by The Rev. Ashley Freeman
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25 NRSV
This week my family and I have dealt with an incredible loss. In the past few days, my grandmother, unexpectedly, became very ill and died. Her death has left me and my family grieving and hurting in ways we are not even aware of yet. Nonetheless, this is where I find myself as I begin to reflect upon Jesus’s words in this verse from Matthew’s gospel.
Jesus’ statement here is one of the most challenging in the gospel. How does one save one’s life by losing it? Does following Jesus require that we actually die in his service? Is Jesus speaking metaphorically? If so, how do we lose our life for his sake? These questions and many others have surfaced for me this week as I have thought about Jesus’ statement in light of my grandmother’s death. Chief among these questions has been, what steps must we take to die?
This week as I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by family members and friends, many of whom I have not seen in years, and others who I rarely see, a thought occurred to me. My grandmother was able to do something in her death that rarely occurred in her life. While laying weak in the ICU, unable to speak, and laboring to breath, she gathered us together. Many were physically in the waiting room, others present via mobile phone and social media as they offered their love and support from afar. The grace and love she shared with others in her life now drew them all together in her death.
The ability for the dying to gather the living is not unique to my grandmother. As a priest, a central part of my ministry is spending time with families as they await the death of loved ones. The experience is always different. However, almost always one’s death gathers together those whom they loved.
The last great work of love performed by the dying is the weaving together, like a fabric, of the lives of all those they are leaving behind. This weaving is powerful and profound. So much so that I have witnessed, on multiple occasions, people who have been angry and spiteful toward one another for years tearfully embracing one another as they gathered at the death of a loved one. Perhaps a few days after the death, these individuals returned to their spite and anger. However, the fact remains the love and grace they shared in life and death offered them reconciliation, even if only for a moment.
So how do these insights help us answer my question, “what steps must we take to die?”
In short, I do not know. It seems to me that often Christians, myself included, think of God’s love and grace as an exchange system, in which we hope our doing, asking, praying, or saying something in the proper way, persuades or convinces God to demonstrate love and grace. This is rarely the case, if ever. Rather, God’s grace and love is present in our lives at all times. When a death, like my grandmother’s, gathers people into community and intimately weaves their lives together, fostering the bonds of love, mutuality, or at times reconciliation, it becomes a moment that highlights God’s grace and love for us, even in the face of death.
At this moment, even though I do not know what steps I need to take in order to die, it seems to me that Jesus’s advice to Peter, to set our minds on divine things will be required. My hope is that my experience of God’s grace and love during my grandmother’s death will empower my family and empower others, too, to seek the divine in all aspects of our lives. Perhaps then, we can begin to die and start to find the life to which God is calling each of us.
The. Rev. Ashley Freeman, graduate of the Seminary of the Southwest (MDiv ’15), is the rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Zachary, LA, where he resides with his wife, three children, and three dogs.