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Checkmate: Through Death I'm Free

A Reflection on "What Wondrous Love Is This"

I was recently looking at the lyrics to the hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This” and was struck by the last verse. Do you know it? (Also see p. 12 of this issue.)

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.

“And when from death I’m free . . .” We all have to deal with death in life. Death is the great equalizer because it is the great enemy of us all. Some of us have seen the enemy death up close in the trenches or jungles of war. Others of us have known death’s sinister stare mocking us in the funeral home of someone taken too soon, or taunting us in the hospital waiting room as we grapple with a sickness that has come too close. Perhaps a few of us have tried to ignore death or make light of it, but I sometimes wonder if this isn’t because it seems easier than actually acknowledging its pain. We all have to deal with death in life.

We also have to deal with death in the church, specifically during Lent. Lent begins with a recognition of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, and it comes to an end with Jesus’ death on the cross and burial in the tomb. During the entire Lenten season it seems as if we are caught between the promise of death to come and its actual devastating blow seen on the cross of Christ. Yet it’s precisely here at the cross, in the face of the enemy death, that we witness the great paradox and irony of our faith. As Christians we believe that through the cross and death of Christ, death is put to death.

Let me repeat that last line: Through the cross and death of Christ, death is put to death. It may not look like it to us right now, but like the moment in a chess match when the player proclaims “checkmate” (to steal an analogy from the theologian Karl Barth), Jesus’ proclamation from the cross, “It is finished,” in fact means sin and death themselves are finished. Death’s end is in sight. It knows its doom is sure. All of which means “from death I’m free” (as the hymn goes) right now.

Sometimes in the church we have taken this freedom from death to mean at best a life in heaven with God after death, or at worst a vague assurance of some sort of afterlife. But while the gospel surely does assure us that those in Christ will live and rest with him when we die, it means something much more startling for the present. Look at what the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:3–4).

Isn’t that something! Paul claims that in our baptisms, by water and the Holy Spirit, we are so united to Jesus that we actually participate in his death and resurrection. We’ve already been buried with him, so we’ve already been raised with him and are alive with him, on this side of eternity, with a promise of an even greater resurrection to come.

Put in a different way and more personally, all of that means “from death I’m free.” When? Right now. I guess it’s time to start singing!