The phone rang with the tragic news. My thirty-something pastor friend, Tim (name changed), was dead. He had tried to swerve, but the small sedan took the brunt of the oncoming eighteen-wheeler. The car overturned, coming to rest upside down. The emergency crew unbuckled Tim from the driver’s seat and raced him to the hospital. It was too late. His wife survived the crash, but Tim passed away.
Tim had pastored a radically charismatic storefront church. He had preached that God does miracles in our day, that He can even raise the dead. When some members of his church arrived at the hospital, they asked where their pastor’s body was being stored. Steven (name changed) – my friend and Tim’s and a fellow pastor from another charismatic church – was there to comfort the family. “We believe God is going to raise our pastor from the dead,” one of Tim’s church members announced to Steven. “Will you come and pray over Tim with us?” Steven refused; he even dissuaded them from doing what they planned. For days, one member told others that her pastor wasn’t dead, he was only “on vacation” and that he would soon return. A few days later, many attended his funeral and shed tears of sorrow. Tim had been well-loved. As best we could, we comforted his traumatized wife. Tim was buried; there was no miraculous resurrection.
This is an important dividing line between various church traditions. It is the eschatological question of the “already” vs. the “not yet.” All Christians believe that when Christ came to earth, he inaugurated the Kingdom of God. This is what Jesus meant when he said that the Kingdom of God was “in your midst” (Luke 17:21). Throughout Matthew’s Gospel – often dubbed the “Gospel of the Kingdom” – Jesus told parables of the Kingdom, but he did much more. He made the Kingdom concrete by healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, mulitplying loaves and fish to feed the hungry, and even making the winds and the waves obey his bidding. He brought the dead back to life. Already – it’s a word that unscores that Jesus got the ball rolling, that through his ministry – like rays of light penetrating the darkness at sunrise – the Kingdom had begun to dawn.
More than any group of believers, charismatics are the people of the already. Did not Jesus say that we would do even “greater things” than he did (John 14:12)? The spiritual gifts spoken of by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14 were not for the first centuries alone, as some claim. Charismatics more than any other Christian tradition emphasize that gifts are for the here-and-now, powerful endowments given by the Holy Spirit to the Church that allow her to carry out her ministry in a triumphant manner, opposing the forces of evil and advancing the Kingdom of God on earth.
Seen in this light, it’s less surprising that Tim’s church member would expect God to raise their pastor. Yet most Christian traditions have been reluctant to see everything through the single lens of the already. Long experience has taught us that we live in a world of suffering, that bad things happen to good people. Though we see the rays of a dawning Kingdom, the full light of day has not yet come. As long as we are caught in the parentheses between the already and the not yet – as long as Jesus has not yet returned to consummate the Kingdom – tractor trailers will slam into cars and good people will die, even good pastors. A thousand other heartaches will strike – the cruelty of cancer, the horrors of war, the madness of terrorism. Jesus tells us to pray “your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10) precisely because we’re not yet there. Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.
I believe God can still work miracles, but I’m not counting on it. Even when we look at the Gospels, we don’t see everyone getting a miracle. Yes, a handful received their sight, but what of those who couldn’t make it to Jesus? Lepers were cleansed, no doubt about it, but surely many still went to their grave still suffering from the skin disease. As for resurrection? Jesus raised three from the dead, namely, the widow’s son at Nain, Jairus’s daughter, and Lazarus (Luke 7:11-17, Matthew 9:18-26, John 11:1-44). That is an infinitessimally small amount compared to the many who remained dead. Even the Acts of the Apostles record only one instance of Paul raising the dead (Acts 20:7-12). This is not to denigrate the signs and wonders that our Lord performed nor those performed by Peter, Paul, and others. Rather, it’s a caution to those who lean too heavily toward the already. Martha confessed her faith that Lazarus would be raised on the last day (John 11:24). Jesus had other plans for her brother, but Martha’s confession of faith is still the default one for believers today. The Apostles’ Creed places faith in the resurrection of the dead at the very end of the Creed, after our confession that Jesus will return to judge the “living and the dead.” Life everlasting follows the resurrection but after the return of Christ, not now. We’ll get there, but we have not yet arrived.
Where does that leave us? I believe our charismatic friends serve an important role. They are a corrective to churches that are lifeless, where the winds of the Holy Spirit have not blown in decades. By reminding us that Jesus has already inaugurated the Kingdom, they encourage us to push back the darkness, to live into the Kingdom. Yet we must be careful not to set up our people for a fall, to promise in the now what Jesus has only reserved for later. There is an already, but there is also a not yet. May God give us the courage to trust Him for what He longs to give us in the present and the patience to wait for what God has kept back for a future time.