Sunday, April 1, 2018

Pitied?

I suspect that most of you are familiar with 1 Corinthians 15, more so than, say, 1 Corinthians 16. And the reason for that is obvious. It’s where Paul deals with the resurrection. This is a chapter that you have heard preached on lots of Easter Sundays. And, as you can see, I’m going to do that again myself. But this time around I’d like to focus on one sentence that I have found quite intriguing.

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. 1 Corinthians 15:19

Paul writes this, and then he moves on. He doesn’t explain it. Pitied? What’s Paul saying here? That’s what I’d like to look at this morning. And let me tell you up front what my goal is. I’d like to help you understand reality better, reality now as you work at following Jesus in this age and reality later when you will walk with Him in the age to come. Exploring this sentence can help you do that.


Let’s set things up by starting with a look at what life without Jesus is like. And I think that one word captures the essence of such a life: hard. Life without Jesus is hard.

Now, why is that the case? Well, let’s go through the reasons. Such a person is estranged from God. Actually, it’s worse than that. Remember, such a person is hostile toward God. He hates God. And God responds to that. He responds with His just wrath. So, day after day, it’s hostility and wrath, hostility and wrath. Being at odds with God, this person’s life doesn’t really make sense. But he hides from that fact, using various distractions, sometimes rather effectively. But one thing that he can’t hide from is his own inevitable death. And it gets worse for him after that. This is the result of the curse of sin and death.

That’s the life of someone who is without Jesus, summed up in one paragraph.

Our claim is that life as a Christian is better, much better. We are no longer estranged from God. We have been brought near to Him. And we get to develop a deep and rich relationship with Him as our kind Father. There is no wrath coming our way. We enjoy His peace. The curse of sin and death has been broken and is on the way to being completely removed. Hope, real hope, of things like becoming whole people and more, can flourish. Life as a Christian is so much better than the life of someone who is not.

And yet, we need to acknowledge that, in some ways, living as a Christian is also hard. Actually, it’s harder than what others deal with. Acknowledging that is simply being honest. It’s seeing reality more clearly. We, Christians, have been called to deal with things that people who are not Christians don’t deal with. We have been called to live a life of discipleship to Jesus. And doing that is hard.

Here, let me remind you of what that means. Listen to Jesus.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself… Mark 8:34

Self-denial. We are called to tell our desires, ‘No’. And that includes desires that are good, desires that God created us with. There are times, many times, when we need to set them aside. That’s hard.

Then, there’s this from Paul.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Galatians 5:16

We still have sin residing in us, what Paul calls ‘the flesh’. And it’s drawn to all that is evil. Now, we also have the Spirit of God within us, and He is all about what is good and holy. These two aspects of who we are battle against each other within our souls. It’s the flesh fighting against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh. We are called to fight this battle every day. That also is hard. Very hard.

And then, there’s also this from Paul.

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake… Philippians 1:29

Suffering. No one likes to suffer. It hurts. But this is not just a possibility for us. It’s an essential part of being a Christian. We are called to suffer. We are called to fight the sin that attacks us, sometimes coming from within us and sometimes coming from without. And there are times when it really gets to be a bit much. That’s suffering. And it’s hard.

Now, on top of these aspects of being a disciple of Jesus there is also what everyone deals with: the curse of sin and death. We are in the process of being rescued from these things, but we still sin, and one day we’re going to die.

So, we face some things that unbelievers also face, the results of the curse of sin and death. And then, to add to that, there are the difficulties of being a disciple that we are called to endure. Life for us is hard.

Now, all of this leads to a question. Why is it better to be a Christian? Why not just live the same sort of life that the rest of the world lives? Why not be one of them?

And here’s one common answer to that. ‘Yes, being a Christian is more difficult. But our lives are so much richer. There is more joy for us, more peace, and more blessings that others never really experience. Yes, it’s hard, but the life of a Christian is still so much better.’

And this is where I remind you of Paul’s brief sentence.

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

The ‘it’s so much better for us now than for them’ argument doesn’t work, at least not for Paul. He’s pretty clear. If that’s all you’ve got, it’s just not worth it. Pointing to the benefits of living the Christian life will only reward you with an expression of pity. That’s what Paul thinks.

Now, I know that you all have an answer ready for this problem, but before I get to that, I want you to see something. Paul understood, and you need to understand, that all the benefits that the Gospel grants to you in this life do not outweigh the difficulties. If all you’ve got is Jesus while you live here, you should give it up and be a pagan. Isn’t that what Paul is saying?

I think that that is a helpful thought, a very helpful thought. It’s a reminder of the reality that you face every day. Life is hard. And that’s true even for Christians, or maybe I should say, it’s true especially for Christians. So, don’t expect it not to be. Don’t expect life to roll along pretty smoothly, thinking, ‘Hey, I’m a Christian.’ It’s that expectation that gets so many believers into trouble.

Jesus was quite clear. Time and again, He warned people, ‘If you’re going to follow Me, understand that it’s going to be hard, really hard.’ So, pray that the Spirit would adjust your expectations. And remember this the next time your life hits a hard spot.

Now, for the answer to this problem that I suspect many of you have. If I were a betting man, I’d bet dollars to bagels that most of you, if not all of you, are thinking about heaven. You’re telling yourself, ‘Yeah, life as a Christian may be hard, but heaven makes up for it all!’ Am I close?

Well, here’s something that I find interesting. That’s not where the Bible typically goes. Think about it. How much does the Bible have to say about heaven? Not a whole lot.

The smart people call heaven ‘the intermediate state’. That sounds better than calling it a way station or a stopover. But that’s all that heaven really is. It’s a place you go to wait. And you wait there as a spirit without a body.

I’ve wondered about what it might mean to be only a spirit. And I have questions. Can spirits hug? Can they enjoy a meal with friends? What exactly do spirits do while they are waiting? To be sure, we get to see Jesus, who, incidentally, will have an honest to goodness body. But it will be a little odd. We were created as spirits who walk around in bodies, enjoying what bodies enjoy. So, what does it mean to be a spirit that is lacking a body?

Now, I say all of these things not to disparage heaven. It will be good to be there. But the Bible’s answer to Paul’s challenging sentence is not heaven. That’s just not good enough. The Bible’s answer is much better than that. The Bible’s answer to dealing with the hardships of being a disciple is to point us to resurrection.

The saints in one church were having a hard time of it. Some of their fellow believers had died and that greatly troubled them. So, how does Paul encourage them? What does he write so that they would continue to work at being disciples of Jesus?

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Paul doesn’t point them to heaven. Our hope is not heaven. Our hope is the resurrection of the body. Heaven is just a stopover, a place to wait, until we get to our ultimate destination. And that destination, which we will enjoy with our restored bodies, is the new heavens and new earth: restored bodies living in a restored creation.

Paul explains elsewhere, why we, with all the difficulties we now experience as disciples, are not to be pitied even though this life of discipleship is hard.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Romans 8:18-24

We groan. Faithful living is hard. And we know that there is more than the blessings that we now enjoy. There is more than even the blessings of heaven. There is more, and we groan as we wait for it. And even the rest of creation groans. Remember that creation itself was cursed with corruption. That’s why there are blizzards and tsunamis and earthquakes and floods and droughts and tornadoes and all the rest. Creation groans. And we groan. We’re waiting. We’re waiting for the day that Jesus returns and everything, us and all of the rest of creation, everything is fixed, mended, rejuvenated, repaired, regenerated. We wait for the day when it will all be resurrected.

And any Christians who don’t dwell on, live for, yearn for and eagerly await that hope, well, they are of all people most to be pitied.

So, what do you do with this? And you know what I’m going to say. Believe it. It’s the Gospel. But what particularly do I want you to believe? Well, for one thing, I want you to believe that life now as a Christian is hard. Give up on the myth of the American Dream that tells you that if you play your cards right, life is going to turn out to be a breeze, something to enjoy more than other people who weren’t so smart. Give up on that. If you pursue that with all your plans for your career and your money and your kids and all the rest - if you pursue that you will not be able to follow Jesus faithfully, and maybe you won’t be able to follow Him at all. Believe the part of the Gospel that tells you that discipleship is hard.

And then, I want you to believe the part about what your hope is. Put your hope where it really belongs: you, in your resurrected body, living in a resurrected creation with Jesus and all the rest of us, enjoying an amazing forever.

If the Church in America is going to wake up from its lethargy and shake off its worldliness, those are two aspects of the Gospel that will need to be re-discovered and embraced. And I hope that that is something that we all will be doing.

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