He Gives and Takes Away

Ralph Duerden, RIP

The only reason that we shouldn’t want to be in Ralph’s condition right now is that we want to obey God’s calling. God has called us to stay, He has called us to continue working here. Here is where the good is that God is giving us. But God has given Ralph gain. As Paul wrote:

For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Philippians 1:21-23)

Ralph is now with Christ, and he has got it better.

Many of us have known Ralph as a brother in Christ for over a decade. Mary Kay has known him as her husband for six and a half decades. Others of you knew him as friend somewhere in between.

The last few years had been especially difficult for him. Some of you visited him, either in the hospital or at home, before he moved into the care facility and we got shut out by COVID protocols. I remember talking with him in the hospital, maybe three years ago, I think it was after he had fallen, and it seemed obvious even then: he was ready to see his Lord. Of all the things that got him excited, heaven was near the top.

It was hard as his body and mind declined. Even though I never knew him younger than 70 (which is sort of wonder), he wanted to work. He loved when guys came out to their property to do stuff, and he’d be lifting things heavier than he should have, or climbing ladders higher than he should have. Other times he had stories about growing up, about what he could remember about his mom’s passing when he was still such a young boy, about his service in the Navy. He loved seeing kids running around after church, trying to remember their names and which family they belonged to, and he wanted to be at church more than his health allowed. We are lesser because we get less time with him.

He could be cranky, and while it wasn’t helpful, pain and meds, chemo and falls, do make for quite the temptations that all of us need grace for. But Ralph professed faith in Jesus Christ, he gathered with the assembly for worship when he could, and he has entered into the joy of his Master on a different level.

Ralph’s life and death, his story and struggles, his faith and his home-going, remind all of us that we are immortal beings. We have so many things to think about that seem small, finite. In Ralph’s case, think about all the pills and the appointments and the pains. It is tediously consuming just trying to stay alive sometimes. And to whatever degree he was able to care about the news, he lived through WW2, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and other national and international dramas. It’s not necessarily the case those things distract us from the “important” things, but that those things tend to make us think our lives are a wrong sort of small.

The small part is comparative, so let’s make sure we pull up the right standard. Our lives aren’t small compared to supply chain problems and seven dollar a gallon gas, or compared to war in Ukraine. Those are beyond our control, but they are not that big. Our lives on earth are small compared to the glory of God’s kingdom and the glory He will give us in our eternal inheritance. Our pains are small not because other people don’t seem to care but because our heavenly Father’s rewards are great. The small part is only small like a seed is small, but that is far from insignificant.

I’ve been reading Mere Christianity for my first time, and Lewis makes the observation about how the choices we make now, here, today, are making us into the sort of people who will be able to know even more of what we’ll be in heaven (or hell).

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. (Location 1252)

Lewis originally prepared these talks to share over the radio in England while World War II was taking place on their own continent; Ralph would have been three and a half years old when the war started. Elsewhere Lewis argued that wars, as significant as they are, aren’t enough to satisfy all our attention, because they are too small. Our souls are eternal, immortal. We’re looking to the Ancient of Days whose glory never fades.

It’s why 1 Corinthians 15 means so much for Christians. As Paul argued, we are quite pitiable creatures if we put our faith in a still-buried Savior. But Christ is raised from the dead, the first-fruits of many brothers, and we who believe in Him will likewise we resurrected. But the difference won’t be night and day, it will be more like the candle to the sun. It will be faith to sight. It will be seed to fruit.

What is sown perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-43)

Of all the places to start, perishable seems maybe the most obvious. The body we have now is breaking bad. Whether quickly and painfully or not, whether we recognize it or not, it is inevitable. What is sown is perishable. It is in a state of corruption, of gradual decline; the body we have is at best temporary, and at death begins to decompose into dust.

But remember, this is not bad news for a seed. A seed is created as perishable by nature for something better. And, because of Christ, what is raised (from that perishable seed) is imperishable. The raised body is not provisional but eternal. But this is not merely a comment about how long this body will last, it is even more about how complete this body will be. Yes the resurrected body will live forever. But the raised body will be more than durable, it will be the perfect body, the body brought to fruition.

Sown in dishonor is not moral shame, but it is certainly physical loss and humiliation. The grave is just the last humbling.

In Christ, however, we will be raised in glory. This is what God does best. He’s already given glory to earthly and heavenly bodies (verse 40) and granted different glories to the sun, moon, and stars (verse 41). The process of glorification has already started for those who have turned to the Lord (see 2 Corinthians 3:18), and God purposes to finish the process (Romans 8:30).

Sown in weakness: we are without strength. Weakness could be from a debilitating sickness or disease, it could be the general condition of fragility. We do not share the same degree of weakness while alive, but we definitely share the same degree of weakness when we’re dead.

We will be raised in power, with enlarged capabilities and abilities, with remarkable energy and endurance. We will not be raised omnipotent, but we will be raised über-potent. What sort of work is the Lord going to give us to be done with these sort of empowered bodies?

It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body, bearing not just the image of the man of dust, but the image of the man of heaven.

This hope is only for those who hold fast to the gospel, that Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, and that he was raised on the third day (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). As sons of Adam we sin and we die, as believers in Jesus we are in Him and in Him shall be made alive. This victory over sin and death is God’s grace to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is what takes away the sing of death. It is what makes Ralph’s current condition so much better. He’s fought his fight, finished his race. We give thanks to the Lord for taking Ralph home.

The Lord still wants us on the field, like seeds. This does not make the present work small, it makes the present work significant. So, brothers,

be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)