Between the already and the not yet

dawnThe 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No resurrection? No Christianity

sproutI like Good Friday. There’s something about the love of God that you can’t miss when you look at the Cross.

Last week, I entitled my blog: “No Cross? No Christianity.”

But let’s imagine that Jesus had died but not risen. Would Christianity even exist?

The Apostle Paul didn’t think so. Writing to the Corinthians, he insisted:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV).

No resurrection? No Christianity.

Pondering the resurrection yields many truths. Here are a few:

1. Resurrection reminds us that “good” and “evil” are not to be confused.

People looked at the life of Jesus Christ and saw the loving goodness of God. Yet a handful of religious leaders refused to acknowledge that goodness. Instead, they called it evil and nailed it to a Cross.

God will not tolerate calling what is good, evil. That was the essential point of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (Acts 2:27b). God had vindicated Jesus, the righteous one.

Good is good and evil is evil. The resurrection is God’s warning to not confuse the two.

2. Resurrection affirms that our bodies are to be joyfully celebrated.

Gnostics taught that only spirit is pure; matter – including our bodies – is corrupt and must merely be endured. Resurrection, on the other hand, reminds us that our bodies are good creations of a good God;  they are to be celebrated! In fact, our bodies are so important that God will one day give them back to us in new-and-improved form. Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of the resurrection of all (John 5:28-29). The joys of this life are bodily joys. They will be restored in the Kingdom of Heaven.

3. Resurrection is the promise that God will one day right all wrongs.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Theologians have sometimes solved the riddle by either claiming that God is not all good or that God is not all powerful. Both of these solutions fail to satisfy because they leave out Christ, more specifically the Cross, the Empty Tomb and the Second Coming.

There is no greater example of a “bad thing” happening to a “good person” than when the religious leaders had Jesus crucified. Sometimes we forget that the story doesn’t end with the resurrection. The end of the story is the return of Christ! It is only then that the dead are raised and final judgment takes place (2 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Cor. 5:10).

The resurrection of Jesus is a past event but one that points us forward. Because Jesus lives, we too shall live. Because God through a specific resurrection righted the terrible wrong done to his Son, so we believe that God will one day through a general resurrection right the wrongs suffered by many across human history.

Summing it all up

Resurrection Sunday is indispensable to the Christian faith. No resurrection? No Christianity. Good and evil are not to be confused. Further, we celebrate our bodies as God’s good creation here on earth and – one day – his new creation in the Kingdom of Heaven. And while we mourn that evil can triumph over good in this life, the resurrection teaches us that God will one day set things straight.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed.

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Image credit: HDWYN.com

Heaven: Starting the song all over again

trumpet

Note: This week Bruce passed away. He was a very short man who – with tremendous grace and good humor – dealt with a physical lifelong disability. He loved the Lord, and he loved others. Well-done, Bruce!

The resurrection of the body is a crucial doctrine of Christian faith. We will be given new bodies, strong and eternal like the resurrection body of our Lord. Here we stake our claim; here we stand.

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Mr. Taylor was my first band conductor.

Conducting a 4th grade band takes a special kind of patience. Every child is new at his or her instrument, be it the flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, drums, or a dozen other things that make noise. And let’s face it, for 4th graders, about all we could do was make noise. Like my brothers before me, I played the trumpet, or at least I tried.

Our first concert came at Christmas time. By then, all of us had a grand total of 3 months of experience, practicing twice per week in the band room. Parents and siblings gathered in the cafeteria and waited for us to file in. At last, all of us were in our seats and Mr. Taylor stepped up to the small platform, took his conductor’s baton, and raised his arms. We all snapped to attention and raised our instruments, ready to play.

I’m not sure what happened, but only about half of us began playing when his arms came down, signalling the start of the song. Were some still trying to spot where their families sat in the audience? Maybe others were still adjusting their music on the stand or simply daydreaming, but whatever the reason, it was a poor start.

Mr. Taylor then did something that surprised us. He suddenly stopped directing the song, tapping his baton several times on the music stand. We all ground to a halt, not knowing what to make of it all. Slowly, he turned around and addressed the audience:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had a very poor start to the song. Please forgive us. We can do better. Now, we are going to start all over again.”

And that is exactly what we did. I’m glad to report that the second time went much better, and when we were done, the audience applauded with gusto.

That’s what Heaven will be like. Heaven is New Creation. Heaven is God starting the song all over again.

The first time through, the song has been marred by sin, off-key. God knows we all can do better. One day, he will tap his baton on the music stand and we will all begin again.

John described it this way: :

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).

More and more of those who have played their instruments with me in the band are now silent, awaiting that second chance to perform. On that day, the band will once again assemble. All who have played before us will be present, gloriously resurrected by the Lord in new, durable bodies. What a grand reunion that will be as Jesus raises the baton and we start the song all over again!

How about you? Will you be in the band? This life is only the poor beginning to the song, but a new, better beginning is coming. Don’t miss out on it. Keep your instrument in-tune. What a performance that will be!