My late friend Dr. Bernard Zylstra, a man who deeply loved the Lord, urged us Christians to be forward looking. His beef with many of us was that we focused too much on the immediate future. Instead, he said, we ought always to be looking ahead, 20, 30 years. The coming of Easter this year brought those comments back to mind. They made me think ahead to Easter 2050. Where will the Christian community in North America be at that time?
I caught myself thinking about that question while keeping in mind today’s dynamics. Factors like loss in church memberships, dropping birthrates, lower commitment by youth to the church and related organizations and ongoing cutbacks in programs and staffing all combine to produce darkening clouds. Add to that an increasingly aggressive environment against anything Christian today, together with the refined means to saturate human minds with the religion of secularism and there’s plenty of stuff to create considerable anxiety. Many communities today have a low-grade depression. But then I looked at the Lord’s resurrection. It made me realize how radically that changes the whole picture. It’s crucial to look at our communal present and future in the light of God’s victory in Jesus.
The resurrection demonstrates that God is in charge. How can we keep forgetting? At no stage of the Church’s history has its future depended on human accomplishment. For three years Jesus’ disciples had the privilege of receiving his love, observing with their very eyes his awesome work, and being personally instructed by him. Yet when Jesus was nailed to the cross, they ended up as a cowering lot. It took the risen Lord to pick them off the floor again. Only through the Lord’s pouring out of his Spirit on them did this tiny little band end up turning the world upside down. And the motto that drove them was “The Lord has risen indeed!” They were borne by the firm conviction that Jesus’ rising assures victory.
Their faith in the risen Christ gave them two crucial gifts. First, it anchored them, which included a whole lot of things. They knew themselves to be resurrection people, with the new life of Christ in their hearts. They were convinced that Jesus’ work of redeeming the world would not fail. It set before them an unmistakable goal to live for, a life style true to the Lord himself. They knew that real life consists in serving the Lord, work that was never in vain.
In addition to Jesus’ resurrection anchoring them, it also gave them flexibility. In their ever-changing settings and confronted by different forms of hostile reaction, they received the flexibility to see God’s opening new doors. When individuals and even communities tended to become discouraged, the New Testament letter writers urged them to press on, spreading the good news and living it. Paul’s rousing resurrection chapter (I Cor. 15) ends with a throbbing encouragement and challenge: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” “But in your hearts,” writes Peter, “set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Such words quickened the conviction that the Lord would use them in constantly developing new settings.
Not helpless victims
Where will the Christian community be in 2050? If that depends on us, it will be a shadow of the already diminished and anxious body we are today. Anxiety leads to a narrowed focus. Loss of members usually leads to an increase in pressure to shore up the organization. Yet that is itself an accelerator of decline. For it shifts the focus from people to organization, while Jesus came to rescue people, to communicate God’s redeeming love to them and to enlist them for resurrection life, personally and in community. The rest is God’s work, according to his great purpose for North America, the details of which are safe with God.
Jesus’ resurrection tells us that our communal future depends on him, the living Lord. Through his Word and Spirit he brings about his reign. Therefore his followers don’t need to live as victims of their environment. Nor are they helpless over against hostile forces. They need to remember, in humility and compassion, that they are “more than conquerors.”
With Jesus’ resurrection at the core of our thinking about the future, anxiety gets short shrift. Instead, we’ll be anchored in him, and flexible as well. And there’ll be joy in the conviction that the Lord’s work is never hopeless, wherever it’s done and whatever shape it has to take. All of which is quite in keeping with the Lord’s own word, “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world!”
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