We love movies where the unlikely hero rises to meet impossible tasks. We like it when the pudgy panda turns out to be a better kung fu warrior than those who trained their whole lives. We like these stories because we all want the easy route. I will not deny that I would love to wake up tomorrow and be a tenth-degree black belt without ever breaking a sweat. All I need is some sage or guru—a turtle in the case of the panda—to spout off some random, enigmatic nonsense to unlock my untapped potential. And no, reading a short life-hack book is not a viable route. Somewhere in my memories, I hear a coach saying (actually yelling), ‘anything worth having is worth bleeding for,’ although Andrew Carnegie deserves some credit, too, I believe.
While we wait for a talking turtle, we all have real challenges to face. Today (Aug. 21), a new round of fear and frustration is in high swing from a new strain of Covid. The stock markets are bouncing, restaurants are shuttering, businesses are hurting, landlords are bankrupt, and society is irritable. No talking turtle is going to get us out of this mess. Instead, we need a solution more powerful than the problems. We also need preachers that believe Christ’s words and their power so they may unashamedly proclaim them.
When people were dying left and right in Carthage, Cyprian knew that something more potent than the plague was needed. No enigmatic saying would help. No cotton mask would protect anyone. No policy of systemic societal restructuring was going to save people from death. Cyprian could not invent any microbiological protection, and he could not invent a vaccine; such things were centuries away. But Cyprian knew his people needed something grander, more powerful, and more permanent than the death from the plague. So, Cyprian did not flee and hide, he did not put a pause on the functionality of the church, and he did not compromise on his beliefs in the contents and promises of the Bible.
Before turning to Cyprian’s famous sermon, I want to draw attention to the bedrock conviction of his theology. It is one thing for Cyprian to spout off one message when times are good and then change his beliefs with the seasons. I fear many, many churches have suffered from this very problem in the last couple of years. They claimed that church, Christ, and the body were important, but when those words were challenged, the convictions vaporized like they were shot with a Star Wars blaster. Conversely, Cyprian believed the Bible and the promises contained therein no matter the affliction.
Years before the plague, we find a summary of Cyprian’s thoughts concerning death and, for that matter, life. Cyprian contended, “That no one should be made sad by death; since in living is labor and peril, in dying peace and the certainty of resurrection” (Testimonies 3.58). The statement is overwhelming, if not downright grating. Before rejecting the statement because it seems hyperbolic, I think American Christians need to pause. Our society has experienced mainly seasons as Israel did under Solomon. America has experienced decades of prosperity as a whole where we have clean water, entertainment, a modicum of peace, and a functioning society. But, like Israel of old, this prosperity has caused us to go wayward, lack gratitude, and become heretics. For one thing, many of the talking heads responding to Covid have revealed a false tale that modern medicine should end all death, yet no medicine will fix what only the returning King will.
So before shying away from Cyprian’s words, let’s give a moment to biblical support. Cyprian explains his conclusion from various texts. First, he notes that ‘all of life is labor and peril’ comes from his reading of Genesis 3 and the consequences of the curse and fall. Second, ‘death brings rest’ is defended from the joys of being in heaven like Enoch entered (Gen 5:24), or Simeon (Luke 2:29), and the Psalmist too cries “I long and yearn for the courts of the Lord (Psa 84:2). Third, Cyprian points to the surety of the resurrection from multiple points, notably asking ‘death where is your string’ (1 Cor 15:55–57); for we have a resurrection like Christ’s (Rom 6:5; John 6:39–44).
I will add Rom 6:8–9, ‘If we die with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. Because we know that the Christ who was raised from the dead will not die again; death does not reign over him’ (trans. mine). To Cyprian’s point, we cannot fear a death that lies in the future because our death is already done and over for Christians. Our only death is with Christ, making our only life also with Christ. In all, I think Cyprian has a powerful, albeit uncomfortable, point.
However, I have some reservations about his first proposition, namely that ‘no one should be made sad by death.’ At the same time, we can understand what Cyprian means with similar remarks by other early Christians and later with Luther and Calvin. But is it correct to say that there should be no sadness? Again, I find nuance is needed.
While not wanting to quibble over words and their connotations, sadness does seem an appropriate response for the loss of life. First, death was never part of the ‘very good’ world that was created; death is a result of the curse and fall. Second, death is the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26), and any affliction from an enemy is sad. Third, and more importantly, sadness is an appropriate emotion for the age of ‘labor and peril,’ to use Cyprian’s words. The saints in the OT often mourned the loss of loved ones, like Abraham for his wife Sarah (Gen 23:2). The Teacher says it is “better to go to a house of mourning than feasting” (Qoh 7:2, 4) and “grief is better than laughter” (Qoh 7:3). And Jesus did not admonish but pronounced a blessing on those who mourn (Matt 5:4). Mourning and sadness will be with God’s pilgrim children until he returns, wipes our eyes, and ends death, grief, crying, and pain (Rev 21:4).
However, the nuance is this, the presence of sadness does not dilute or destroy hope and comfort. Paul makes this pastoral point in 1 Thess 4:13–14. Paul explains that he wants Christians to know the truth about the resurrection, and it is this assurance of the resurrection that makes our grieving over death dissimilar from the rest of the world. For while we still grieve, we do not do it as those without hope. Stated positively, while we mourn over death, we do so filled with the confident hope of the resurrection.
Therefore, Cyprian is correct to bolster our trust and firm resolve to seize hold of the truth of the Gospel and the promised resurrection. We do well to be hope-filled in good times and bad, both in seasons of new birth and burials. Yet, the perils we face—the losses we endure—produce deep grief, sorrow, and mourning. But the valley of death shall not permanently consume us, for our shepherd has defeated death and will raise us too. Therefore, through all of these seasons, we will not be robed of our hope. Consequently, a well-fed, bible-nourished Christian does not grieve like the world, and such a Christian does not approach Covid or any killer in the same way as the world.
Cyprian’s voice powerfully shakes us awake to think that what we have and do experience are not the end. This life is not all there is and we should not cling to it as if it were. We need to embrace the hope of the resurrection and let that radically transform us. We need to attend churches and surround ourselves with Christians who heartily believe with such unwavering resolve. And we need to be a light to spread this hope too.
1) Cyprian’s words are a far cry from our modern sensibilities. In what ways does it cause you to pause or create consternation?
2) Are you confident enough in the resurrection to say that ‘dying is peace’?
3) What about death causes you the most discomforting thoughts?
4) Do you believe that Christ’s resurrection is more powerful than death? Does this comfort you?