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The Rev. Roger Salter: “Making a Good End”

March 25, 2008

The Rev. Roger Salter of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Birmingham always has a lot to say in a relatively few words, and his sermon “Making a Good End” is no exception:

It has been noted in sharp, epigrammatic form that we are not truly able to live until we are prepared to die. Until that preparation has been achieved we are haunted by fear of death, or we attempt its denial. Yet it is apparent that life is extremely fragile, vulnerable, transient, and its termination inevitable. Epigrammatically the Scripture informs us that, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Beyond the solemn and certain points of death and judgment in our experience we embark upon our voyage through eternity and the direction and condition of that voyage is determined by the way the compass has pointed in our earthly pilgrimage through time. Our movement is either God-ward or wayward, and after the event of our demise there is no re-setting of the compass, the permanently fixed inclination of the heart.

Because life is so fleeting, and the issue of eternity the greatest we shall ever face, time here is the only opportunity we are given in order to know God truly and well, and our faith in him is the only means he has granted to ensure that we die well. Knowing that for each one of us there is a definite end to be encountered at a certain time ordained by God we should endeavour to be always ready for it (Show me my life ‘s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life” Psalm 39:4).

Traditionally great pastoral skills have been exercised within the church to enable believers to face their end with calmness and confidence, but in our time, even in Christian circles, death, judgment, and eternity are topics that are generally shunned and the unease we feel causes us to shy away from serious consideration of these momentous themes. In various ways we have been able to protect and prolong life and the attention has shifted to worldly fulfilment, even in the application of the gospel promises, but death cannot be avoided and our preparation for its arrival is our life’s crucial occupation, not in a morose mood, but in the buoyant expectation of the joys of heaven. It is usual in life to devote the most concern to matters of the greatest importance, but in human reckoning it seems that the things of time take priority over the things that are everlasting.

For some the reality of death renders life meaningless. For the believer it is a goal that rounds off a purposeful period of service offered thankfully to God, and an introductory phase of fellowship with him. It is the longed-for departure point for rapid transference to his presence forever (Phil 1:2 1). Death completes the earthly record of the life of faith, concludes our struggles and strivings with sin and adversity, and commences the holy pleasures of paradise.

Obviously our chronological progress hastens our thoughts on dying, and seniority contributes to our serious reflection on the theme, but death has no regard for age and can claim any person with suddenness. Without morbidity, but with trust in God, the young need to be realistic about its occurrence and as ready to die as those who are of more advanced years. It is not the facing up to death that is unhealthy, but rather the current escapism, diversions, and distractions of our contemporary culture that deludes us into neglecting the necessary preparation for the climax of our personal histories, where these will be subjected to the most searching divine scrutiny and evaluation. Our days are on loan and we do not know for how long. When the allocation is fulfilled we shall each be summoned, swiftly and surely, to the presence of God to witness the pointing of his finger either to the left or the right as the indication of his final witness concerning us. Walking humbly and obediently with God we are assured that we are headed safely for home and a rousing welcome from the hosts already assembled there (John 14:2). God gathers his dear ones in various circumstances and states of mind, some passing through periods of anxiety (e.g. Polly, Mrs John Newton), others perfectly ready and glad at the call (Henry Venn, so elated at the prospect of eternal life that his days were extended by a fortnight). A medical director of a hospice was once heard to comment that professed believers seemed to be, in his observation, the most agitated at the point of death, but even in their sedated state this could be due to instinctive awareness as to the momentousness of dying, or excitement at the prospects. Dying is the most decisive event through which we pass. tt is a work to which we set ourselves from the moment we realize its significance. We ponder the cross, and maintain a proximity to God through a continual attitude of reliance, repentance, and prayer, keeping the Lord Jesus in clear view as the one who has cancelled death and confers eternal life upon us as his hard won gift to us.

It is the fact of the certain prospect of death that unites us all in the common need for the gospel and which dispels gradations of priority and importance in the ministry of the church. No age group is to be favoured or neglected. The young need to be nurtured in the gospel, a parental as well as congregational responsibility, and the elderly consoled and confirmed. The young are not to be brought to the forefront of the church’s concern and the old are not to be forgotten. The whole flock is to receive equal and appropriate care through the even and appropriate ministration of word and sacrament. It is the business of families to form character, schools to educate in the sciences and skills of this world, and appropriate organisations to entertain and occupy folk in their spare time in a worthwhile way. The church provides the means for growth in grace for life in this world and the attainment of life in the world to come, and is not meant to be the all-sufficient, all encompassing “ghetto” or monastic environment to which believers may retreat at every hour of the day in separation from our mandatory encounter with the surrounding society that needs the salt and light the people of God are meant to dispense. It is as persons living and working in the actual world that every Christian should find their ministry, calling, and battlefield for which their individual gifts are bestowed. Ministry is not meant to cluster around the activities of the congregation but to circulate among the members of the community, declaring and demonstrating the justice and mercy of God in day-to-day contact and outreach. The role of the church is not to classif, the young from the old, segregate the singles from the married, and divide the male from the female, but to create an integrated family that comprehends every covenant member in the shared knowledge and worship of God and in the kind of all-embracing fellowship through which every group and type of believer learns to cherish and support the other in bonds of affection and mutual respect. We do not need our schedules to be crowded with programmes and activities but simply and generously to be open to space and time for each other for the unhurried forging of real, deep, listening and caring relationships. Sometimes a meal with conversation across the table is more important than some earnest “campaign” elsewhere. Just “being there” together can heal and unite. It is amazing how often folk who deem themselves fit for Christian leadership have very little time for mingling with the “ordinary folk” of the congregation when the Lord Jesus “wasted” much of his time with the lowly, uninfluential, and undesirable. The elderly need to enjoy and encourage the young and the young need to appreciate their seniors and benefit from their experiences and observations. Our disdain for age, fear of death, and avoidance of serious reflection, have created the cult of “youthfulness” right across our culture (aptly described in the words of the title of Diana West’s recent book on America’s perpetual adolescence as The Death of the Grown-up), and the church, lacking the perspective of eternity where the divine promises are truly fulfilled or brought to fruition, apes the world by placing more value on lives, attitudes, and approaches that are considered “young”; all these things suggest the introduction of novelty and lightness in the things of God, and the outcome is that the church of God now lacks historical perspective in vital matters, maturity and firm resolve in current problems, and the endurance to survive the possible ordeals of the future. In pampering and patronizing “teens”, a term unknown until the “Rockin’ Fifties” (and I still like Fats Domino, Ricky Nelson, and Freddy Cannon, and thumb through Rolling Stone as well as Down Beat — so never was a square, man though DW’s strictures make me blush), the church is unwisely likely to become a “teenage club” in comprehension if not chronologically. We opt for triteness and trendiness instead of truth and reverence, and the superficial in exchange for the substantial, and in some places we have more beat than Bible, and more “happy guitar” than Holy Ghost (and I like Sister Rosetta Tharpe too). The fact is that all human souls, young and old, are precious and of equal value and need serious ministry for the training of serious minds fit for the sudden summons to eternity.
The admirable balance and proportion of Scripture is detected in the Lucan narrative of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple the place equally for all the people of God. The newborn child is greeted by the senior saints, Simeon and Anna, who speak eloquently of his significance after years of patient reflection and accordingly make their good end through him (Luke 2:21-40).

One thing Rev. Salter says here has occurred to me as well: we either are moving “God-ward or wayward”; there is no such thing as remaining in a fixed position concerning our sanctification in this world. May the Lord help us all to grow in holiness!

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