The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: D

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Death of a princess... and a "saint"

(Written in 1997)

During the first week of September, millions in England and millions more around the world mourned the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, who died tragically in a car crash in Paris.

The sudden death of any person who is young (Diana was only 36) inspires more than ordinary grief. The tolling of church bells at unusual times has, traditionally, marked death, with each peal signaling one year in the life of the deceased. In earlier (and slower) times, farmers at work in their fields, and women at work in their homes, would pause in their daily routine when the church bells rang out. They would listen and they would count the peals: Sometimes the bells would ring for a good long time... seventy, eighty, ninety peals... and the listeners would say to themselves, "Well, those were good innings!" -- meaning, 'The deceased lived a long life.' But at other times the bells would ring... ten, twenty, thirty peals... and then all would be silent... and the listeners would return to their chores with hearts a little heavier, realizing once more the brevity, and sadness, of life.

"Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee."

On Saturday, September 6, church bells rang out, and the whole world stopped and listened. From Westminster Abbey in London, final resting place of forty generations of British kings, sounded out words and music and prayers that were flashed around the world instantaneously. More people were brought together in that one moment, to witness that one event, than ever before in human history.

Many nations have royalty. All nations have the rich and the famous and the powerful. What made the Princess of Wales so special? In pondering that question, we may find some interesting answers.

Diana was a "fairy tale" princess, plucked from obscurity to marry her "Prince Charming" and to live happily ever after... but of course, the story didn't end the way fairy tales should. In real life, fairy tales don't!

But in the beginning, she captured the imagination of the world; she was young, she was rich, she was beautiful, she was fashionable, and she married the man of her dreams. What Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had been, Diana Spencer became... only more so! In no time at all, her appearances -- opening hospitals, visiting foreign dignitaries, reviewing the troops, whenever and wherever -- completely overshadowed the appearances of her husband Prince Charles. And therein lay, perhaps, the seeds of the final tragedy. For Diana, young and naive, outshone everyone around her, including monarchs and future monarchs!

So, even as she captured more and more hearts with her genuine concern for, and kindness toward, the sick and the downtrodden, AIDS victims and lepers and homeless, and her tireless efforts for almost countless charities, she was losing... her husband, and her special place in the royal family. The same newspapers and tabloids and television networks that had made her an icon were chipping away at the image they had helped to create. Nothing was secret in the fish-bowl existence of the Windsor family; every whisper, every innuendo, was grist for the mill; all privacy was stripped away from her; she was lampooned and scorned by many. And a marriage -- that might in ordinary circumstances have been salvaged -- finally and sadly broke down. Surely there was fault on both sides, but the feeling in many quarters is that Diana was more sinned against than sinning.

In the wake of various infidelities on both sides, the marriage of Prince Charming and his Princess was lost, irretrievably. Separation led to divorce. But the Princess did not "go away"; she had such a hold on the imagination of the world that, even in exile and stripped of her royal title, she was still beloved by millions. The woman who would never be Queen of the United Kingdom became the "queen of hearts" -- still the most watched, the most reported, the most photographed, person in the world. And still she persisted, despite failures in her personal life, despite what some of her family characterized as deep personal feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, to devote herself to many charities and causes, and to reach out to touch and help many of the poor and wretched of society.

Perhaps it was her very failings, and her vulnerability, that helped to endear her to so many millions. She became, in the words of her brother's eulogy, the "standard-bearer for the rights of the downtrodden", because so many recognized in her their own weaknesses. She was not just royalty; she was imperfect, and human, and real. She was one of them.

So she died, as she had lived, in the fast lane. And pop singers and prime ministers, and unimaginable crowds of common folks, mourned her passing, "like a candle in the wind". And the monarch of Great Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, who bows to no man, bowed to her coffin as it passed.

Someone who truly cares!

The outpouring of grief at the death of Diana suggests, pathetically but also promisingly, a world that is looking for someone who truly cares. A world that is looking for a leader who can truly supply what the bright and beautiful, but frail and flawed, Diana could only hint at! A world that is groping for, that desperately needs, true "Royalty".

There is such a man:

"Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mat 11:28-30).

There was a man who walked through the world, touching the lepers and the harlots and the poor and the blind and the homeless, changing lives as he went. There was a man who truly cared for all, but especially for the rejected and downtrodden and the abused -- he himself was rejected and trodden down and abused because of his good deeds. There was a man who was truly "touched with the feeling of our infirmities", for he was in all points tempted just as we are -- he knew what it was like to feel the weakness of human nature, yet... marvelously ... he was without sin" (Heb 4:15)!

This man was born in obscurity, but he was destined for great things. He went about Israel, proclaiming by his actions that he was a King, doing only good for others. But some of the "establishment" (who hated him) plotted and connived, and finally stripped him of his "titles" and even his clothes and his last vestige of human dignity; then they nailed him to a cross... where he died, still a young man.

"I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (John 12:32).

"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:14-16).

This man, being lifted up on a cross, became the true "standard-bearer for the rights of the downtrodden". And this man, being lifted up again... three short days later, from a tomb of stone, became -- and continues to this very day to be -- the "King" of Great Britain, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, India, Africa, Asia, Europe, and America... and the "King of love", who reigns in all loving hearts. In the words of our Hymn 33 (which were sung at Diana's funeral):

"The King of love my Shepherd is.
Whose goodness faileth never:
I nothing lack if I am his,
And he is mine for ever...

"Perverse and foolish oft I strayed;
But yet in love he sought me;
And on his shoulders gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me...

"And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
Within thy house for ever."

The whole world will witness another great spectacle, one day not too far in the future. We cannot know exactly what form it will take, although the Bible has many hints:

"Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him" (Rev 1:7).

There will be aspects of a great state funeral about that event too (which could well be witnessed in a single moment by virtually all of the world's peoples), because the great King who appears then will be recognized as the One who was crucified (will he reveal the wounds in his hands and side?: Zec 13:6)... and there will be great mourning when he comes, at least for a short while.

"And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean" (Rev 19:14).

There will be a military presence at that great event too, and beautiful horses, and armies arrayed in splendid pageantry. Mourning will give way to rejoicing, as the understanding sinks into the minds of the billions watching that this man had been dead, but now is gloriously and eternally alive... and he brings the blessings of Heaven to all his subjects!

"The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him" (Psa 72:10,11).

"Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising" (Isa 60:1-3).

Before this King the monarchs of the whole earth will prostrate themselves, laying their crowns at his feet!

Countless graves will be opened around the world, and out of the dust itself will be reconstituted living, breathing, sentient beings... Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, David, apostles and prophets, and ordinary men and women... who are gathered together with untold numbers of living ones, to meet the new King before his throne. Out of the multitudes will come new "kings and priests", and "a royal priesthood" -- the true Royal Family for which the world has been waiting!

Surely there will first be a great hush among that magnificent throng -- a "minute of silence":

"The LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him" (Hab 2:20).

This will be the most eloquent stillness the world has ever known. Then the moment of silence will be broken with the peal of bells, ringing out liberty and life, and the notes of trumpets, sounding out victory.

And from everyone who has breath, now knowing and fully understanding the purpose of that God-given breath, voices will be raised to sing the praises of the once and future King, and the whole earth will be a "cathedral" to echo those praises:

"And they sang as it were a new song before the throne... and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth... And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest... And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away" (Rev 14:3; 15:3,4; 21:3,4).

May that day soon come when all peoples of the earth will be united into one, with one king and one voice. "Even so. Come, Lord Jesus."


The death of a "saint"

Within a few days after the death of Princess Diana, another world-famous woman died... in India. Born in Macedonia (Greece) 87 years ago, she was known to the world as Mother Teresa. She really was what Diana, in her better moments, must have aspired to be: a woman who spent her life serving the poorest of the poor, the desperately impoverished street people of one of the world's poorest cities, Calcutta.

Widely regarded as a "living saint", Mother Teresa was perhaps the most admired woman in the world. When she appeared, as she often did, at the side of Pope Paul II, it was the pope who stood, figuratively, in the shadow of the frail and stooped little woman.

It was fifty years ago that Sister Teresa (as she was then known) abandoned a reasonably comfortable job in a Calcutta school to go out into the filthy streets of the worst slums of the city, to teach the children who were too poor to attend regular schools. One day, as she later recalled, she found a woman "half eaten by maggots and rats" lying almost dead in the street. She sat with her, stroking her head, until the woman died.

And thus a new vocation, and a new religious order, was born. Her goal would be to minister to the "unwanted, unloved and uncared for," and to that end she began to gather a small group of women around her, forming the Missionary Sisters of Charity. Building shelters for the dying became her special service. Poverty was her chosen way of life. When Pope Paul VI gave her the limousine he had used during a visit in 1964, she sold it -- without ever stepping inside -- and used the proceeds to start a leper colony. To the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience she added a fourth: a promise of "wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor," whom she characterized as "Christ in disguise".

When she died, many thousands of those poor came to her elaborate state funeral, along with flocks of cardinals (the human, and Catholic, kind!). Among the Scripture passages read was Mat 25:31-40:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' "

Among the hymns sung was our Hymn 313:

"Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

"Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me."


Once again the outpouring of grief, in Calcutta but also around the world, was tremendous. This time the natural constituency of the deceased truly was the downtrodden of the world -- the people huddled in the corners of the worst slums, begging in the streets, the diseased and the deformed and the dying.

And, almost immediately, in the Vatican of Rome, half a world away, wealthy and comfortable bishops and cardinals began planning the process by which the little wisp of a woman lying in state in Calcutta might become the latest Roman Catholic "saint".

The true saints?

We know what the Bible says. "Saints" are not made "saints" by an apostate Church! The word itself means those who have been made holy or sanctified by their faith in Christ, and by his atoning sacrifice. It is "all the church, beloved by God," who are also "called saints" (Rom 1:7). And we know also that good works alone, no matter how numerous, cannot earn salvation in God's Kingdom -- we must believe the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and be baptized into his name.

But once again, within the space of the week, the pictures on our television sets and in our newspapers and magazines remind us of the wrenching poverty to be found in the world, and the desperate hopeless plight of so many. And of how much we all need Christ to come, to gather his true saints together, and to extend his wise and benevolent rule over all the earth.

And in the meantime?...

In the meantime, while we wait for that Kingdom to come, what should be our attitude (or should we even bother having one?) toward the awesome outpouring of grief, in London and throughout the world, at the death of Princess Diana? And again, at the different, yet eerily similar, grieving centered in Calcutta?

We "true believers" are inclined to adopt certain attitudes at such times as these. We tend to feel superior at the spectacle of so many others grasping at a false (or imperfect) hope, or even grieving because they have no hope ("We thank Thee, Lord, that we are not as these poor sinners!"). We tend to secretly (or not so secretly) laugh at the silliness of a belief system that mixes and juggles heaven-going and resurrection with no apparent regard for logic (and feel superior again). We may also tend to pull our garments about us even more tightly, and draw back even further, if possible, from a world lost in such obvious darkness and ignorance.

For every one of these attitudes there is some justification. But are they not easy (perhaps too easy?) for us to adopt? Is there something more?

As the camera pans across the oceans of people gathered in the heart of London, and again shows us the barefoot and ragged masses of India, the mind goes to Paul's words in Rom 8:

"For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time" (vv 20-22).

Can we not be moved by the sight of a world groaning in pain, a world mourning the loss of something it cherished? A world yearning for something more, a world desperately laboring to bring forth something... something it does not quite understand?

And why doesn't it understand? To some degree (which each of us can only assess individually) the world does not understand what it needs, what it longs for... because we haven't told it, or because we haven't told it often enough, or because we haven't told it well enough, or because we haven't told it with sufficient sympathy and kindness and patience?

But the world -- those masses upon masses of sinners of every shape and hue, part of which we saw on our TV screens in the streets of London and Calcutta: homosexual AIDS sufferers along with Baptist deacons, drug addicts and prostitutes along with social workers, the lice-ridden and the leprous, Hindus and Muslims and atheists along with Anglicans and Catholics -- they all need the Kingdom. What they don't need is our contempt, and our mocking, and our rejection. The true King, the true "Holy One", when he walked on this earth, didn't give them that; neither should we!

LG Sargent, one-time editor of The Christadelphian, wrote this in his exposition of the Lord's prayer (in the section entitled "Thy kingdom come... "):

"To desire God's kingdom and righteousness is to desire the day when all nations whom He has made shall come and worship before Him; when 'Truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven'... It is to desire that His reign and His righteousness, like His holiness, shall be known and acknowledged throughout the earth. This desire, if it is anything more than empty words, is a desire that we may serve His purpose... To desire the kingdom merely as an end for ourselves would not be to desire God's kingdom but our own... "

The Kingdom, when it comes (and it surely will), will not be just a Kingdom for us -- it will be a Kingdom for the whole world! Because... the whole world needs it! And if we, the "true believers", expect to serve God's purpose in that Kingdom, we had best be considering -- seriously, right now -- how best we can be serving His purpose... seriously and right now!

If aloofness from their association, and fear of their contamination, and scorn for their ignorance, and condemnation of their sins... if these are all we can summon up in our feelings toward the "world" right now... how can we expect that these attitudes will be miraculously turned off, and just as miraculously replaced with tenderness, and sympathy, and compassion for that same "world" after Christ comes, and sends us out to them to proclaim his Kingdom?

Let us go back (in our mind's eye) right now, and look once again at those vast crowds of sorrowing people. What do we feel? What should we feel?

What should we do about it?

The man who laid down his life for the world -- the man whom we memorialize in this bread and wine -- can help us answer these questions.

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