National Lutheran News

Dying Lutheran

Dawn. The Holy Land. A remarkable ritual.

The Sea of Galilee lies far below in half light. We are within the fallen walls of an ancient church, likely closed even before an earthquake destroyed this mountaintop city in A.D. 750. In the little church, under the altar — a place of great honor — was the common grave of several individuals.

During a month’s excavation in 2004, we removed the human remains for scientific analysis. Three years later, we are putting them back. Why? We found them in a church. These are Christians. They await resurrection: bodily resurrection.

With Bible readings and a careful liturgy, Mark Schuler upends a cardboard box over the empty tomb. Bits of human bone fall back into the crypt whence they came.

Rising again

What does it mean to die? Lent is as good a time as any to ponder the question.

The Easter event is a defining moment. What did it mean? That we all will rise again at the last day? This is what many Lutherans believe.

Mark Schuler, a professor of theology at Concordia University, St. Paul, reburied bones excavated earlier near Hippos in Israel. Photo provided by Marc Hequet

Dying nowadays is complicated.

Schuler, an ordained Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod pastor, teaches theology at Concordia University in St. Paul. He is a veteran excavator at the ancient city of Hippos, overlooking the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel.

Early Christians, he explains, dealt with the dead distinctly. Romans burned bodies or buried them outside city walls. Jews treated the dead as unclean.

Christians, in contrast, sometimes buried their dead inside the city, as in the case of the little church at Hippos. “For Christians, the one who has died is not dead in an ultimate sense,” says Schuler. “It goes back to Jesus’ use of the word ‘sleep’ for death. God promises to resurrect these remains.”

What happens when we die is “vaguely answered in Scripture,” Schuler adds. It’s about “being with the Lord.”

Do we go to sleep in Christ and then awake only at the last day? What about the thief on the cross? “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says — today! Yet Paul in 1 Thessalonians comforts his flock. They fear that those who have already died will miss Christ’s return. Paul assures his readers that the dead in Christ will rise first.

It’s all mysterious, and perhaps meant to be. “The Christian belief is that those who die are with the Lord,” Schuler repeats, “and we try to be very careful not to say how that is.”

Dying now

What does all this mean for those dying now? That is to say, what does it mean for all of us — because we are all approaching the end of life.

Dying nowadays is complicated. If you try to slip away quietly, professionals may be all over you, trying to keep you alive. It is their job, what they are sworn to do.

The Twin Cities Medical Society, representing 5,000 physicians, launched an effort in 2008 called Honoring Choices Minnesota to promote discussion about end of life for families, congregations, and cultural or community groups. It offers video, text, and web links, and works with churches and other organizations to raise awareness about end-of-life directives to guide medical pros on responding when the time comes.

Toward the end, many believers are more than ready to go be with the Lord. Dying as a Christian ought to be a great comfort.

Dying as a Lutheran? Consider this: On his deathbed in A.D. 430, St. Augustine asked to have four penitential psalms affixed to the wall where he could read them repeatedly for the purpose of due and exacting penance.

More than 1,000 years later, a sick, bedridden Martin Luther, excommunicated Augustinian monk, recited John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

About 3 a.m. that winter night, Luther awoke in great pain. Friends rushed to his bedside. A knowing colleague asked: “Do you want to die standing firm on Christ and all that you have taught?”

Luther’s body moved. “Ja,” said the great reformer. And he died.

We know exactly what Luther looked like on that grim, glorious morning of February 18, 1546. Luther Seminary in St. Paul has a rare copy of the death mask. He is at peace.

St. Augustine seems to have died still working out his own salvation, but Luther seemed certain. Maybe that’s what it means to die Lutheran.

What about bodily resurrection? That’s what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. So we come back to what it means to be Christian. Rising bodily from the grave? From bone chips? Ashes? Is this all but impossible to believe?

Maybe, but remember what Luther said: It’s about faith.

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