In a letter historians call “The Epistle to Diognetus,” an unknown second-century follower of Jesus wrote to a non-Christian skeptic named Diognetus to answer his questions about this strange new religion called Christianity. The opening lines of his letter capture what Diognetus must have found so appealing about followers of Jesus roughly eighteen hundred years ago:
I have noticed, my lord Diognetus, the deep interest you have been showing in Christianity, and the close and careful inquiries you have been making about it. You would like to know what God Christians believe in, and what sort of cult they practice which enables them to set so little store by this world, and even to make light of death itself . . . I pray God, the Author of both our speech and hearing, to grant me such use of my tongue that you may derive the fullest benefit from listening to me.
As I read those opening lines, I was struck by the phrase “make light of death,” and I wondered what Diognetus had seen that made him form this impression of Christians. Maybe Diognetus had a Christian neighbor who risked her life every day as she walked through dangerous streets feeding the poor. Maybe he watched a close friend with a terminal disease live his final days full of joy, praying to a God whose name Diognetus didn’t recognize. Maybe he watched a mob of people in the marketplace attack a Christian family because they were hurting business by refusing to purchase meat that had been sacrificed to one of the pagan gods. We’re not told what specific event caused Diognetus to become so curious about Christianity. All we know is that he was curious to know why these people could smile in the face of death.
In my experience, courage in the face of death is what ultimately separates Christians from non-Christians. One of the best sermon series I have ever preached was a series called “Dangerous Prayers.” I kicked off the series with a sermon on Psalm 39:4, which says, “Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life.” The series was aimed at people who were not yet Christians, so I spent a long time trying to figure out how I could get them to reflect upon “how fleeting” their life is.
After a few days I came up with what I thought was a pretty creative idea. We called a local funeral home and borrowed one of their caskets. Right before the sermon that Sunday, the lights went dark. The ushers brought lit candelabras onto the stage, and funeral music began playing in the background. In the hallway I jumped into the casket and the ushers closed the coffin lid and slowly carried the casket onto the stage. I timed it so the coffin sat on the stage for two full minutes before I slowly lifted the creaking lid and crawled out with my Bible and sermon notes.
For almost thirty minutes I spoke with the lights off and the candles glowing. I told my listeners that I could predict with one hundred percent accuracy that each of them was going to end up in a coffin one day. It might be twenty, thirty, or forty years before it happens, but they could count on it coming.
Our people have come to expect the unexpected at our church, so I thought I would receive an endless number of high fives and “Great sermon, Pastor” comments in the hallway. Quite the contrary! People were fuming. Rather, the non-Christians who attended our church, roughly half of our attendance at the time, were fuming. They came unglued, which was a good thing. I had more spiritual conversations that week with people who wanted to know how they could face death with courage and peace than after any other sermon I’ve ever preached.
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