Tag Archives: resurrection

Our Posture Towards Death

The following was a sermon given on Sunday, November 20th, 2016 at Nelson Covenant Church.

Today many within our community are still in shock at the news of the tragic death of Devon Dunkley this week.  Devon’s family is part of our sister church at the Junction, and he was a part of our youth group for many years.   This past Wednesday Blair invited me to share from the Scriptures at our youth group, and I thought it would be important to pass along those thoughts to our entire community this morning.

We have record of an early Christian community in the ancient city of Thessalonica.  These were new believers in Jesus, and after experiencing a series of deaths within their community, they were seeking to understand how they were supposed to process death as believers in Jesus.  Paul addressed their questions in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

What is our posture towards death?  How are we called to live as Christians in the face of death?

The first thing that must be said, is that We MOURN. We MOURN the loss that comes through death. 

“13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”

Notice Paul doesn’t say, “You’re Christians—so you shouldn’t mourn!”  He says, “I don’t want you to grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”  Paul wants these early Christians to know that they will grieve and mourn, but their grief and mourning will take on a different shape.

I’ll expand on that in a second, but let’s stay on this first crucial point:  Christians MOURN the loss that comes from death.  Death is a monster, because it takes someone from us who was an image-bearer of God; someone who was valuable and loved, beautiful and good.  That’s why it’s important—critical—to mourn.

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Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4.  In the kingdom of God it’s not a virtue to remain stoic and unfeeling in the presence of significant loss.  We are not more spiritual if we can keep sorrow at bay, nor are we stronger if we manage to keep our grief contained and controlled.

Jesus wept in the face of tragedy.  When his cousin John was beheaded, Jesus mourned.  When Jesus was informed that his close friend Lazarus had died, he wept.

That we can allow the searing pain that comes from losing a loved one find expression through our tears and our crying out to God…reveals we are becoming more like Jesus, not less.

Christians mourn in the face of death.

But there is a second thing that must be said.  In the face of death, We MOCK. We MOCK the powerlessness of death.  Paul continues:

14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

And in 1 Corinthians 15:22–26 Paul declares:

22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

 

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I’ve been reading through St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation (written in the 4th century).  In a chapter on the resurrection Athanasius shares how he has witnessed the truth of Jesus’ resurrection transform how the Christians of his day responded in the face of death.  Specifically, he highlights how the resurrection has led to Christians “despising” death (and by “despising” he means mocking/belittling).  Listen to his words:

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection.

“There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior’s resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?

If you are a Christian, you serve a King who has broken death and trampled it underfoot.  When Jesus was resurrected, he overcame death’s power and signaled the beginning of the end of death’s rule and reign over God’s good creation.

Therefore, those in Christ are no longer held hostage by death’s power.  Death is a defeated foe, so that we now live without fear, knowing that “We are confident…and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:8.  Even more astonishing than the hope of life after death, is the hope of life after, life after death.  The Christian’s ultimate hope is that one day Jesus will return and bring full Restoration and Redemption to this broken world.  Then his kingdom will be fully established within the context of a new heavens and new earth, and “‘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 21:4).

In light of this great hope, Christians mock death, seeing it for the temporary inconvenience that it is.

And so death causes us to mourn, but it ought never cause us to despair.  Christians must never be frozen by the fear of death, nor overwhelmed by a misunderstanding of its grasp.

Because of what Jesus has accomplished–for you, for me, for Devon–death does not have the final word.  It has been swallowed up in the life and victory of King Jesus; a life and victory that Devon now knows fully, even as he is fully known (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).

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“Does the Work I Do Matter?”

Labour day is the perfect time to be reminded that our work–be it accounting, construction, writing, housekeeping, farming, customer service, banking–can have eternal significance.

In his book Every Good Endeavor, pastor Timothy Keller makes the following claim:

“Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavours, even the best, will come to naught…unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavour, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”

When I first became a Christian, my understanding of the gospel was little more than,  “Jesus died so you could be forgiven and go to heaven.”  Inside of that definition there’s hardly a compelling vision for our work beyond perhaps a (re)commit to basic ethics such as “don’t steal.”  But when we allow the full gospel to inform our understanding of life here and now; a gospel that holds together the key truths that God came to rescue us (incarnation), through a sacrificial death (atonement) and by his resurrection offers to empower us into a new kind of life, our everyday lives become massively interesting and unimaginably purposeful.   We’ve been ask to join God’s mission to bring his redeeming, restoring love to bear on every sphere of life.  This will mean seeing our jobs as arenas of influence through which we have the privilege to creatively, thoughtfully, prayerfully, purposefully seek to honor God and bless our neighbours through our work.

When the gospel transforms our understanding of work,  we are no longer held hostage by the two great temptations we face regarding our approach to work.

1. Work as the foundation of identity and meaning. Many people in the modern world look to their jobs for supreme self-worth and significance.  Work, functionally speaking, is their god; an idol that promises salvation from insignificance (as long as we can keep producing and achieving).

But the gospel gives us an entirely new foundation for our self-worth and significance. We are treasured by God,  and immensely valuable to Him.  Our worth and significance is revealed most strikingly at the cross: God self-sacrifices himself on our behalf in order to save us from the power and penalty of sin.  This good news allows us to put our work into a larger perspective, one that liberates us from the need to wed our identity and value to what we do and how successfully we do it.  Inside of God’s redeeming love, work can become a noble good without becoming a destructive idol.

2. Work as burdensome, pointless drudgery.  For as many people who idolize their work, just as many fall into the opposite temptation: to see work simply a (burdensome) means to an (self-serving) end.  This view sees work as something that must simply be endured.  Our jobs are necessary evils, and the goal becomes to work as little as possible in order to get on with the life we want.  Of course, for many people this means simply doing work in order to access more money in order to fulfill self-serving ends (more recreation, more stuff, etc.).

But the gospel compels us into a vision for our work that explodes the “working for the weekend” paradigm.   In the resurrection God has revealed his intention to “reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20).  Christianity boldly declares that part of the mission of the church is to equip people to go into their workplaces confident that God will use their efforts within his broader conspiracy to overthrow the world’s brokenness with his restorative grace and goodness.  Yes, every job remains difficult at times.  But no job is insufferably purposeless and burdensome when we go into it knowing God has placed us there in order to express love, grace, care, integrity, and excellence.

Labour Day marks a time of transition.  Some of us are preparing to head back to school tomorrow.  Many of us are preparing to go back to work (at least in earnest after a summer lull).  As we move back into our workplaces, what posture will characterize our efforts?

Anxious striving?  Apathy and resignation?

Another way is possible.  But only through the hope and power found in Christianity.

 

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Fit for the Kingdom: Reflections on Spiritual Training

I glance at the clock.  I have 28 seconds remaining.   Those 28 seconds will feel like five minutes before they’re over.  I’m not sure which is louder: the beats blaring through the sound system or those pounding from my chest.  My eyes sting from sweat that has poured unabated into my eyes for several minutes now. My legs are on fire, caught in a relentless loop of squatting as I drive a 20 lb. ball against the wall four feet above me, looking towards the heavens for relief.  I hear the grunts of those beside me.  We’re almost there.  Just a few more seconds…

And the timer beeps, signalling the end.  We’re done, and not a moment too soon.   I try to take a moment and compose myself, but it isn’t easy.  My muscles are desperate to feed on oxygen and no matter how deep my breath reaches I can’t seem to satisfy their hunger.  There’s a pool of sweat underneath me and I think I might be seeing stars. And it feels fantastic.

I’ve just completed my third month at a performance training gym that integrates philosophies from CrossFit, power-lifting, and circuit training.  While I strain to catch my breath I am flooded with an enormous sense of accomplishment.  For at least three times a week I’ve participated in classes that have forced me to carry, lift, throw, run, jump, pull and push in ways that have challenged me in both mind and body.

I was introduced to V02 Performance Training through my wife, who had been attending for six months prior to my first day.  She had consistently encouraged me to take the time to prioritize training of this nature, believing it would make a significant positive impact in my life.  But I had every excuse at the ready.  Money and time found their way to the top of my excuse hierarchy.

However, in February of this year I found myself planning an Easter series on the resurrection, and as my preparation unfolded I became uncomfortably aware of how my theology of the body had grown to be robust in theory while remaining shallow in practice.  Over the previous five years I had developed a behavioral pattern prone to sloth and gluttony.  The result: I was overweight and, to borrow a Trumpism, “low energy.”  I struggled to make it through most weeks without consistent naps and copious amounts of coffee.

Even more humbling was the realization that while I was only a few weeks away from proclaiming the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, I was neglecting a profound truth the resurrection speaks to: the importance of our bodies.  In the resurrection God reveals his redemptive intentions for all aspects of creation, including our bodies and the material universe.  Our bodies are good gifts from God, marred by sin, but ripe for redemption in Christ.  And while redemption of the body takes many forms, I found myself challenged by the Scripture’s charge to “offer yourselves to God as people who have been brought from death to life and the parts of your body as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:13).

In March I decided to bite the bullet and signed up for my first month.  The first week was a shock to my system.  Three training sessions in and I had to confront the fact that I had grossly overestimated my current level of fitness.  My body communicated in all manner of ways that it was not happy.  Discomfort was constant.  My body was being forced to learn a new language, and very little about the new vocabulary was familiar.  I had entered into “strict training” (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25).

After each successive workout I found myself reflecting more and more on the implications of Paul’s charge to his young protégé Timothy: “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).  I’ve taught on that verse many times in different contexts, but until I began training at V02 many implications of this command were lost on me.  Dallas Willard’s distinction between training and trying took on new meaning as my experiences at V02 caused me to begin rethinking my discipleship practices.  After a few months I was becoming aware of the disparity between how I train physically vs. spiritually. As each month unfolded the performance training taught me just as much about my spiritual deficiencies as my physical ones.  I was not bringing the same intensity and focus to my spiritual growth in Christ as I was to my training sessions.  I decided to close that gap.

I began by taking an inventory of the lessons I was learning at V02 and then applying them to my discipleship to Jesus.  What follows are the principles I’ve learned through VO2, and how each one has a direct application to spiritual growth as well.

1. In the beginning all training feels unnatural. For the first two months almost every exercise routine felt awkward and contrary to my preferred mode of engagement.  I was clumsy, lacked proper posture, and continually battled to get my body to do what seemed so straightforward in my mind.  For several weeks my body did little more than protest again and again.  I was asking it to do things it had never done before, at an intensity it was not accustomed to, and it wasn’t quiet in letting me know how it felt.

When, for example, the Scripture calls us “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12), we must understand that integrating these elements of Christ-like character will prove difficult at first. When we introduce a new spiritual disciple into our lives, or attempt to deepen an existing one, the new practice often feels muddled and awkward in the early going.  But this is natural when learning any new habit.  The development of strong spiritual practices does not happen effortlessly and without uncooperative beginnings.  The good news is that what feels unnatural at first will become second nature if we persevere through the early, clumsy stages.

2. We train harder on the context of community. On any given week there are two training sessions I would likely quit on were I undertaking them in isolation.  However, VO2 structures their training in the context of a class, and the presence of others working out with me to push myself beyond my preferred comfort level.  Psychologists call this phenomenon social facilitation, and it accounts for why we do tasks better and faster in the presence of other people.

I’ve always tended to view Christian growth as primarily an individual endeavour, but VO2 has really challenged this presumption.  My training has shown me how much easier and effective it is to train in the context of community.  As a result I’m learning to involve more people in my spiritual growth plan and have become interested in exploring how discipleship within the context of community helps us “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

3. Routine can be the enemy of growth. We all love routine, but in V02 the only routine is strategic confusion.  Week over week, strength emerges by shocking the body through muscle confusion.  The training is scheduled so as to continually confound your body’s ability to adapt to a pattern of conditioning.  Said another way, Vo2 has a liturgy: planned disruption.  No two workouts are alike and several factors are adjusted continually to ensure my body is kept guessing.  This never allows my body to adapt to a routine, which would mean a less intense, easier workout (which I want but don’t need).

Discipleship to Jesus demands a liturgy of planned disruption as well.  If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll notice Jesus doing this all the time with his disciples.  No two days of ministry are alike.  The result?  The disciples were continually forced to stretch themselves and adapt.  Spiritual growth was the result.  Similarly, in order to ensure I’m not spiritually coasting I need to employ a variety of practices from the deep tradition of Christian spiritual formation that challenge me to adapt and grow into a disciple that is able to love God heart, soul, mind, and strength.

4. A commitment to strict training means a commitment to living in a state of chronic physical discomfort. When I began V02 my wife warned me, “You will love it, but you will have to get used to living in chronic pain.”  That may have been an exaggeration, but not a large one.  On any given day there are muscles protesting the previous day’s session.  Since beginning my training I’m not sure how many days I’ve moved through comfortably, but I could certainly count them on one hand.

Discipleship to Jesus will mean living in a state of chronic spiritual discomfort as well.  As we adopt and strengthen habits of loving God heart, soul, mind, and strength, we discover the Holy Spirit moving us into areas that disrupt our preferred life of ease.  Jesus’ call to forgive those who have harmed us, bless our enemies, practice gospel-sized generosity can leave us tired, sore, and definitely uncomfortable.  But that’s evidence that our spiritual muscles are being worked.

5. Rest is imperative. My rest days are precious.  Without them I couldn’t sustain the mental and physical intensity of VO2’s workouts.  They are Sabbaths that allow me to replenish in both body and mind.  I’ve never slept better since starting this training regime.

Training in godliness demands a reclamation of the practice of Sabbath.  After attempting to live too long without a day to pray and play, I’ve learned that I just can’t sustain intentional, intense discipleship.  My discipleship efforts do not flow out of my attempt to secure acceptance in Christ, but flow out of my acceptance in him.  Therefore, if I’m not taking time to rest in God’s grace, love, and goodness, spiritual injury (i.e. burnout) is inevitable.  The practice of Sabbath grounds me in the gospel and renews me for Jesus’ mission.

6. I need to eat intentionally and healthy. If I fail to intake the proper food before or after my workouts, I pay the price.  Exercising at this intensity has caused me to focus more on what I’m putting into my body, because more than ever it has a direct and almost immediate effect on my ability to perform when the clock is ticking.  I’ve become more conscious of what I eat and why.

A casual approach to discipleship will lead to a casual approach to spiritual intake.  When I committed to strict training, my diet necessarily followed suit.  I’ve become more conscious of my need to consume, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8), beginning with feeding steadily on Scripture and quality books and resources.

7. Coaching matters. Our head trainer Megan understands that each of us comes with a set of pre-conceived self-limitations.  Because she’s a skilled coach, she understands where I’m strong and weak, and is able to identify opportunities to push me beyond my comfort zone.

In order to grow beyond my present capacities I need to enlist wiser, more mature Christians who can help me become aware of areas where I’m plateauing or coasting.  I need spiritual mentors who can help push me into new patterns that I wouldn’t think to try without their input.

What Am I Training For?

V02 is a performance training gym.  Which begs the question: training for what end? 

Everyone’s answer is different of course, but here’s mine.  As a disciple of Jesus my central calling is to love God and love others (Mark 12:28-31).  Discipleship is the process by which I cultivate spiritual strength and vibrancy so that I can fulfill this calling and be a blessing to others.  The last three months at V02 have challenged me to move into that calling with a greater focus and a renewed perspective.  Echoing Paul, my aim is simple: I do not want to run like someone running aimlessly.  I do not want to fight like a boxer who can’t land blows.  Instead, I train my body, making it my slave, for the world’s good and God’s glory.

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