Death and Its Promise

Good morning Reconcile Church family. As we observe the significance of the day that our Lord laid in a tomb, we reflect on what must have been going through the mind of His followers on that day.

The grief. The despair. The reality of death.

Death has a way of wrapping our minds around the brevity and finality of this life we have been given.

There is nothing living on this earth that doesn’t pass through the gates of death.

And those who were gathered on that solemn morning after Jesus’ crucifixion must have been devastated by the fact that He was not spared this fateful journey.

In my morning reading today, I wanted to share with you a couple of thoughts that have stirred my heart towards Christ’s sacrifice and what it means for us in our lives.

Specifically how it relates to our reconciliation with God and our reconciliation with one another.

Reconciliation with God

“The apostle Paul, writing a letter to the Christians in Rome, brought his ringing introduction to a climax with these words: I am not ashamed of the gospel. Why should he be ashamed? we might ask. Why would it be necessary to issue this disclaimer? A person opening the Bible in search of spiritual guidance, inspiration, or instruction might well be puzzled to find so blunt a reference to being ashamed. One might search religious literature for a long time and never find any such language as this.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul seems to assume that his hearers will know what he means when he says he is “not ashamed.” About the Corinthians, however, he can’t be so certain, so he goes into more detail. It is the crucifixion as a means of execution, he says, that would normally cause shame for anyone associated with the victim. Paul is quite specific about this in the Corinthian letter. “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe,” Paul writes. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles…..For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:21, 23, 25).

The words here italicized are piled up by Paul to remind the Corinthian Christians of the scandalous nature of the faith they claim. The Christians in Corinth were a boastful group, full of pride in their supposed spiritual superiority. Their braggadocio is misplaced, Paul tells them, for the “word of the cross” in its very scandalousness, is the only legitimate ground for Christian confidence. Thus Paul, surely one who in his previous existence as Saul the Pharisee did not suffer fools gladly, robustly declares that he and his fellow apostles “are fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10).

Now to be sure the theme of divine foolishness expressed by Paul is found elsewhere in religion. This in itself is not peculiar to Paul’s message. The utter uniqueness of the New Testament gospel is not foolishness itself, but the linkage of holy foolishness to an actual historical event of government-sponsored torture and public execution – a happening, it must be emphasized, without any spiritual overtones or redeeming religious features.

It is not easy to gain a hearing for this crucial point, because so much American Christianity today comes packaged as inspirational uplift – sunlit, backlit, or candlelit. Furthermore, we are so accustomed to seeing the cross functioning as a decoration that we can scarcely imagine it as an object of shame and scandal unless it is burned on someone’s lawn. It requires a considerable effort of the imagination to enter into the first-century world of the Roman Empire so as to understand the degree of offensiveness attached to crucifixion as a method of execution.

We can begin with the oddity of the universally recognized signifier, “the crucifixion.” It will help us to understand the uniqueness of Jesus’ death if we can grasp the idiosyncrasy of this manner of speaking. There have been many famous deaths in world history; we might think of John F. Kennedy, or Marie Antoinette, or Cleopatra, but we do not refer to “the assassination”, “the guillotining”, or “the poisoning”. Such references would be incomprehensible. The use of the term “the crucifixion” for the execution of Jesus shows that it still retains a privileged status.

When we speak of “the crucifixion”, even in this secular age, many people will know what is meant. There is something in the strange death of the man identified as Son of God that continues to command special attention.

This death. This execution, above and beyond all others, continues to have universal reverberations. Of no other death in human history can this be said. The cross of Jesu stands alone in this regard; it is sui generis (unique). There were many thousands of crucifixions in Roman times, but only the crucifixion of Jesus is remembered as having any significance at all, let alone world-transforming significance.”

Reconciliation with Each Other

We have been focused during the last few weeks on reconciliation, specifically racial reconciliation, as we headed towards this Easter weekend.

It has been a difficult journey full of tension and passion. We have all had to wrestle with the Gospel significance of this pursuit and how we have been called to become “ministers of reconciliation” both spiritually and socially.

I have seen the fruit of the last few weeks and want to share this last thought as an encouragement to press on, even in the midst of the struggle to grasp this idea of what it means to be reconciled to each other.

“One of the most widespread and persistent images of Jesus is that of the great reconciler, one who promotes tolerance and harmony wherever he goes. Non-Christians often pay respect to “the spirit of Jesus” as a spirit of goodwill, tolerance, and kindness. This is to ignore a great deal in the accounts which suggest that, far from producing harmony, Jesus produced division, bringing not peace but a sword, setting members of families against one another, and leading to anger and social unrest. Yet we too easily emphasize reconciliation without seeing these other aspects. In one study in the Methodist Church (of the UK), 42 percent of ministers said that reconciliation was the first task of the church.

But what does this mean? Certainly there is no idea in the new testament of reconciliation with the powers of darkness, hence the centrality of the exorcisms in Jesus’ ministry. Evil forces are to be cast out, not reconciled. Reconciliation is the result of the struggle, and is brought about only through conflict and eventually through death itself.

“Reconciliation is the result of the struggle.”

There are times when a premature emphasis on reconciliation can be as sentimental as the insistence on innocence that we examined earlier. Reconciliation in this world can never be anything other than provisional. In South Africa, a white Dutch Reformed pastor, Jaco Coatzee, who, much against his inclinations, found himself leading his church into the fight against apartheid, was later called upon to preside over intensely emotional and difficult meetings intended to foster reconciliation between white and black church members.

He spoke of the trials of coping with people who wanted what he called “cheap reconciliation.” He gave as an example a white minister who “didn’t understand that the moment was just beginning……he wanted everything to be forgotten and gone. He made it too easy, he wanted us to be further along the road than we actually were,” Coatzee said. Thoughtfully, he continued: “Reconciliation only happens through pain and the cross….” – long pause

“And death.”

May the Lord encourage us to remember that, as we reflect on this most somber of days, He is sovereign over death and it’s finality.

That in the sadness and pain of death’s sting, there is something necessary happening underneath the surface….that there is promise in the pain.

May we grasp tightly to His promises today and that His grace would empower us to trust that on the other side of that pain is hope.

Selah

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