Death is a terrible thing. It robs us of loved ones with whom we shared intimacy and friendship. Oftentimes it comes like a thief in the night - suddenly. In other times it creeps up on you with an inevitability that makes many feel so helpless. For some like Martin Luther King Jnr, whose life is the subject of a documentary currently running on CNN as I write, and who died at age 39, the effect is felt across the world. For others like the husband and wife who were brutally murdered by gunmen, men of carrying out acts of unspeakable evil, as their children cowered under the bed, the effect is hardly a ripple on the tide of death which has engulfed my country for years, and which has already resulted in over 140 persons being killed in the first month of a new year. A dear childhood friend of my wife and myself with whom I visited this evening, will soon be claimed by the tentacles of death, and yet in the midst of the sorrow I found comfort in the fact that she knows the Lord Jesus and will be with Him, forever, in a short while.
This is the context in which I find myself sharing about the death of a Jamaican cultural and intellectual icon, who died this week in a New York Hospital after suffering a massive heart attack. The late Rex Nettleford, apart from Bob Marley before he died, and of course our super athlete Usain Bolt, was the closest thing you could get to having a national hero alive and present with us. A world renowned Academic and Historian whose involvement with, and whose impact on, our University - as student, lecturer and Vice Chancellor and various other posts - for over fifty years is incalculable; a celebrated Caribbean author of many books which had a seminal impact on the psyche of black people across the diaspora; a dancer and choreographer extraordinaire, and founder and artistic director of the world famous National Dance Theatre Company; a friend and mentor of , and therefore one who wielded considerable influence on, at least two of our former political leaders; one who had a powerful impact on our modern trade union movement. On account of these achievements and no doubt for many others, he received many accolades and awards, but none more important that being the recipient of the nation's third highest honor - the order of Merit. No doubt at another level many Jamaicans who benefited from his tremendous gifts will always have a special place in their heart for him as he exits the national and indeed international stage of life. And many others who shared such national prominence have been showered with praise and love. I can think of the late Michael Manley and the huge funeral that he had and the quality and quantity of the persons who came to pay their respects - Fidel Castro and others.
But though the world lavishes praise on such individuals how does the Lord view them. Do people whose lives impacted so many others for good, whose gifts and talents brought much pleasure to others, whose wisdom help to infuse the minds of a once enslaved people with self confidence and honor, who sacrificed much , who lived a life of humility, automatically gain God's favor? If so then why would the Lord Jesus have to die on the Cross of Calvary? Why did Jesus tell the crowd of people who had just witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand with five five barley loaves and two fish, that the work of God is to " believe in the one who he sent". And who was this " one"? What does the world make of the passage of Scripture read in my church today:
" Now brother, I want to remind you of the gospel which I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you were saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred on the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James and then to all the apostles and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God"
1 Corinthians 15:1-9 NIV
What are we to make of this passage which speaks of two powerful witnesses to the " One " who was sent by God to die and to be raised from death for the sins of all mankind. The Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, which foretold the coming of Christ, and the mass of people who saw the risen Christ? That a pure and Holy God has recognized that all men have sinned and fallen short of His glory. That this same God in His mercy and in His love has provided a way back to Himself, reconciliation and salvation, in and through the death and Resurrection of the " One " whom He sent. Praise God! This is the essence of the Christian faith. The essence of the faith of Martin Luther King, of Sam Sharpe one of our national heroes, and of Marcus Mosiah Garvey the fore runner of all Black Power and Black Liberation advocates.
The Word of God very dramatically records in another passage read to day in my church, how the same Peter who when he was confronted by the power and majesty and purity of Christ fell at his feet and said to Him : " Go away from me Lord; I am sinful man". Luke 5: 8 NIV
So what are to make of all of this talk of sin and death and of Atonement for Sin? Is it because this event was not recorded by BBC or CNN or the Media in Russia or China that we can disregard the powerful message(s) from the Lord in the Corinthian passage? Perhaps the world can but we who claim Christ can ill afford to harbour any such delusions if we are to be true to our faith.
This is the essence of the message I read in a meditation from Chris Tiegen this week.
FAITH versus SIGHT ROMANS 4: 1-25
God will credit righteousness - for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.
The world lives by sight ; the body of Christ lives by faith. That, more than anything, explains why there will always be enmity between the two.
Think about the world's dependence on sight --human reasoning as the key to solving humanity's problems. The world thinks the scientific method will correctly analyze social problems and find solutions for them, and that it will correctly diagnose biological and environmental pathology and find appropriate cures. The right human leadership, endowed with enlightened political philosophies and compassionate intentions, will presumably take us where we need to go. And social capital - the common efforts of a tolerant and hardworking society - will pull us through to conquer any evil and establish peace. But for all its focus on sight , the world doesn't understand sin. It overestimates our ability to succeed. The world does not get it; life in this world without God is futile. And it will always be.
Christians, on the other hand, have nothing against the scientific method, human leadership and social capital. We just don't see them as the answers. Under the guidance of a God with a plan and infinite wisdom, they are useful tools. But the solutions? Never. Living by sight, on those terms is blind.
That's why faith is held in contempt by secular society. Christians approach life from a different vantage point: the world strives for independence; we strive for dependence. We know deep down inside that we are subjects to a greater will.
It is the responsibility of the body of Christ to live by faith in this vision - impaired world. We are the only ones who see --not by our won eyes, but through the eyes of the Scripture - the direction of history. We are the only ones who see - again, through the Word - the will of the Father. We are the only ones who know the design of this universe and the divine heart that designed it. Faith calls us to live boldly - hope against hope - as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
So did anyone tell this great man that he was a sinner and that he needed to repent before God and man? And what was his response? Did he believe in the " One " whom God sent? As believers we must be vigilant in informing people that good works alone cannot get you into God's Kingdom. We must be determined to share with others that this life and this world what we can see and hear and touch is not all there is to creation - that the kingdoms of this world as the Rev. Sam Vassell reminded us at Keswick last week, will one day become the Kingdom of God. We must be true to our faith and tell others that there is another life to come after this one and it is not with our ancestors - African or European, Asian or Polynesian. That the Holy Scriptures declare that :
" So I say live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.......the acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I did before that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God....those who belong to Christ have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires" Ephesians 5:16-24. NIV
Further that at funerals, in our church, as the clergy processes at the beginning of the service, one member solemnly intones " Man born of woman is appointed once to die, and then the judgement".
But we have to go further than believing, as if not then it is not only those who have not believed in the " One " who God sent, who are at risk of being judged, but we who " claim " Christ and are in church Sunday after Sunday. As the same Scriptures tell us that the devil believes and trembles, but then continues to do evil. We who believe must become " salt and light", we must be available to God to be " poured out like wine and broken like bread" so that others may come to know of the saving grace of Jesus. Christian journalists, at the risk fo being accused of " not having respect for the dead" must deal with the fundamentals of life, search deeper, ask probing questions, and not only chronicle good deeds and heap well deserved praises on our icons - alive or dead. So too our Pastors. We need to be reminded that Christ warns of those who will hear the terrible words " I do not know you", ( another Keswick message) in response to our claims of casting out demons and prophesying in His name. The flock need to be reminded that " being saved" is not the end game, but rather " living by the Spirit of God" in humble obedience, in holiness, and in full recognition of our sinfulness before God, like Peter.
The danger in this life for both great men like Nettleford and Manley, and for us who claim to be followers of Christ, and therefore part of His body - the church - is to take our eyes off the Cross, and not to brood deeply on its significance, even momentarily. As without a deep appreciation of the depth of our sinful state, the profound gift of reconciliation of all creation to God, and the acceptance of the gift of the Holy Spirit - Who empowers the believer to live a holy life and a life dedicated to bring God glory and honor, and Who reveals all truth and Who, in the same way He raised Christ from the dead, will raise us also on the last day unto everlasting life, then this present life is meaningless and empty - despite its apparent fullness
And so we walk by faith and not by sight, that the evil which now pervades our country will one day be conquered, that our loved ones, and all who die in Christ will find peace in Him, that though we meet resistance, we continue to share the good news of God's love for all mankind in Christ Jesus and of the impending judgement. I close with the words of a well known poet, and words from the Holy Scriptures which came into my head this week as I pondered these things. " You think you are in heaven but you are living in hell"
" For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul".
So we continue to pray for ourselves, that we may remain faithful to the God who died for us, to the end, and for all who come into our lives - believers and unbelievers, friend or foe, relative or complete stranger, the obviously wicked or the seemingly upright, the 'backslider' or the pious, as God loves them all and the proof of it is written large on the Cross of Calvary. In Christ's name. Amen