Great cathedrals were built to remind us that there is more to this life than what we initially see. They were built to arouse a sense of awe, to lift us up beyond ourselves, to direct our attention upward to the glories to be revealed. Great cathedrals lift us into a communion of saints that takes us beyond our present experience.
As we struggle with the current health crisis, we find it very difficult to look up and find hope at times. There is a sense that we all feel pulled down, discouraged, and anxious because we are coming face to face with death in a way that we are not comfortable with in our modern world.
Late Monday night I received a call that put me face to face with death. After contracting the COVID-19 virus, my friend Tim Russell had died. I was shocked. It was hard to believe. He was a gifted pastor and teacher, serving at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN, and he was a loving and wise man. Those who knew him were thankful for his shepherding care as a pastor, and those who received that love will never forget it.
A loss like this, as well as others we will experience in the weeks and months to come, require us to grieve. This is a normal response. There have been moments over the past day where I would just shake my head in disbelief. As this happens, don't ignore the grief. We are not supposed to avoid the pain just because we are Christians. Remember that the Apostle Paul says that we should not grieve "as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
Paul does not say we should avoid grief. He says that we will grieve, and in that grief, we can move forward with hope. Paul says the gospel and the hope of the resurrection transform our grief into hope, a longing for all things to be made right. As we struggle with death, the death of a loved one, a family member, or a friend like Tim, we are reminded of the grief and pain of this world, the grief and pain of the curse, but that grief and pain will not have the last word.
Jesus Christ has the last word.
The gospel of Jesus Christ provides hope in the face of death because death does not have the last word. Those who have died in Christ will be raised from the dead on the last day. In spite of our grief, we can face death with hope. Death is not the end of the story.
This gospel message transformed the first century. Paul was ministering to people who had no way to comfort one another in the face of death because they had no hope. There was a sense of hopelessness reflected in statements like this from that time: “Hopes are for the living; the dead have no hope.”
Into that world, the gospel brings a word of hope - death does not have the last word. Even though we grow faint and weary, even though we fall exhausted, even though we go out weeping, the gospel promises that we shall eventually run and not be weary, walk and not faint, that we will come home with shouts of joy.
This is, at the end of the day, the only lasting message that the church has to preach. Of course there are many truths to teach, but when the story is finally finished, this is the gospel...the good news that the story is not over with death. In the midst of grief and pain, in the midst of sadness and loss, as you feel you shoulders falling and exhaustion setting in, do not give up the fight of faith. Do not forget this hope. This is not the end of the story.
Great cathedrals were built to remind us of this hope, to lift our eyes to the hills, confessing that our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. Tim loved those great cathedrals, especially the one in the picture - Westminster Abbey.
But those cathedrals in all their glory and beauty are but a shadow of the heavenly reality according to the writer of Hebrews, and Tim is now with the great cloud of witnesses, with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven magnifying and praising the glorious name of Jesus - the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, the one who conquered and opened the scroll of redemption for every tribe and language and people and nation in order to make us all a kingdom and priests to our God.
This is the hope we possess; this is what we comfort one another with in our times of grief, pain, and loss, until the day comes when He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more, and there will be no mourning, nor crying, nor pain, because Jesus will have made all things new. May God comfort all of us through the hope of this story, this good news, until our faith becomes sight and until our hope becomes reality.