Of all the institutions that exist in the world, the Church has the primary responsibility of being the voice of truth and reason in a world of chaos. This is in part what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the light of the world.” He wasn’t just talking about proclaiming the gospel to the world, although that is the primary means by which the Church does shine light into the world. He was also saying that in a dark world where up is down, right is wrong, where most people have no moral compass or sense of direction, where when tragedy strikes, the world’s natural response is to react in fear and confusion, the Church, who is the sole possessor of absolute divine truth, is to shine light into the world and be the voice of reason and comfort and light and life. It is to say that if the Church loses her bearings, if the church loses her way, if the church ceases to give her light, or begins to point in the wrong direction, the world is doomed.
‘We are the light of the world’, Jesus said, so “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Part of how Christians are to shine in the world is not just by our words, but by our deeds, by our actions, by the way we respond to tragedy, chaos, and uncertain times. John Wesley, the 18th century British missionary to North America, while sailing across the Atlantic encountered a terrible storm, so terrible that many on the ship, including Wesley himself, feared for their lives. Yet, on board was a group of German Moravians who were making their way to North America also as missionaries. What was puzzling to Wesley was that throughout the storm the Moravian missionaries all were gathered calmly singing hymns. Thus, when the trip was over, Wesley asked the Moravian leader how he was able to remain so calm during the storm? The Moravian leader responded with a question of his own: “Did he, Wesley, have faith in Christ?” Wesley responded by saying he did have faith in Christ, but later admitted in his own journal, “I fear they were vain words.” The point is that the Moravian missionaries were shining the light of Christ by their deeds. They were demonstrating to the world that there is nothing in this world worth hanging on to. They were probably singing hymns because they were celebrating being about to receive their reward in heaven. They were probably disappointed when the storm stopped. The question for Christians today, as we are bombarded with the news of COVID19 is, who are we? What kind of Christian are we? John Wesley or the Moravian missionaries? Are we afraid of dying or are we saying ‘this is it! Maybe we’ll finally get to go home and receive our reward! Let’s gather together and sing hymns in celebratory anticipation of receiving our reward!’ But how does that happen? Why were the Moravians able to sing in the midst of a deadly and terrifying storm while Wesley, a fellow missionary, feared for his life?
In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, the apostle Paul writes this: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” “We do not lose heart,” Paul says, even though our “outer self is wasting away”, even though we live in a fallen, decaying, and broken world, even though we live in a world filled with grief and sorrow and suffering and death. We do not lose heart because “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Do we really believe that? Paul certainly did. It was Paul who wrote, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor. 2:9 ESV). Paul understood that what lay beyond the grave was pure bliss and infinite joy. That we can’t even imagine just how glorious entering into the presence of Christ will truly be. It’s for this reason Paul wrestled with whether he preferred to remain in this world or to go be with Christ. In Phil. 1:21-24, while sitting in a Roman prison, possibly facing the death penalty, Paul writes, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” It’s a win-win situation. To continuing living in this world is to be given the opportunity to continue living for Christ and glorying Christ and serving Christ by serving his people. That would be glorious and awesome. But to die is gain, to die would be better for Paul, for to die would be to receive his reward, to be with Christ in person, to experience infinite joy and satisfaction and contentment.
He continues, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (vv.22-24). In other words, the only good reason Paul can think of to remain in this world is to continue his missionary work and continue teaching the Philippian church the word of God, but it would be “far better” for him to go and receive his reward. This is what the Moravian missionaries believed, that it would be more necessary for them to make it through the storm in order to share the gospel with those they were seeking to reach, but it would be “far better” for them to perish in the storm and go on to receive their reward. Do we believe this? I fear that many Christians do not. Many Christians demonstrate by their actions that ‘to die is Christ, but to live is gain.’ To die for my faith, to die for my beliefs would certainly be Christ-like and would be to follow in his steps, but to live is gain, to continue living in this world would be far better, far better than going home to receive my reward, because whatever heaven is like, we’re not entirely convinced it’s better than what we have here and what we’re experiencing in the here and now. We read all the biblical passages that talk about the glory and the beauty and the joy and the infinite satisfaction of heaven, but deep down inside many Christians aren’t entirely sure all that is true. Like Wesley, when we’re faced with the prospect of dying, we’re not sure we want to die because we’re not sure what lies beyond the grave is actually better that what we have here. Or, we think that if we die before we see our children grow up, if we die before we have a chance to hold our grandbabies in our arms, if we die before we see our grandbabies grow up, we’ll spend eternity in heaven regretting it. We will spend every day of eternity wishing we had lived longer in this world. Now I know most Christians will hear that kind of language and think to themselves, ‘No, I don’t. I don’t believe that.’ Then why do we live that way? Why do we say, “to live is Christ, but to die is gain,” but then when faced with the possibly of dying we fight tooth and nail to hang on to this world or we do all we can to avoid placing ourselves in a situation where we might run the risk of dying? Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we not cover our mouths when we cough or sneeze. I’m not suggesting that we not wash our hands regularly. I’m not suggesting that we come to church when we are feeling sick or are sick. In other words, I’m not suggesting that Christians act foolishly. What I am saying is that the world is shutting down, businesses are shutting down, the world is avoiding each other. Why? They are afraid of dying. People are afraid of dying. And when the world looks inside the church and sees the same reaction inside the church as they see outside the church, then the church loses credibility. We no longer have a leg to stand on when the world hears us say, “To live is Christ, but to die is gain”, but our behavior says, “to die is Christ, but to live is gain.” We want to live in this world. We do not want to die because we are afraid of dying. What an amazing impact the Moravian missionaries had on Wesley. They were not afraid of dying. This is why Wesley later admitted that their behavior led him to a period of serious soul searching. Wesley wondered what they understood that he didn’t understand. What do they have that he didn’t have?
Our situation is not unique in church history. During Martin Luther’s lifetime, the Bubonic Plague was moving across Europe. People were fleeing from cities. Governments, much like today, had urged large groups like churches not to gather together. Keep in mind the Bubonic plague had a death rate of 50%. COVID-19 has a death rate in the US of 3.5%. Thus, in response, Luther wrote an article in 1527 titled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” At one point he states: “No one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, ‘I was sick and you did not visit me…’ (Matt 25:41-46).” Throughout the article, Luther makes the argument that when death is at our doorsteps, this is precisely the opportunity when Christians are able to show their faith and demonstrate that their faith is real, that God is true, that his promises are trustworthy, and that Christians do not fear death. Luther does not argue that Christians should be foolish. He does say, “Use medicine, take potions, which can help you, fumigate house, yard, and street, shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.” Thus, we ought to do what we can within reason to be smart and to be helpful. But that’s where he stops. Toward the end of the article, in response to many governments encouraging churches not to meet, Luther writes: “One must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.” In other words, Luther is making the argument that we’re all going to die at some point and in some manner. God has already foreordained the day and manner of our death, thus when death is at out doorstep, that is the moment when we should engage in activities to best prepare for it. As he says, “attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.”
At the time, many thought Luther was foolish, and some disagreed with him. But this has always been the case regarding those who live out what they believe with reckless abandon. Many thought Dietrich Bonhoeffer was foolish for wanting to leave the U.S. and return to Germany just as things were starting to get really bad, but he understood that if he and others were correct about what was going to take place in Germany from 1939-1945, the German people there would need someone to minister to them the Word of God. Then people thought he was even more foolish when after he was arrested, and had an opportunity to escape the German prison, he chose to remain in prison. He saw that he had been ministering to other inmates and to the guards and believed God had given him this opportunity. Nevertheless, many, including his fiancé, wondered why he would choose to remain in prison, where certain death awaited him. Surely, he could minister to people outside of prison. Surely, he could be used by God to those outside of prison. Bonhoeffer understood that. However, he also understood and firmly believed that “to live is Christ but to die is gain.” Like the apostle Paul, Bonhoeffer believed that “to depart and be with the Lord would be far better for him,” which is astounding when you think about the fact that Bonhoeffer was young (39), was engaged to a beautiful lady, had his whole life ahead of him. Yet in his mind, none of that compared to what lie ahead beyond the grave.
Many thought Jim Elliot was a fool for wanting to reach the most dangerous tribe in South America with the gospel. He had a wife and a young daughter. He had much to live for and had his whole life ahead of him. Yet, Jim’s famous quote was: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to obtain what he can never lose.” Jim Elliot understood to live is Christ, but to die is gain. I think he also understood and was encouraged by the words of Paul here in 2 Cor. 5:1-2. “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” But do we really? Do we really “groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling”? We read passages like this and say “yes” and “amen”, but when faced with the possibly of losing this earthly tent, we say “wait a minute. I like this tent. I’m not done with it yet.” He goes on to say, “If indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” Paul is essentially saying, ‘Look, we ought to groan to be done with this life and put on immortality because God has given us the Holy Spirit as a guarantee.’ The power and presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit is God’s guarantee that the promises of God and the Word of God are true. Do we believe that? We talk about how we believe the Bible is God’s word, and that it is true and trustworthy, and can be fully believed, but it’s only as we as individuals and as we as a church experience trials and tribulations where the rubber meets the road. It is when we experience adversity, when we are faced with death, is our faith and what we believe genuinely tested. It’s for this reason that I have often said that when persecution truly comes to the American church, then we will see who God’s people really are. Not that many will turn away from the faith, rather many will simply practice their faith at home, by themselves, rather than foolishly put themselves or their family in harm’s way since the corporate gathering of the saints is really not necessary, or so they will argue. Many will keep their Christian faith to themselves, since religion is a personal matter anyway.
Finally, Paul will say in 5:6-8, “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Notice Paul’s language: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Do we really believer that? Paul did. Do we? I think many Christians are like children playing in a sandbox who when offered an opportunity to go to the beach, hesitate because they’re really enjoying their time in the sandbox and, although they’ve heard wonderful things about beach, they’re not entirely sure it will be much better than their sandbox, or they think they might regret having left the sandbox too soon. But Paul understands that receiving Christ as his reward is infinitely better than whatever this sandbox has to offer.
Thus, he concludes: “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” Why does Paul throw that in? Why does he end such an encouraging passage by talking about the day of Judgement? Paul understands that how we live in this world, how we respond to the things of this world, how we respond to the possibly of death and dying, says something about our relationship with Christ and our faith in Christ.
Again, there are times when it makes sense to want to stay alive for other people who are dependent on us. This would be in fulfillment of the Second Great Commandment: To love your neighbor as yourself. This is why Paul wrestled back Phil. 1:22-25 when he says, “Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” Thus, there are times when a young man with a wife and small children who is diagnosed with cancer would be fulfilling the Second Great Commandment to fight the cancer. That would be biblical and glorifying to God. However, what is not biblical and glorifying to God is for Christians to fear death and dying because they fear that what they will receive in the next life may not compare to what they will miss out on in this life.
As you watch the news and as the Coronavirus pandemic drags on and possibly gets worse, be smart, but don’t live your life in fear. Don’t fear death, because for those who have faith in Christ, for those who love Christ, “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Photo by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash
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