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As part of an exercise at a Churches Learning Change virtual retreat this week, I was asked to describe my dream. Not the peaceful dreams one might have while their head rests on a pillow, but the dream God has given me for a future that aligns with God’s mission in the world. A dream that might require risk.
In the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the exercise is designed to help us articulate a vision that compels us into action, the way that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has motivated multiple generations to ensure that civil rights are available to all.
Of course, none of us expected to be half as brilliant or profound as Dr. King. Still, like my fellow participants, I put pen to paper and gave myself permission to write a draft, reminding myself that I could edit and fine tune it later. In the end, I described a dream for my own personal transformation and the transformation of the world, all facilitated by the Holy Spirit through the work of a beloved community called the Church.
To my surprise, as I wrote about the church, one of the recurring themes was death. Perhaps it ought not be a surprise for death to be a theme in the description of a community united by a Savior who willingly sacrificed his life and rose again. Perhaps talk of death should be expected, even welcomed, among a people who know the one who defeated its power.
Perhaps. And yet, it’s still tricky, isn’t it? For a people who sing “Up from the grave he arose!,” we may not yet fully understand matters of death as an essential element of the faith we share. Instead, death is often treated as something to be avoided, or only addressed in coded language.
Do we know why it matters that Christ lived, and died, and rose again, and ascended (another part of the story we often skip) into heaven? The church in Corinth seemed to be a little fuzzy on the matter, so the Apostle Paul offered some assistance.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
(1 Corinthians 15:13-4, 19)
Life, death, resurrection, and ascension are the distinguishing characteristics of the ministry of Jesus Christ. In him, the divine was translated into humanity. In his sacrifice, all were forgiven. Through him, death was conquered and eternal life was offered. And by his grace, the Spirit continues to be sent daily, to “renew and cleanse,” to “resurrect us to eternal life.”
In short, Christ makes possible a life beyond the one we know, for if this is all there is, we are surely to be pitied.
This means death is not how human life ends, which is a balm to our grieving souls when we suffer the loss of a loved one. The promise that there is an eternal life is a gift of hope for what is still to come.
As I was dreaming this week, I began to wonder if the ministry of Christ might also offer hope for the lives we are living now. If accepting things the way they are, as good as it’s ever going to get, makes us objects of pity, then what if we embraced death and resurrection and ascension even while we live this earthly life?
What if we let ourselves dream of an “on earth as it is in heaven” reality? What would that look like?
Perhaps children will know the freedom to play, to explore skills and roles, without the confines of gender constructs and stereotypes.
Perhaps people of all races, sexes, ages, sizes, sexual identities and income levels will hear the message that they are valuable reinforced by the public and private voices that influence their lives.
Perhaps food will be available to all, not just some.
Perhaps refugees and immigrants will find safety and a sense of home.
Perhaps worship will become a lifestyle, not just an occasional practice.
Perhaps Dr. King’s dream of equality and unity amidst diversity will become more than words, more than an aspiration, more than a someday-somewhere.
And, perhaps, the people of God — the Church — will courageously help put to death all of the false narratives, broken systems, and unjust structures that keep these things from happening here on earth, as it is in heaven. Laying each one to rest, entombed under the cross of Christ.
When we fully embrace the life, and death, and resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul seems confident that we will learn to surrender our fear of death.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
(1 Corinthians 15:55)
Freed from such fear, I trust that God is compelling us to take actions that cultivate new life for us and the world. Death is sometimes a necessary part of that journey – the death of all that hinders or prohibits this new life – but it is never the end of the story.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
(1 Corinthians 15:20-22)
Churches Learning Change is a process of deep personal and congregational transformation for the purpose of cultivating spiritually and emotionally healthy churches that are working for community and world renewal.