Attentiveness: Life Eternal
In 1998 our family experienced a family tragedy during a family reunion. Nineteen of us started the reunion-vacation but only seventeen returned home. A mother and daughter—my sister and her eighteen-year-old daughter—were killed in a boating accident on a lake while some of us looked on. It was so, so difficult for all of us for years. Even to this day the wounds are still present in the form of scars we bear. All seventeen of us were changed in a day.
And yet, twenty-five years later we are all alive, healthy, and raising the next generation of children to follow Jesus, the suffering savior of the world. Death sought to ruin a family, but life had the last word.
I remember so clearly what the church meant to all of us at that time. How Scripture, especially the Psalms, made it possible for us to hear God’s’ voice of comfort, hope, and purpose in the midst of death. Words of Scripture brought meaning and healing, gave expression to lament and weeping, and enabled us to see glimmers of life peek through the dark curtain.
When I returned to Pittsburgh to teach at seminary after two memorial services (one in Arkansas and another in Michigan) people were so kind and understanding. My dean, a former pastor, made a very wise and helpful statement. “Scott you have suffered a great loss and mourning and grief are tiring and difficult. This will require both space and time. So I am going to take you off one of the courses this fall so you have time to grieve.” Brilliant. That is exactly what I needed. I had no idea how grief requires space.
More to the point of this post and this season, one of the staff who was not a Christian said the following: “What does this do to your faith now? What kind of God do you believe in now?”
It was harsh. However, I didn’t even have to think about a response. I knew the truth of what it means to stand in the shadow of death. Death does not have the last word. Its moment and impact are temporary and ineffective because Jesus conquered death.
I responded, “I don’t know how we could go on if we did not know that there is life beyond the grave. We will all be reunited with Jesus who has conquered death. How could we live if this life is all there is? So, we mourn, cry, and wait, knowing that God is still love and life.”
I will never forget that encounter. The resurrection and life to come—the fact that death in this life does not have the last word—give me hope and a reason to carry on. This even gives me reason to live for others. Purpose is found in the fact that eternity has the final and glorious meaning, power, and purpose.
Every Easter season I reflect very deeply on the fact of the resurrection and the ascension. Both.
Jesus “raised” Lazarus, but his friend later died. Jesus, on the other hand, took upon himself the sins of the world, died, was raised from the dead and then ascended to be with the Father. Jesus did not die the second death.
Easter changes the way we look at life and death, and it should even change the way we live. We do not live as people who are plodding along trying to accumulate more things and have less debt. Easter changes the inclination or angle of our view. We see differently “ . . . because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Colossians 1:5a). As Paul says so beautifully in Colossians 3:1-3:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of god. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Dead people walking. We have died, and so we seek or pursue heavenly, miraculous, glorious, and holy things. People with such a mindset no longer live for themselves but for the greater good, the greater glory of the Father. A seed going into the ground and dying brings forth much fruit. Dying to self means living for others. Now that is a meaningful and fruitful life.
I have known such people who are real “Easter people.” In fact, I received an email from one of these people last week. He is in a very dangerous region of the world seeking to alleviate suffering, feeding the hungry, even caring for orphans as he whispers the name of Jesus. Easter people take risks of love knowing that they have died and their life is hidden with Christ in God. He wrote in his email:
The conditions here are more than any human can bear. We have sent more than half of our team home for various reasons from physiological or psychological trauma. When I came here more than a month ago, I asked the Father to make it clear why He opened this door. The smell and stench of death is evident everywhere. The people have lost hope and the children are in severe trauma. However, the Father has knocked down the walls of so many hearts here. On my expatriate team of thirteen people, four have confessed, repented, and returned to Jesus. In the city there is evidence of perseverance amongst the few local faithful that remain despite the heavy surveillance that we have.
Easter people. My prayer for myself and for our Gordon-Conwell community is that we would be quick to be the living presence of Christ in a world that so desperately needs hope.
Lord make us to be Easter people, living as people who have died to self and live toward eternity even as we love unto death. Amen.
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.