It’s something that has to happen time and again; and it has to happen if the baptized are to find their way together into the communion of God, if this Covenant is to be more than cosmetic or a kind of placebo.
The death we have to suffer is the death that humility requires, a death to pride, a death to the sense that we have all the graces. It’s the death that listening requires, listening with the ears of the heart to the voice of the other in the belief that we have something to learn, that we don’t have all the answers. It’s the death of letting go even of things we may cherish or think important in order that we might receive something still better from God. It’s the death of self-sacrifice, a dying to self-protection, self-satisfaction and self-assertion. It’s the blood of the Cross shed for the life of the world.
If we aren’t baptized into the death of Jesus, then we can’t rise with him. If we don’t die to disunity, we can’t rise into unity, into the communion of God that we call the Trinity, into “the newness of life” of which St Paul speaks. We may keep wheeling away at our religious rites and duties, saying our prayers, singing our hymns, getting our decor right – but we won’t really be living a life which, in Paul’s words, is “alive to God in Christ Jesus”. Death, not life will be at work in us; and disunity will prevail.
But if we say yes to dying the death of Jesus, as we do in reaffirming this Covenant in his blood, then we really might be “salt of the earth and light of the world”, even at a time like this when our “brand”, as they say, has been badly tarnished and we can seem tasteless salt and hidden light. This is a tragically fragmented world, and the Church too knows fragmentation. We almost take it for granted, shrug our shoulders and just get on with business. But the Risen Lord says no to that, and so do we here this evening. We say yes to a death in order to say yes to the life of Easter.
Much has changed in the ten years since the Covenant was first affirmed. We are in new territory where everything, even the ecumenical journey, looks different than it did. But that doesn’t make the journey any less urgent now or any less a gift and a call from God. If anything, the journey is now more urgent even if more difficult, the gift and call more evident even if more puzzling. So here we stand, with all our wounds and with fragmentation all around. Humbly and hopefully we reaffirm the inspired yes first spoken ten years ago – and we do so not for our own sake or for the sake of a self-absorbed Church but for the sake of the world that asks, desperately at times, Is this life or is it death?