Sunday, June 5, 2011

The death of friends and Christ's death: the one final the other life-giving

Yesterday I had two funerals to attend. Both of them were scheduled for the same time. One was the funeral for the husband of one of my colleagues, and the brother-in-law of another colleague and school mate. The other funeral was for the mother of a childhood friend, and the wife of a close friend who regrettably is no longer with us. One was a former Minister of Government and a former Police Commissioner and therefore would have had a huge funeral with lots of important people attending. The other was a former post mistress, a quiet person who served her country and God without fanfare, and therefore her ceremony was devoid of any public scrutiny. I chose to attend the latter, and the Lord allowed me to hear the full details of the testimony of the officiating priest, who I had already heard had been held up by gunmen and lived to tell the tale. He told us of having blessed the offering at a crusade that our church had organized for the entire week, last week, and then was trailed to his house, on the assumption that he had carried home the said offering. Three gunmen pointed their guns at his head, had him lie down on the ground, attempted to " find" his wife and two girl children in the house, and then having failed, left without getting anything at all. Praise God. Praise God indeed.

And so the pastor was able to relate well to the Psalmist's exultation: " Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me...."

This week as I went through these experiences and attempted to comfort my friends, in their time of grief, the Lord taught me some important lessons about death in another realm. And it started by a focus in Scripture on one of the fundamental lessons of the faith:

" When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified". I came to you with weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith may not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.

1 Corinthians 2: 1-5 NIV

One of the great tragedies of our time, is the propensity of Christian witnesses, whether preachers, teachers or evangelists, to depend on their " persuasive power" in their attempts to bring people to Christ. It's fraught with potential dangers as, if we are not careful we may be found guilty of " emptying the cross of its power".

This testimony then, of this priest, whose life, and the life of his entire family, was spared by the mercy and power of God, is a far greater witness to the power of God, than the "wisdom" to be found in many sermons. As our God is an awesome God, and is constantly demonstrating His mercy and grace to all mankind if we would only humble ourselves and see. This is why the story of the great rescue of the children of Israel from Pharaoh's hand, the sending of the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the many other events which took place during their return to Canaan, have become the subjects of great movies, many books and thus firmly etched into the minds of most of the people in Western Civilization.

And this power of God reached its climax on the Cross of Calvary, and in the life of the risen and ascended and soon coming Lord Jesus Christ. This is why St. Paul had no other desire but to know Christ and him crucified. In this context then the Lord led me to reflect on powerful words from the book of Galatians and a further explanation from a book written by John Stott, an eminent theologian.

" I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives with me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." Gal. 2:20. NIV




i come now to the fullest exposition in the New Testament of what it means to be 'with " Christ. The reader will observe that the same words 'with Christ', or " with him" occur no fewer than four times within the compass of these few verses:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?......Since, then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God, When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will with him in glory." (Colossians 2; 20 and 3: 1-4.)

It will be seen from this passage that Paul's concept of being 'with ' Christ is something much more than enjoying his friendship, as in the popular chorus, ' he walks with me and he talks with me along life's narrow way'. It is that, for God has called us ' into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord' ( 1 Cor. 1:9), and we are to have no reason to be ashamed of the claim to know Jesus Christ as our friend. ....Nevertheless, to be 'with Christ', is more than to enjoy his companionship. it is rather to share in the four major events of his whole saving career - his death, resurrection, ascension and return - in such a way that we have experienced the first three, and will come one day to experience the fourth, 'with him'.

First, 'we died with Christ'. To those who hear this assertion for the first time, it sounds ( and indeed is ) quite fantastic. ' I have been crucified with Christ', Paul wrote, and again, ' I have been crucified to the world' ( Galatians 2:20; 6:14). And what he writes there of himself, he writes also of all believing and baptized Christians: ' don't you know that all of us who baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?' ( Romans 6:3). Thus Jesus Christ did not die alone. On the contrary, all his people who have been united to him by faith ( inwardly) and by baptism ( outwardly) have shred in his death and died with him.

So what can this mean? .........There is a finality about death; death is the end. So when Paul wants to emphasize that our old pre-Christian life has come to an end, he says that we 'died' to it. Our former life was one of bondage to sin, self, fear and guilt, and to the unseen powers of evil which, because of our estrangement from God had enslaved us.........Then I learned that the only way to be set free from sin was for the just penalty to be borne, and that God had done this himself in and through Jesus who died for our sins on the Cross..

Secondly, 'we have been raised with Christ'. Not only have we died to the old life, but we have risen to a new one....

John Stott continues in this chapter to lay out the new life that those who are 'with Christ' are expected to live. The central point here is that, the death of the relatives of my two friends should serve to remind us that, though there may be a finality about physical death, which accordingly brings great sorrow and heartache, and these very Scriptures warn us to " mourn with those who mourn" and rejoice with those who rejoice, there is more to this lesson of life. And which lesson is that we are all called, as Christians, believers in the saving grace of Christ, to 'die with Christ" and to live a new life with him. A life of new standards, new relationships, new ambitions, new principles, new behaviors.

It makes one wonder how great a country this could have been, if we had had even one Prime Minister who was a practicing Christian, who had 'died with Christ', and therefore able to eschew the narrow interest of seeking and holding on to political power, but rather bringing glory to God, by pursuing justice without favor to his loyal and powerful party supporters. By pursuing sound economic strategies than would bring long term benefits to our people rather than merely seeking to attain short term goals in order to placate the potential voters. By rooting out corruption as soon as it rears its ugly head. By being a living example of righteousness and holiness in a land where immorality abounds in the music, in the homes, on videos and in the hearts of our people. By following Christ's injunction to "love your enemies and to bless those who persecute you". Would to God that we had more persons in high places, in business, in finance, manufacturing, in the school system, at the Universities, and in the media and in the professional class, who had 'died with' Christ, and could therefore set an example for us to follow. I pray to God that in the humble homes across this land, far from public scrutiny, that mothers and grandmothers and fathers and uncles and aunties would die to Christ, and begin to live a new life which once obtained in my country years ago. And produce once again homes where there is fidelity, where the marriage bed is honored, where the woman of the home is a woman of peace and grace even when provoked to wrath, and the father is dependable, a man of his word, hardworking and respected in his community.

The power of the living God was once manifest is such ways in my country, and what God has done before He can do again with the same power to rescue people, that brought back Jesus to life after His crucifixion. But we who believe on Him, must be willing to 'die with Him" in order that this kind of revival can happen in Jamaica and across the world, where the power of God, the unseen hand, is at work, producing democratic forces - to set the captives free - which are beyond the ability of mankind to stop. Whether in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, or Yemen. And we can confidently believe that such a power is already at work in the USA, Britain and even secular Europe, because the earth is the Lord's, and all nations belong to Him. Therefore, let us wait with patience and thank God even now for the great work He will perform in our respective countries, as we place our faith in His unfailing love and awesome power which reached its climax on the Cross of Calvary.

PS. We continue to pray for all who are sick, the dying, the bereaved and the dead, even for those who have not died 'with Christ', as our God is God, "who can do abundantly and exceedingly more than we can ask or imagine". Amen