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St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be uniformed brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…”
One of the members of the congregation in Thessalonica has died. He was a believer. He was baptized into Christ where he died with Christ while he was still alive, and was raised with Christ before he died. But now, the brother or sister in Christ has FALLEN ASLEEP.
To “fall asleep” is a good way to think about the death of the believer.
What is ‘SLEEP’ but a time of ‘REST.’ When our bodies are tired from a long day’s work, or as we get older, even a short day’s work, SLEEP is a needed and welcome relief. And if it’s a good sleep, we awake in the morning, refreshed and ready for a new day.
To all who have ears to hear, Jesus says, “come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you REST.” (Matthew 11:28). REST that awakens to a new day that never ends, fully refreshed and completely restored, never grow weary again.
Sleep is also the place where we find rest for the troubled mind and the anxious heart, troubled and anxious from the tensions and stresses and disappointments and sadness and grief that pile up and weigh heavy on me and that as hard as I try to ‘put them behind me,’ I can’t get them off my mind. Sometimes, it’s like a battle within me that I get so weary of fighting.
But in SLEEP, the battle suddenly stops. All of the mental clamor and commotion is switched off. It’s like a cease-fire is declared and everything is quite and there’s peace.
To all who have ears to hear, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
It’s as though, while we were sleeping, the whole world declared PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TO MEN. And every conflict is over, and every trouble is past, and every worry is gone.
“We do not want you to be uniformed brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…
“HOPE.” “Hope” is one of those great words in the bible. Christians are people who have HOPE. We are HOPEFUL not HOPELESS. But I’m afraid as great a word as this is, as essential to our life in Christ that it is, it may be one of the most misunderstood or neglected jewels in the crown that we wear. We talk a lot about FAITH, but not so much about HOPE. And I’ll take the blame for a lot of that.
When Peter writes to the church, he says that “God raised Jesus from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your FAITH and HOPE would be in God.” (1 Ptr. 1:21)
In a nutshell, the difference between FAITH and HOPE is this, FAITH is based on something that happened in the PAST that effects your life in the PRESENT. HOPE is based on what has not yet happened but will happen in the FUTURE and that effects your life in the PRESENT.
So, the writer to the Hebrews says, “By FAITH we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” (Heb. 11:3). FAITH looks to the past. And what happened in the PAST effects the way we live in the PRESENT.
The whole Old Testament pointed to something that was going to happen in the FUTURE. It promised that the Messiah WILL COME into the world and redeem the world for God. And believers in the Old Testament HOPED in this promise. And the promise of the FUTURE affected their life in the PRESENT.
But now in the New Testament, we know that what was promised has come to pass. God entered into the world, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, and by His sinless life, His suffering and death on the cross and His resurrection on the 3rd day, He redeemed the world for God.
So that is no longer our HOPE. As Paul says, “who hopes for what he sees?” It’s not our HOPE that Jesus will be born and suffer and die and be raised for our redemption. That has already happened. This is now the basis for our FAITH, not our HOPE. It’s a PAST event that has a dramatic effect on our PRESENT, or at least it should.
This is what it means to LIVE BY FAITH. Now, in the PRESENT, by FAITH in what happened 2000 years ago, I know that I am a redeemed child of God. Because of what Jesus did in the past, I am NOW, in the PRESENT, absolved of all of my sin, righteous and holy before God, filled with the Holy Spirit, surrounded by His holy angels, and God is working all things for GOOD in my life.
But as St. John says, “Beloved, NOW we are children of God, but what we WILL be has not yet appeared.” (1John 3:2). John is pointing us to the FUTURE, to something that has NOT YET appeared. And this is what HOPE is all about.
“We do not want you to be uniformed brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
There are lots of people who HAVE NO HOPE for a future beyond death. If you ask them what they think happens when you die, they say “when you die it’s all over.” “Nothing happens after death.”
They have no HOPE. And when a loved one or friend dies, they grieve as those who have no hope.
But Paul says, “we don’t want you to be like them.” “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, [that’s FAITH based on a PAST event] even so, through Jesus, God WILL bring those who have fallen asleep.” [that’s hope based on a future event.]
And what is that FUTURE event, that has STILL not yet happened, that is the basis for our HOPE? IT IS THE 2ND COMING OF JESUS CHRIST.
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
The Christian, who lives by FAITH in what Jesus Christ HAS DONE, also lives by HOPE in what He WILL DO. “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven,” and those who have FALLED ASLEEP in the Lord, will WAKE UP, and get up from their grave like getting up from your bed, and be “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…”
What Paul is talking about here, is the HOPE that the whole Christian Church has confessed from the beginning of its existence. AND HE WILL COME AGAIN, TO JUDGE BOTH THE LIVING AND THE DEAD… And WE BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY AND THE LIFE EVERLASTING.
Over the next several Sundays, we’re going to focus on the CHRISTIAN HOPE, the 2nd Coming of Christ and the Day of the Lord.
But this morning, I want to focus on the RESURRECTION OF THE BODY that will happen on the Last Day.
It was during my first trip to Thailand and Cambodia that I learned a powerful lesson about this. Thailand and Cambodia are both Buddhist nations, to the tune of 97% or 98%. When it comes to death, Buddhism teaches that the soul of the person lives on and is joined to another body for another life – that’s reincarnation.
Bodies are nothing more than disposable containers for the soul. So, when a person dies, their bodies are taken to Buddhist temples which are nothing more than crematoriums. Their ashes are tossed into the river or thrown to the wind. There is absolutely no HOPE that a particular body will ever be raised to be reunited to its own particular soul.
Of course, the Christian faith says something much different than this. The Scriptures tell us that the physical body was created by God and that He breathed His breath into the body, and the ‘LIVING PERSON’ is both body and soul. ‘Death’ is the separation of the two, which is exactly what sin does. That’s why DEATH is directly attributable to sin.
But we believe that God has overcome death by the death of Jesus Christ. What we, by our sin, have rent asunder, God has joined together, by taking away our sin. And so the reunion of body and soul is what the Scriptures mean when they tell us about LIFE AFTER DEATH.
There is a ‘sanctity’ to the physical body EVEN IN DEATH, because it belongs to God by virtue of Creation, and has been redeemed by God by virtue of the blood of His Jesus Christ, our Lord, who took on a human body to redeem our human body.
This is the Christian faith, and the Christian HOPE is that on the Last Day, Jesus Christ will come again and raise our BODY, unite it to our SOUL and we will be ALIVE like we’ve never been alive.
And so, in Thailand and Cambodia, Christian congregations are making a bold witness to their FAITH and their HOPE, by buying property for cemeteries. And they are reverently burying the bodies of those who have fallen asleep, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
“We do not want you to be uniformed brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…” But I am afraid that we are UNINFORMED.
If I were to ask a believer, ‘what is the Christian hope,’ I’m afraid to many of us would say, ‘to go to heaven when we die,’ thinking only of the soul, thinking not at all about the body.
It is very true that the Scriptures promise that at the MOMENT OF DEATH, the SOUL of the believer goes to heaven and is very much alive. Unfortunately though, we say all kinds of things about the life of the soul in heaven that frankly, the Scriptures never say. In fact, the Scriptures actually say very little about what the life of the soul in heaven is like.
To the thief on the cross, Jesus says, ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23:43) To the Corinthians, Paul writes that in death, the soul is ‘away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:9) To the Philippians, he simply says that the souls of the believers are “with Christ.” (Philippians 1:23).
All of that talk about the dead in Christ moving into the Father’s House and dining at the heavenly banquet table and wearing the crown of life which does not fade away – none of that happens until the Last Day when Jesus descends from heaven just as He ascended into heaven, and with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God, those who have fallen asleep in faith, are awakened, and their body is raised from the ground, reunited with their soul, and what was “FINISHED” on the cross is COMPLETED.
This is the Christian HOPE. And it should affect the way that we treat the body of those who have fallen asleep before the Last Day comes. I have no doubt that the holy angels can find every last spec of ash that has been thrown here or scattered there. My point is not to cause doubt about the power of God to put everything back together again.
My point is, what kind of witness to our FAITH and our HOPE are we making to a world that has no hope for life after death, and no concept of the sanctity of the human body, when we do this? A reverent burial of those who have fallen asleep, either cremated or uncremated, speaks volumes to the hope that we have in Christ.
“We do not want you to be uniformed brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…”