What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Heidelberg ho!

What is your only comfort in life and in death?
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Many years ago John Gunnemann, my UCC polity instructor, pointed to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism as a particularly lovely piece of theology. Danged if he wasn't right:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

Despite belonging to a German Reformed church, we didn't grow up with the Catechism in Sunday School or Confirmation. Dad was not that kind of pastor, and his was not that kind of church. So I can't vouch for the entire document, or the theology behind it.

But I have been thinking about this passage a lot lately. Partly because of how it illuminates some of the Eastertide Lectionary readings. In much greater part I'm sure because I recently started a position as a hospice chaplain. Body and soul, life and death, are suddenly the building blocks of my job.


As with most catechisms, this excerpt is easier to understand once you grasp that it is a distillation of scriptural faith. Each assertion is linked to a passage from the New Testament. In fact, we can lay out those scripture quotes and come up with the same message:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
For we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Romans 14:7-9)
And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:23)
He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:14)

I won't exegete all this in great detail. Instead, let's talk about a few options for interpretation.


Paul's original sense — the sense the catechism tries to stick to — is that we belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God the Father. That is, Jesus owns us as a master owns slaves.1 The "price" we were bought for is Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. That's why we should take care of our bodies: we're a valuable commodity!

Jesus owns us so completely that we answer to him and him alone. The very purpose of our lives is service to Christ, and through Christ, to God. Jesus' sacrifice cleared away any sins or faults in us, so now we are free to do good works in the world. God is given glory through this forgiveness, and for acting as Lord of both the living and the dead.

You're not wrong to think this sounds evangelical. We ought not fear death because our life is really about living out the purpose to which God has called us in concrete actions that reflect our faith. That message would sound fine coming from a Baptist pulpit.

Death and life

Another way to interpret this might be to focus on a traditional Christian teaching. We die in baptism, or so it is said, and find new life in Christ as we come up from the water. This is why immersion baptisms often include holding the baptisand under water just long enough to remind them of the death they experience.

We could say this is a symbolic death, a dying to the world. Or as some hardcore types have it, a literal death and afterward Christ living in us. The comfort of the first option is practicing detachment, I suppose. Our earthly death simply removes us from the illusions of life in this world and returns us to our true life in Christ.

What matters is that Jesus remains faithful to us in life and in death.

The second view goes at the same point harder. Our lives and our deaths are inconsequential compared to the bigger story of Christ's life through us.

To drive that point home, some might emphasize the "faithful Savior, Jesus Christ" bit. Whether we live or die doesn't matter: what matters is that Jesus, having claimed us as sheep of his own fold, lambs of his own flock, children of his own redeeming, remains faithful to us in life and in death.

Wonderful ideas. Bit of a hard sell to the parents of children coming forward for baptism, though.2 More than likely, it would be for adults approaching the end of their life as well. Nobody likes to hear that the experiences and attachments they held so dear are in the end irrelevant. Nobody wants to be a mob in their own story. As good as the theology is, then, another way of looking at things might be better from a pastoral perspective.


I have not been on the new job very long at all. But I am already surprised to discover how many people die more or less alone, separated in emotions or geography from their families. Sometimes it's both. And even those who are not separated have work to do in healing relationships and reaffirming connections. We all have to walk through the gates of death alone, but those who die well do so surrounded by their loved ones.

So the most important message here might be that we are "Christ's, and Christ is God's." And through them, we are one another's. That's the idea behind the body of Christ after all. More to the point, it's the idea behind the communion of saints. We don't belong to ourselves because we are members of a corporate body of all believers throughout time and space.3 Our lives are interwoven with theirs, beginning with our ancestors and continuing with the descendants and memories we leave behind. Christ brings all of that into the realm of holiness and mystery. He breathes into its braids a continuous life, no matter how episodic it may seem on earth.

That's the comfort I'm going to take, anyway, unless and until something better comes along. A direct revelation from Jesus or the Father ought to do the trick.


1A. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ it was a fact of life in those days. But B. notice Paul's implication here: as Christ chose to be as a slave to God, so we should as slaves to him and to others. 

2Believe me, I've tried. 

3Not for nothing, "belonging" is much more comfortable language these days than "being owned by."