Encourage One Another
(A sermon preached at the Memorial Service for Donna Cunningham, a single sister in Christ who died of cancer at age 58, and who served the kingdom unselfishly and sacrificially, especially in the education of church at Grace Christian School. She was also a faithful member of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Louisville, MS, who endured in faith till the end.)
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18
In the face of death, Christians worship. They come with all their doubts and questions, with all their pain and grief, with all their emptiness and fear. They come to the One who from everlasting to everlasting is God and who is the safe dwelling place of His people in every generation. They worship the God, who by His Word and especially by the death of His Son for us has proved to us that nothing can separate us from His love. We come with reverence and awe, not because we have all the answers, but because we don’t. And with the devastated Job we worship. We come not only because God calls upon us to worship Him in such circumstances, but also because we know that it is worship especially and most particularly in the Word of God, that we can find grounding and soothing for our souls. That is why we have read so much of the Bible in this service, and that is why we include a sermon. It is the Word of God, read and preached is the primary means by which the grace of comfort comes into our lives.
In the last New Testament lesson we read, Paul is addressing believers who have lost loved ones, loved ones like Donna and who need to be comforted. At the end he tells us to take the words he has written and to use them to encourage one another. Here are some encouraging truths taught in these words.
1. We have permission to grieve. Paul writes not that we may nor or will not grieve, but rather that we will not grieve as those who have no hope in Christ or the resurrection will grieve. Unbelievers grieve because they have no hope beyond death. Pagans grieve because they are uncertain what, if anything, lies beyond the death of the body. But Christians do not grieve like that. But we do not deny or cut short our grief. We are not called to Stoicism or to the British’s “stiff upper lip.” Our loss is real. Our feelings are real. Death is not “natural” as some would tell us, like a leaf falling from a tree in the Fall, so we cannot make peace with it on those terms. Nor does our hope in Christ take away the real pain and sense of loss. Paul spoke of his friend Epaphroditus, who had been ill to the point of death but recovered. He said God had been merciful not only to Epaphroditus but to Paul, who would have had “sorrow upon sorrow” had his friend died. Jesus Himself wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. We do not give over to our grief and let it consume us as though we had no hope. Nevertheless we do grieve, and that grief is not to be rejected but accepted.
2. We find hope in “Christian” history and truth. By Christian I do not mean that the history is something other than real history or the truth different from objective truth. Christianity is a religion of history and doctrine.
(a) The history that gives us hope is that Christ was raised from the dead. Not that His spirit survived death or that He was alive to the memories or faith of His disciples, but that on the third day His body was raised and his soul rejoined to His body, both to an immortal life. Paul puts the whole Christian faith on the line in 1 Corinthians 15. If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and if Christ was not raised, the whole Christian house of cards collapses. The apostolic preaching is not true and Christian faith is based on a lie and useless. There is no forgiveness of sins. Those who died in Christ have perished either ceasing to exist or coming under judgment. The living who trust in Christ should be pitied because they have placed their hope in that which is no hope. But, thank God, though all these things are true if Christ was not raised, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15: 20).
(b) Paul joins two doctrines to the historical fact of the resurrection of Christ.
(1) The first is the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of believers. “The dead in Christ will rise first.” The Christian hope is not the survival of the soul, though the soul does survive the death of the body. The Christian hope is of bodily resurrection. Christ will “transform our lowly body and to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3: 21). Our hope is the union of sinless souls and immortal bodies. To be specific our hope is that Donna’s body that suffered from such indignities because of cancer will be raised a glorious body.
(2) The second doctrine is the doctrine of the second coming of Christ. When I say this is doctrine, I do not mean it will not occur in history. In fact it will mark the end of the history of this present world. Christianity does not profess that Christ comes to us “spiritually” (though He is with us by His Holy Spirit whom the Bible calls “the Spirit of Christ”) but rather than He will come again to this world. The One who came in great humility for our salvation will come again in indescribable glory for the judgment of the world and the vindication of believers.” Jesus said, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5: 28, 29). It is when Christ comes again at the end of the world that those who are now dead in Christ will be raised to eternal and immortal life.
3. We know how to think of those who have died in Christ. They are “asleep” and they are “the dead in Christ.” It is a fact that both Judaism and contemporary paganism uses the world “sleep” as a euphemism for death, somewhat like when we say “she passed on.” But for Christians it has a specifically Christian meaning. The bodies or those who have died in Christ are asleep in that this is how they appear, as those who have entered into a permanent sleep. But it does not mean that they are unconscious. As Paul says elsewhere, to be “away from the body is to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) and “to be with Christ” is “far better” (Philippians 1: 23). The souls or spirits of Christians who have died are in “the nearer presence of Christ” experiencing an intimacy of glory with Him not possible in this present existence. But this communion with Christ is not the goal or the perfection we are promised. Those who have died united by faith to Christ are in conscious fellowship with Christ, but their bodies are asleep waiting to be waked and raised. The Westminster Shorter Catechism which expresses the faith of the church to which Donna belong puts this truth in a most comforting manner: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection” (Question 37). Let us think of Donna as our faith teaches us: Donna’s soul is with Christ while her body awaits the “yet more glorious day” when “the saints triumphant rise in bright array”.
4. We know what to expect when Christ comes again. Anything we have not experienced we can only imagine. And many of our fears about things we have not experienced come from either misinformation or lack of information about what to expect. Here Paul gives the Thessalonians what they and we need to know about the coming again of our Lord. Now before we look at what to expect, we need to make a few things clear. In 1 Thessalonians Paul is speaking of the only coming again of our Lord – the second coming in glory that will mark the end of this present age. What Paul describes is not a secret event but a very public one. Paul tells us what will happen to believers at that coming but does not address here the future for unbelievers. So what will happen?
(a) First, the Lord will descend from heaven accompanied by signs that announce that something of immense importance is happening – there is a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. We think of some of the great events of the Old Testament – as when God came down and spoke to His people at Mt Sinai. This is something even more grand and awe-inspiring for it marks God’s last intervention in the history of this present world and the beginning of the age to come.
(b) When Christ comes again those who have died in the Lord will accompany Him. These are the spirits of the righteous made perfect, who have been with Christ in heaven, but in a bodiless state.
(c) The bodies of these believers will be raised and united to their spirits. They will rise with bodies like Christ’s – glorified, immortal, but real substantial bodies. All those who have died in union with Christ will be first to experience the realization of the full Christian hope, the resurrection of the body.
(d) Then all the living who are united with Christ will be transformed – will receive the resurrection of the body without passing through death first. And they together with the dead who have been raised will meet the Lord in the sky as He comes in the glory of the heavenly clouds. The picture here is not of Christ’s coming in which He does not “touch down,” as it were, but catches up believers to go back to heaven with Him. No the picture is of a royal arrival. The king comes to his kingdom in all his royal glory, and the loyal citizens go out to meet him and accompany him as he makes his entrance. So when Christ comes to claim the whole world as Kingdom, all who are His loyal citizens will be either raised or transformed, and will, as it were, meet and then accompany Him as He comes to take possession of all that is His. We don’t know everything that is going to happen, but we know enough so that we do not have any fears about Donna’s future or our own if we are united to Christ by faith. Christ will come. Believers who have died will rise. Believers who are alive will be transformed. Together they will meet the Lord in the air and accompany Him to this present world which is His and which He will liberate from every hurtful thing.
5. We know the essential thing about what follows Christ’s coming and our resurrections. We will be together with one another and together with Christ forever. This is the most important thing to know. Our eternal peace and happiness depends on a Person, the Person whose fellowship is the most important and most satisfying fellowship we can experience. The greatest comfort there is for us about our situation between death and the second coming is that we will be with Jesus, so though we can’t really imagine a disembodied existence, we need not fear it, for Jesus will be there and we will be with Him. We know much more of what to expect when Christ comes again, we will be raised from of sin and all its effects. The creation will be liberated from the bondage it is under because of human sin. Sin and evil will be judged and banished. Then we have some beautiful pictures of it which we read earlier from Revelation 21 and 22. But still the best thing and the thing that calms our anxieties, and dismisses our doubt is that Christ will be there. He who loved us when we were sinners, came to earth and became one of us so that by His righteous life and sacrificial death He could remove our guilt, provide for us a righteousness that is acceptable to God. He loved us and He did all that was necessary to save us, so that He could have us with Him forever. But we will not be alone with Him. We will be with each other. God made us not to be alone to live a community of people redeemed by and reconciled to Him. There will be a vast uncountable multitude there, but the size of the crowd will not diminish the personal and satisfying fellowship we will enjoy with Christ and with each other. Our fellowship with Christ will enhance our fellowship with each other, and our fellowship with each other will increase the enjoyment of fellowship with Christ.
I want to see Great Britain, and Germany, and Switzerland one day. But if you came to me today and offered to send me I would have one question, “Is Susan going?” That would be the chief joy of the trip – to have her with me and to experience all those wonderful things with us. When we think about the eternal kingdom, we ought to ask two questions. Will Jesus be there? Will all my brothers and sisters in Christ be there? Paul answers “yes” to both questions. And so we can put our minds to rest about anything that may disturb us and so that we can know that there will nothing absent that contributes to our happiness. The keys are the presence of Christ and the presence of the saints. And both will be there and we will be with them.
So what do we do with all this? Paul tells us to take these words and encourage one another with them. Literally he says, “Come alongside each other with these words.” These are the words that can soothe our hurting hearts, calm our fearful spirits, deal with our doubts, and give us hope in the place of despair. Truly these words are comforting and encouraging words. May God use them now as the means by which His graces of comfort and peace may come into our lives and abound!
Hope of the Church 15 October 2021
To help us in the dealings of our lives we should have such a conception of God as not to limit him in our thoughts. When we are in extremity we must not tie him to this thing or to that thing. He can make matter out of nothing. Why should we limit the unlimited […]
The Prayer Meeting 3 September 2021
Why bother coming to the prayer meeting? In the pecking order of many congregations, it is somewhere below the much-lamented evening service. In the priorities of too many Christians, it seems to have little value. It’s the one we can afford to miss. It’s the one to which we don’t, or maybe wouldn’t, take our […]