Years ago, when I was a pastor, I stood with a family who had lost a loved one — a husband, father, and grandfather. His widow, whom I’d not previously met, was overwhelmed. She hardly spoke in the week I saw her, so wracked she was by the pain of grief.
It is hardly surprising. It is sadly inevitable. We invest our love in mortals like ourselves, and eventually we will face their death.
It hurts, unspeakably. Grief is beyond understanding.
Being a Christian does not take away the pain of our loss. This is so even if we know they are now in the care of the One who loves them more than we ever dared to.
What difference does Christian faith make in such a time?
Our hope in the face of death is rooted in the resurrection — in the implications of Christ’s empty tomb. Our culture is filled with images of life after death but they are often drained of Christian content. In popular books and old television shows our culture gives us a generic, often sentimental, affirmation that there is life after death.
The Heidelberg Catechism tries instead to give us a specifically Christian hope, focusing first not on our own afterlife but on Jesus and his resurrection on Easter morning. (2013 is the 450th anniversary of this Reformed teaching tool, and I’ve been blogging on it throughout the year.)
Here is the question and answer in full:
45 Q. How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?
A. First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he obtained for us by his death.
Second, by his power we too are already raised to a new life.
Third, Christ’s resurrection is a sure pledge to us of our blessed resurrection.
As on so many topics, the Catechism draws out several aspects of an issue where we might tend to think more narrowly.
It focuses first on the sheer uniqueness of Jesus rising to life after being dead and buried. In his own experience he conquered death — but if we jump to thoughts of our own afterlife, the Catechism focuses instead on our relation to God. We were guilty of sin, expecting death as our own punishment, but now all that is changed. If death is defeated, our guilt is forgiven and his righteousness is given to us.
Then the Catechism turns, not to the afterlife, but to this life: right now his new resurrected life begins to work in us. We begin the journey of growing away from sin, and we find ourselves being restored in Christ’s image — even if we don’t experience perfect holiness or perfect wholeness.
Finally, in the end, the Catechism comes to the place we were wondering about. Christ’s rising from the grave points us to the promise that we too will rise. It is not something that would have happened without Jesus. His resurrection makes our resurrection possible, and gives us the pledge, the down-payment, confirming that new life. A life fully restored and whole, as well as fully forgiven and loved, lies ahead for us.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Walter P. Hansen,
August 27, 1928 – August 20, 2013.