Fall is upon us. In some ways we could call this “the season of death”: the trees are “dying” as the leaves change color, turn brown, and fall off their branches; the fields are bare and brown after another harvest; we move from the long, beautiful days of summer to the encroaching dark of diminishing daylight.
But death of a more profound nature is even closer to us. I recently had the opportunity to visit a parishioner’s father. The visit took place in a hospice: pulmonary fibrosis was slowly causing his lungs to fail; he was not expected to live more than a few more months or weeks. Less than two days after the visit, this man’s physical health failed, and he passed into eternity.
The ministry of the gospel involves “marrying and burying”–the alteration between the joy of weddings and the sobriety of funerals. In thirteen years as a minister, I have done far more burying than marrying. How are people of Christian faith supposed to respond to the ultimate, sobering reality of death? Do we simply follow our culture–desperate to ignore the reality of the elephant in the room?
The apostle Paul tells the Thessalonian church: “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” (1 Thess. 4:13-14) Notice first that Paul does not say, “Don’t weep.” Paul says that Death is an enemy that has yet to be finally defeated (1 Cor. 15:25-26). Jesus himself, the eternal Son of God, did what at the tomb of his friend Lazarus? He wept!
Yes, we weep at the “alien” presence of death, esp. human death, in God’s good creation. But we do not weep “as others who have no hope.” Christian hope tempers and even transforms our sorrow. What is our hope? It is not merely that we “go to heaven” when we die (though that is true and does bring a degree of comfort; Phil. 1:21-23; 2 Cor. 5:1-10). God created us body and soul, and his redemption is not merely that we will be “disembodied souls” for all eternity.
No, Christian hope–biblical hope–is that, since Jesus has, by God’s power, conquered death, we who are “in Jesus”–united to Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s power through faith in him and by our baptisms–will also be raised from death. Jesus is the “firstfruits” of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:20-23). The firstfruits is that first part of the crop that speaks to the promise of the entire harvest. Jesus is the first part of a great resurrection harvest at the end of history of all those who belong to him. Our lowly, humble bodies–subject to distress, disease, and eventually death–will be raised to be like his glorious, immortal body (Phil. 3:21). So important is this reality to the apostle Paul that he spends the longest chapter of all of his letters (58 verses!) explaining this truth at exhaustive length! (1 Cor. 15)
Death is sad; very sad. Paul said he was spared “sorrow upon sorrow” when his friend Epaphroditus recovered from his illness and did not die (Phil. 2:25-27). But for the Christian, death is not the end; it is not the victor. Christus victor! And in his victory over the grave, we know that we shall have ours. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” ... But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:55-57)
The Rev. Brian D. Nolder is pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church (www.redeemerpella.org). The church invites you to “Reforming Church and Home,” a Reformation conference Oct. 25- 27, featuring the Rev. Dr. Gregg Strawbridge, a true scholar-pastor and director of wordmp3.com, an online resource for Christian teaching. The conference will be Fri. night and Sat. morning at the former St. Mary’s facility, 1203 Peace St. Sat. night will be a pizza dinner and folk dance for conference attendees at the Memorial Building. Contact Pastor Brian for more info: 628-1305, firstname.lastname@example.org.