I sat in church this past Sunday morning, reveling in the beauty and joy of our communal celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Soft organ music filled the empty space with life. A crown of flowers bloomed from the thorns on the cross. The procession began down the aisle, with a shining cross held triumphantly high. My heart soared with hope. Death swallowed up in victory!
But as the back of the procession came into sight, my heart caught in my throat. The man carrying the second cross was still in his wheelchair, still suffering under the effects of the curse. Ordinarily I find great beauty and significance in seeing the juxtaposition of his suffering with the symbol of Christ’s suffering. But on a morning like this, it jolted my spirit with a harsh reality slap. Where is the victory for him?
What is the hope for my mother facing cancer, my brother- and sister-in-law awaiting the birth of a baby with significant internal deformities, or my friend whose mother is fading away in hospital? What does living on this side of Christ’s resurrection mean for them?
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:20-22
Christ’s resurrection marks the turning point for all of history, the hinge pin between the reign of the curse and the kingdom of God. In rising from the grave, Jesus defeated death, He broke the curse, and He inaugurated a new creation.
So what are we to expect now?
The disciples had struggled to know what to expect of Him. But as their faith in His resurrection power grew, so did their confidence in applying it to those still suffering under the curse. A crippled beggar made whole. The sick and suffering healed. Prison doors shaken open. A dead boy raised to life.
…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-8
But that wasn’t always the way it worked out. Sometimes the thorn was not removed from the flesh, the prisoner was not freed from his chains, the victim was not spared from death. How did they reconcile the victorious reign of Christ with the pulverized body of Stephen or the agonized prayers of Paul?
Somehow Paul’s expectations didn’t seem at all disappointed. He had experienced the healing power of God in his own life, and had conveyed that power to countless others. And yet his faith wasn’t rattled by the constant barrage of suffering from which God did not deliver him. If anything, he took it as par for the course.
But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23
Paul understood the story. Death has been swallowed up in victory—for Jesus. But we are still in the earlier part of the story, the part where suffering precedes glory. Yes, He has opened the gates of glory for us, but the path from here to there still involves hardship and pain.
Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, … so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 5:2-5
Jesus walked this path ahead of us, and He has given us His Spirit to help us as we now struggle down it ourselves. At times He intervenes, breaking through our present suffering with a dose of future glory. But those healing fixes are only temporary. The pain we are spared in one situation we will face again in another. The body that is miraculously healed from deformity or cancer will eventually succumb to death.
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” …
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:35, 54-57
As painful and gruesome as it is, death is the final door we pass through to glory. As much as it stings on this side, it will lose its venom on the other. And in the end, death will be swallowed up in victory for us, too.
He is risen. Our turn is coming!