For All of Its Sting in This Life, Death has Lost Its Power

Members of the Fort Assiniboine volunteer fire department planned to sit together at the celebration of life for Fred Bradley, who had faithfully served together with them for many years. But as Topland Community Hall filled to capacity, they gave up their seats and stood together at the back in honour of one of their own, who was also my brother-in-law and brother in the Lord.

The service included the fire department bell ceremony, Fred’s life story shared by one of his brothers, tributes by his sister and a number of friends and community members, special music by family members and musician friends–and when we all stood to sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus, I couldn’t help but think how much Fred would have loved to join in.

In memory of Fred, I offered the following reflection based on 1 Corinthians 15:54-58 in his beloved New American Standard Bible:

But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.

Today as we celebrate Fred’s life, it’s clear that his labour on this earth has not been in vain. He leaves a legacy of faith, a legacy of family and friendship, a legacy of laughter and leading Bible studies, a legacy of making music and working with wood, a legacy in volunteering with the fire department, a legacy of making a difference in the lives of others in this community and beyond.

All of that and more is beautiful and precious and worthy of celebration. It’s a blessing to know that although he only had 66 years on this earth, those 66 years were well lived. And it’s a blessing to be able to celebrate his life together.

And yet, 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us that this life is not all there is. Even the most blessed life on this earth is not all there is. It’s like when they say at a potluck, “Save your fork”–because the best is yet to come at the dessert table. We might say that in a spiritual sense: Save your fork–the best is yet to come. For this beautiful, precious, fragile, perishable, human life will one day give way to the imperishable!

Death might look like defeat, and it certainly hurts to say goodbye to a loved one like Fred. So when the letter of 1 Corinthians asks, “O death, where is your sting?” we might have some ready answers out of our own lived experience:

  • The sting of death is the anxiety that comes with a difficult diagnosis.
  • The sting of death is in too many hours of medical testing and spending time at the hospital.
  • The sting of death is in too many restless nights.
  • The sting of death is in the loneliness that can’t be relieved no matter how many other people are around, no matter how many phone calls or emails or cards.

But the sting of death–although it hurts and it’s very real—doesn’t have any kind of lasting power. The sting of death is part of this perishable world, and from the view of eternity, it’s really death that has been defeated. Death has lost its sting because although we most often speak of death as a final goodbye—from the view of eternity, it’s not final. It’s power has been taken away–

for God raised Jesus from the dead, and offers us forgiveness from sin and the power to live a new life here and now, and into eternity.

That’s the testimony of 1 Corinthians, it’s the testimony of the gospels, it’s the testimony of the Christian church throughout the ages, and it was Fred’s testimony as a Christian.

As 1 Corinthians says,

thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

This isn’t just an intellectual belief or a theological statement, it’s not just philosophy or a theoretical idea. It makes a difference to the way we live, for right after this expression of thanks and victory, 1 Corinthians says,

Therefore . . . be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. . . .

Whenever you see the word “therefore” in Scripture or anywhere, it’s always important to ask what is it there for? In this case the word is there because of all that God has done in Jesus Christ. It’s there because this life is not the end. Because of the resurrection and new life that God has given in Jesus Christ, therefore we can be steadfast and keep on doing good with our lives.

All of us face uncertainty in this world–for all we might plan, none of us knows exactly what next year or next month or next week will mean for us; something unexpected could happen at any time. As Fred’s closest family members, you now face many decisions going forward, and you might have many questions. But you also already have the victory in Jesus Christ.

For all of its sting in this life, death has lost its power over you. One day the perishable will give way to the imperishable. That’s why even in the face of grief and death, you can be steadfast and keep on with your lives and do good work and know that this life is not in vain. There is more to come.

In the meantime, God is faithful and walks with you, whatever you face in life and death. We heard Romans 8:38-39 at the start of this celebration of life:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These verses are very clear that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and the writer of the book of Romans seemed to take great pains not to leave anything out.

On the TV show, Jeopardy, contestants are given an answer and they need to guess the question. This part of the book of Romans functions a bit like that. Romans 8:38-39 are the answer: nothing can separate us from the love of God. The question appears just a few verses earlier (Romans 8:35):

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

The book of Romans frames the question in the language of suffering and death. Just as 1 Corinthians asks, “O death, where is your sting?” the book of Romans asks, can suffering and death separate us from the love of Christ? When suffering and death become part of our experience, we might find ourselves asking the same kind of questions.

  • Is God really with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death?
  • Is God still our Good Shepherd during those tough times?
  • Have we somehow become separated from the love of God when we are too numb to feel it?

“I am convinced,” says the book of Romans that no one and nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not illness, or stress, or distress, or even death itself.

This is the testimony of Scripture, and it was Fred’s experience too. The love of God never left him. God’s love carried him for all his 66 years. God’s love carried him through health and illness. And now as we miss him and give thanks for his life, God also carries you as a family and carries all of us.

I closed my reflection with Mary Stevenson’s poem, Footprints in the Sandnot realizing that the famous poem is the subject of a copyright dispute and not as clearly in the public domain as I had thought. Whoever the author is, the poem’s message about God carrying us through trying times was a fitting conclusion. God longs to carry each of us if we will accept that–and that’s just one of the 10,000 Reasons that we sang as our closing song.

With thanks for the life of Frederick Lloyd Bradley.

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2 replies

  1. You have a gift, April, in explaining difficult theological concepts in a simple and clear way. Thank you for this reflection.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lois. In some ways it’s more difficult to lead a funeral for a family member, but it was a privilege and precious time. As I welcomed everyone to the celebration of life for Fred, I also said that “I pray that our gathering together might be a comfort for all who mourn his loss, and a fitting tribute and celebration for a life well lived.” I’m thankful that my words of reflection went well with the music, eulogy, tributes, and other sharing that afternoon.