This is the title of a Dylan Thomas poem that I studied in high school and I probably thought I knew better then than I do now what it’s about. There was some discussion in the poetry forum on the website that I found this copy about the meaning of the poem. Some claimed that it was Christian in its meaning, some said adamantly not. I know nothing about Dylan. What is important to me about this poem in this season, on this day, is the forthrightness of its title. The idea that the poem repeats and reiterates and that lives in the statement that death will not have dominion. Death will not rule. That is, whether Dylan Thomas meant for it to be or not, the Easter message.
But to be human is to live with death – an oxymoron yet the truth. We are mortal and our bodies do not last. Deaths are what make the news, whether it’s through war, a violent death, death tolls from natural disasters, or deaths of a celebrities we haven’t heard about for thirty years. And yet though we know the inevitable, we live in utter fear of death, it seems to me. We live in a society that is clearly obsessed with escaping death. I see it in the fixation with youth and denial of aging, and in the violent response to threats against one’s own well being, I think much maybe even all of the violence that people and nations inflict on each other is about fear of death – that’s where the whole self defense argument – kill someone? well they were about to harm me, so it’s okay. Nations do the same.
In our reading from Acts, Acts 10:36, Peter learns something about nations and ethnicity. He has just had an experience with God that completely astonishes him. He learns that, against everything he’s ever been taught, that is Christ, all are God’s beloved children. It is after Easter. He says to the people who’ve gathered to hear him preach, as if now, suddenly his eyes had been opened, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality. But in every nation anyone who fears him and hoes what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of All.
This is a new era, and there is a new kind of freedom – Paul said it later, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, nor American, nor Canadian. I was at a concert of the Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer on Wednesday and when she mentioned Ontario, or Canada, people would cheer, and she remarked somewhat offhandedly, ‘nationhood is dead.’ She didn’t go on to explain, and she’s never, to my knowledge professed to be Christian, but this is a Christian message. In Christ, there is only the city of God, the Kingdom of God, and it’s ruler is Jesus Christ.
You’ve heard it before, and can you imagine it, if all the Christians in every nation would remember their sovereign is Jesus and quit killing each other – lay aside their fear and remember their master?
Even as much and Jesus Christ is Lord outside the bounds of every nations, he is Lord also of death – not only of all people – the sovereign over creation and master of death – in Jesus Christ there is no death. We spend so much time with both the reacting to, denying and witnessing death, that it seems impossible that death does not in the end have the final word. And so it is a difficult lesson to learn. Mary and the disciples around the tomb know it – it was a good run, but now it’s over. Mary is crying in grief and despair – she reacts as we all do to death – but there is Jesus asking, “Why are you weeping?” Jesus asks and the angels too ask her. Mary believes death has dominion, but in Jesus return, he teaches her that the impossible is true –
In a world where death is not the ruler, then what does that mean? It means freedom. In our nations, particularly in the west, freedom is worshipped like a god. But freedom in the resurrection of Jesus is not an individual freedom to do pretty much whatever you want short of hurting others (unless of course they threaten to hurt you first). That is a freedom from – separation and individualism. That is freedom from other people, from rules and constraints, from domination.
Last weekend I went to the Faith Film and Justice festival at SPU put on by The Other journal. In a panel discussion on the rule of Christ and violence, one of the panellists, Dan Bell from Duke University, answered a question by a student who was struggling with living in a nation that was ‘free’ because of wars fought by soldiers on behalf of its citizens. How was he to reconcile the insistence of most of the people on the panel that Christ teaches peace, with what seemed to him the clearly noble and just cause for wars in attaining freedom and our current way of life. Dan Bell said, ‘about one thing we have to be clear, we do not gain freedom from war and violence, we are free in Jesus Christ.’
Real freedom – radically freedom of Jesus – is what Jesus is encouraging in Mary. It is a freedom for …He says, don’t hold on to me – go and tell. The living Christ frees Mary for – freed to tell of Jesus without fear. The men, you heard and you saw, ran in fear of capture and of death – still fearful of death. Jesus calls Mary’s name and she is freed for life in Christian community – freed for life outside constraints of death
Do you remember those t-shirts – “No Fear” t-shirts? Maybe that was specific to my generation and age group. They’d have a slogan about sacrificing the body for the game, or bull riding or other extreme sports. The message was about taking risks, living on the edge. They were a proclamation that grasped at freedom in spite of death, that recognized the dominion of death but flaunted it. Yet in Christ, we’re not talking about risk for risks sake. Radical freedom really has no fear because of the knowledge that death’s dominion is no more.
This same panellist that I mentioned earlier quoted Tom Fox (I couldn’t find this quote in Tom’s writing when I went to the CPT website but it’s still a profound and prophetic statement). There are more important things than living, worse things than dying. Indeed there are many important and meaningful things we can do with our lives, but living in fear of death is not among them.
It is the Easter existence that enables us to be risk takers for the peace of Christ, the Reign of justice, as the CPTers and other Christians are doing all over the world, not only in Iraq. Though there is fear, there is death, they shall hold no sway, and death shall have no dominion.
Jesus lived his life and went to his own death with this knowledge. Peter preached it… “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed…We are witnesses to all he did in Jerusalem and Judea.” Jesus of Nazareth, a real guy from a real place, not only son of God, but the son of Mary from Nazareth. He ministered to people in a way that was without fear, in a way that really annoyed the powers and yet knowing that death could not stop the work of God and the Reign of God.
Jesus is calling us by name like he called Mary. In these past few weeks I have heard the Easter message from poets, and songwriters, just war theoreticians and professors. My name is being called and I am sent to proclaim “I have seen the Lord.”
As we move into a time of communion let us re-member Jesus Christ – living again and alive still. Let us be the body of Christ, living without fear, celebrating that no longer shall death have dominion, celebrating the reign of God.