For Their Deeds Follow Them

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I do a lot of writing while walking on the treadmill in my basement. It’s safe to say that many of the sermons I’ve preached over the years were tapped into existence at an average of about four miles per hour on a slight incline. I can do this because I built myself a keyboard tray that attaches to the treadmill. It’s not pretty, but it works.

I suppose the “how” to this strange scene is far less interesting than the “why.”

In short, I’m the last person on the planet who’d ever want to walk but not actually go anywhere. The idea of a treadmill has always seemed ridiculous to me. The fact that I’m getting some much-needed exercise doesn’t placate the mood. Listening to my favorite music doesn’t, either. Neither does watching TV. I’ve always felt that if I’m going to be in motion, I’d better have something to show for it when I’m done.

This comes to mind because of a quotation I just read from Ernest Hemingway. He warned, “Never mistake motion for action.” Hemingway said these words to his friend, A. E. Hotchner, as they traveled together. It would seem Hemingway’s point was to say that, in general, motion happens no matter what. Things move. Action, on the other hand, is intentional. It involves an element of desire, of willing engagement. It employs the science of motion to accomplish a goal. Perhaps in Hemingway’s case, being the adventurer he was, it’s one thing to go wandering through the woods looking at the trees. It’s something altogether different to go hiking, stop at a tree, and climb it to get a better look at the whole forest.

If I’m going to be in motion, I prefer that something be accomplished. And so, I write while I wander stationarily. I hike through my mental forest. I find a tree and climb it to get a better view. When I do, I often discover something I didn’t know before.

In a way, I’m up one of those trees right now. Up here, I can see there’s also a bit of backward truth to this thought concerning action that leads to accomplishment. The fellowship of sinful humanity moves endlessly forward in search of accomplishment. It’s constantly doing and making and executing, much of it aimed at this or that end goal. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with desiring to achieve. As human beings, each of us is wired to do this at one level or another. And yet, in a spiritual sense—the realest sense—we’re all in motion toward accomplishing one final thing: death. Except this accomplishment is the result of another power’s deliberate motion. When it acts on us and carries us away in its undertow, we discover just how impotent we are for accomplishing or producing anything that can stop it. We come face to face with the realization that everything we’ve achieved in this life—all of our tangible accomplishments while walking on life’s treadmill—stay here.

Our house? It stays. Our money? It stays. Our favorite things? They stay.

This might sound somewhat depressing, but please don’t take it that way. Instead, climb up this tree with me. You’ll discover a better context—a better view—of something else.

I also read the text of Revelation 14:13 this morning. At first glance, it seems contrary to what I just wrote. In it, the Apostle John scribbles obediently, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”

These words arrive after three separate announcements from three different angels. The first angel promises that the Gospel will never be overcome (vv. 6-7). The second announces God’s final judgment against His enemies, all of whom are consolidated into the title “Babylon the Great.” The angel continues by calling Babylon the Great the one “who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality” (v. 8). The third angel announces the terrible punishment awaiting those who worshipped at her altar, describing them as being given “the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger….” The angel says this torrential rage will pour down on the accursed while Christ and all of heaven watch (vv. 9-11).

But then we arrive at verses 12 and 13. In 12, John announces the endurance of the saints “who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.” What are they enduring? It’s already been described earlier in the book. Great suffering. Terrible persecution. Cruel martyrdom. Verse 13 caps the entire discussion. Where the angels were formerly speaking, now God speaks for Himself. He booms through all creation the eternal rest to be had by those who believed in Christ while walking life’s treadmill. Their walking wasn’t for nothing. Death did not suddenly snuff out their endeavors. Their deeds followed them. Which deeds? The faithful and productive deeds born from the greatest deed of faith—the chief deed worked by the power of the Holy Spirit through the unconquerable Gospel that produces all other deeds deemed blessed by God. These deeds didn’t save the ones performing them. The text says the deeds followed the believers.

I imagine this “following” will be along the lines of high-fives from Christ and His angels, moments in heaven when they’ll say something like, “Hey Chris, remember when that woman in Washington D.C. spit on you just because she knew you were a pastor by your clerical, and then she couldn’t believe it when you turned to share the Gospel with her? Yeah, we saw that. That was great.”

Another thought directly relative to this one is the peaceful assurance God gives us right now on the treadmill. We don’t have to wait until death to enjoy the rest God proclaims. Yes, the Church on earth—the Church Militant—is an endeavor in perpetual motion. And yet, while the nations rage around us, our faithful God whispers to His own with an earth-shattering tenderness, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). By the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, He nudges us to stop what we’re doing to take a few notes. He points to Moses as he shouts by divine inspiration to the frightened Israelites facing certain death at the mouth of the Red Sea, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent (Exodus 14:13-14).” Following an election in which it certainly seems like Babylon the Great won the day, God pumps the brakes, bringing our motion-filled life to a halt to hear His Psalmist say, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices” (Psalm 37:7).

We stop and ponder this. And then we get moving again. We get back into action, sometimes at four miles per hour, sometimes at what feels like the speed of sound. But always at a slight incline, always uphill. The fight of faith ends when we do.

Until then, we endure. We remain faithful (Matthew 24:13). We do this knowing God has everything well in hand. The One who began and achieved the greatest accomplishment in us—the deed of trust in the Son of God, Jesus Christ—will bring that work to its final completion (Philippians 1:6). It will follow believers into eternal life. As it does, there may even be a few high fives here and there to enjoy—maybe even one from a woman who spat on you but was later changed by the same powerful Gospel that took you from being God’s enemy to being one of His friends.

Loyalty

I just finished writing a paper yesterday afternoon for one of my doctoral cognates on the importance of loyalty. I should share it with you. However, I can’t. Each paper written gets fed through a plagiarism tool that searches the internet. If I share it with you, and then, as is my custom, I post it online, if it hasn’t been checked by the tool before the professor grades it, I risk getting tagged unjustly.

In the meantime, know that I find the topic of loyalty in the Church interesting.

As Christians, while we might understand the essential benefits of loyalty, it may also seem counterintuitive to faith. I say this only as I hear the echoes of Saint Paul’s warning, “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:4). His point: blind devotion to anyone is a carnal craving. Human beings are fallible. To hang on to everything any single person says or does without discerning their adherence to truth is simply foolish. Humans are fallible—sometimes by accident, and other times, willfully. In this sense, loyalty is a tricky business.

During our Thursday chapel, I spoke with the children about the benefits of celebrating All Saints Day. I first explained what a saint is according to the biblical definition (a believer, a person set apart by the power of the Holy Spirit in faith). I then continued to share with them why it’s a good idea to remember and give thanks for those who’ve gone before us into the nearer presence of Christ in heaven. Our practice here at Our Savior is to say the names of the Christian members of our congregation who’ve died since last All Saints Day. We aren’t talking to them. We’re remembering them. And why? Well, because we’re loyal.

By loyal, I mean something Christological. It’s the kind of loyalty the world just can’t seem to figure out.

The ones we’ll mention during worship are believers who remained faithful to the end. They closed their eyes in the sleep of mortal death, having never stepped away from loyalty to Jesus, no matter the consequences. While on earth, such loyalty sometimes bore a hefty price tag. Some lost their friends and reputations. Some lost the love of family members. Some lost their jobs. It could be argued that during the time of Covid, because of what our government imposed, some even lost their lives. We want to remember that loyalty. We want to devote ourselves to giving it the attention it deserves. We want to give thanks for steadfast conviction, not only because it stands as proof of what the Gospel can do in the lives of frail human beings, but because we want the same courage for ourselves. We want to emulate these saints. We want to be as fiercely loyal to Christ until our last breath as they were. We want, as they wanted, to be living testaments of trust in Jesus so that one day we’ll be found before His throne as ever-living acknowledgments of His divine confession that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

But there’s more we can learn here about loyalty.

I saw a meme that showed a zebra running alone while being chased by a lion. In the background stood the other zebras in the herd observing from afar. The words to the meme went something like, “A Christian who believes he doesn’t need the Church.” The point is well made. The Church is not only God’s chosen means for disseminating the Gospel of forgiveness throughout the world (Ephesians 3:10), but it is His body—His herd, with Him as its Shepherd (John 10:11-18). Apart from His herd, we’re more easily hunted and killed. But within the herd, we are among others who are devoted to our wellbeing (Acts 2:42), fellow saints put in place by Christ to build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11), parts of the same body that need the other parts and will protect those parts from harm (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).

In other words, as a herd, as a body, as a like-spirited family, the Church runs together. There’s a loyalty among us that’s born from our loyalty to Christ. While not the primary focus of the Lord’s various mandates for His Church to gather together, I hope you at least sense Christian loyalty in the current of its undertow. He knows that standing together—upholding one another in word and deed—meets with our ability to endure. Indeed, our God says as much through Saint Paul’s insistence that “when each part is working properly, (it) makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16). God continues to encourage Christian loyalty when, through the writer to the Hebrews, He declares, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-3).

Notice he encouraged the reader to endure the race of faith after first reminding him of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding him. Also, take note of what the runners are doing during the race. As individual team members, we’re looking to Jesus, the One who endured through the perpetual night of Sin, Death, and hell as none of us can. Next, and as a team, it’s assumed we’re cheering one another on, encouraging each other to keep his or her eyes on that same victorious Jesus. There’s loyalty to be seen in this imagery. It’s a loyalty that functions when the race is easy. It’s also working overtime when the race is hard. It is far from what J.R.R. Tolkien described through Gimli to Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” For Christians, it’s when the road is darkest that our loyalty beams most brightly.

Again, the world doesn’t understand this stuff. We shouldn’t expect it to understand. But we get it. Christian loyalty is genuine loyalty and bears a potency that, not-so-strangely, moves us to celebrate All Saints Day. And why? Because in its essence, All Saints Day is an opportunity for us to dig directly into that loyalty and say to one another while running, “Do you remember Lorraine? How about Tom and Donna? Brothers and sisters in the Lord, keep your eyes on Christ, just as they did. Don’t give up! Keep going! Endure by God’s grace! You’re almost there!”

“Let Us Run the Race…”

As always, I pray all is well with you and your family, and that as we make our way toward summer, you are beginning to receive some relief from winter’s grip.

When I say grip, I mean it. Michigan winters are long. I grew up in central Illinois. Until I moved here in 1994, I was ignorant to the fact that it’s all but guaranteed that eight of Michigan’s twelve months will deliver a measure of frigidity. It’s a truth that tips its bowler cap reminiscently to the British notion that there’s only one way to ensure summer in England and that’s to have it framed and hanging in the living room.

And yet Michiganders press on, we endure, knowing that when summer does finally arrive in our state, there will be few other places in America that can capture our hearts for home in comparison.

Although, “endure” is an interesting word to use in relation to something we love, isn’t it?

As a pastor, even as I’ve needed to endure troubling people, places, and things, I’ve also been on the scene to watch other people endure, too. About thirty-six hours ago I was sitting at gate B16 in the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on my way to St. Louis, and across the way at gate B15 was a family enduring their restless two-year-old. Come to think of it, we were all enduring the toddler. I’m sure they love their son, but I have to imagine that in that particular moment they were doing what they could to get through the oncoming hours of travel, ultimately hoping for the peace that comes with arriving at their final destination—which appeared to be Knoxville, Tennessee.

Observing those folks (not gawking, of course), I’d say they were doing a stellar job of receiving the disdain-filled stares of the folks around them, while at the same time managing their own inclinations to put a red tag on the kid and check him as extra baggage at the door of the plane before boarding because they knew they wouldn’t get away with stuffing him into the overhead bin.

I’ve learned over the years that the way people endure struggle often reveals more about them than the actual thing being endured. I was reminded of this rather vividly earlier this week when I was called to the scene of an unexpected death. There were family members of the deceased who claimed faith in Christ, and yet were completely inconsolable—more so than I’ve ever seen before—wailing and calling out that life was now over, that all hope was lost, that God was their enemy, that they hated Him, that He was punishing them even as they’d been so faithful to Him in church attendance and prayer and giving. (For the record, I found out later after talking to their pastor they weren’t actually as faithful as they’d claimed.)

Over the course of the hour after I arrived, other Christian family and friends arrived, too. I didn’t learn of their faith in Christ by asking, but instead beheld them embracing the inconsolable ones and offering them the reassurance that hope was not lost, that God was not doling out injustice, that He was not scheming to harm or destroy them.

To be clear, I’m not belittling anyone’s moment of grief. I’ve been in and around it enough to know that it’s different for everyone. And besides, it truly was an unfortunate scene. Still, when it comes to relationship status, I’d say that for the most part, everyone in the room held equal shares of the burden of the moment. But for some reason, one group in particular seemed capable of finding their way in the darkness, of believing that even amid the coldness of Death, the summer of eternal life through faith in Christ was approaching on the horizon. They were proving a deep trust that the sadness would eventually pass, that the Day of Days was coming. It was only a matter of time. Armed with this knowledge, they were going to press forward displaying a different kind of grief, one that emitted hope and was capable of shepherding others in the same.

Paul said something about this in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

Those who fall asleep in Jesus are brought along with Him. In the moment of their passing, no matter how dark it might seem to be, they are immediately carried to where He is. This is true by virtue of His unarguable power over Death.

Saint Paul’s words are Easter words. Easter owns them. I’m here to tell you that it’s no coincidence that God established Easter in the springtime. Spring steps forth from the grave of winter with its heart set toward summer, the sunlit upland of new life in full bloom.

Until then, indeed, the need to endure is rarely an easy thing. Just look around. But as you do, I’d caution those of you expecting to discover nothing but hopelessness unfolding throughout the world that you’ll likely see Christians continuing to prove the engine of endurance being fed by the Gospel of hope. History itself testifies to this. In a sense, you are enjoying the benefits of this verity. Fellowship in the Christian congregation you call home exists in part because the Christians who were tossed into dens filled with lions endured. The faith you are laboring to pass along to your children and grandchildren continues because Christians staked by Nero endured. The Bible—the Word of God for faith is even now in your hands because the Apostles who went out with a willingness to be crucified—even upside down—endured. The world has continued year after year to pit itself against Christianity, and yet countless generations continue in the way of salvation. Why? Because that which is the power of God unto salvation—the Gospel (Romans 1:16)—continues to endure, just as the Lord said (Matthew 16:15-20). And so, like those who’ve gone before us, we are not fearful as the world is fearful. We do not grieve as the world grieves. We do not endure unpleasantness and struggle and suffering and pain as the world endures. We have hope. We have that which has reached into us from the divine spheres and kindled our hearts with the warmth of a joy that can withstand the temperatures of mortal struggle that fall below freezing.

We know the summer of eternal life is coming. It’s not that we think it’s coming, but rather by the power of the Holy Spirit alive in us, we know it. That being true, and all of our senses being so attuned by faith to this Gospel reality, we cannot help but invest in its inevitability, ultimately letting it be visible to the people around us.

I know I don’t always do this as I should, which is why I need to continue to prepare.

I don’t know about you, but I dedicate time in the spring to preparing for summer. I clean up the yard. I trim back bushes. I prepare flower beds. I test sprinkler heads. I swap the snow blower in the garage with the lawn mower in the shed. (Michigan being what it is, sometimes I learn that I’ve made the swap a little too early.) I do countless things to make sure all is in order. I’m sure the Christians who are faithful in worship will make the appropriate connection here. They don’t need help understanding that because Christ fully accomplished our redemption, there isn’t anything we do for God that somehow plays a part in winning the unending summer of heaven. And yet, they also understand that the same Savior calls for us to prepare. He urges us to a readiness that doesn’t doze off so easily, but rather remains aware, that actively engages in order to keep itself well-stocked and complete for the Day’s arrival when we will be brought into Christ’s presence (Matthew 24:42-44; 25:1-13 ).

Christians know that holding “unswervingly to the hope we profess” means “drawing near to God” where He locates Himself (Hebrews 10:22-27). They know God’s divine prompting for readiness means being with Him in worship, together with other Christians, to receive as one like-minded, supportive, and believing family His gifts of Word and Sacrament that feed the flame of faith for running the race (Hebrews 12:1-2) and enduring until the end (James 1:12).