I was converted during the Jesus movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Over 30 years ago. During that season of the pouring out of God’s Spirit many great things happened, not least of which is that thousands of young people were converted all over the world. But many of that movement (as I was) were converted hippies and unbeknownst to most of us we brought a lot of “hippie” baggage with us. Part of that baggage was the ideal of looking for someone or something that would make everything alright, someone or something that would solve all of life’s problems.
Many during that time (and even now) in presenting the gospel did not necessarily use those words but that was (is) one of the major “selling points”: come to Jesus and he will get rid of all your problems if you just … And here each group had their own portion to fill in: learn to obey all the rules, get filled with the Spirit and speak in tongues, get filled with the Spirit and have the abundant Christian life (but don’t dare speak in tongues!), just let go and let God, you could go on with an almost unlimited list of “works to do” to make sure your life was going to be just rosy.
Problem is that Jesus never promises that. In fact if anything is true it is just the opposite:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (Joh 16:33 ESV)
I am thinking about these things today because two of my closest friends are heading to Pennsylvania because the husband’s mother has suffered a stroke. I have friends in South Carolina whose parents are struggling with cancer. Another friend is South Carolina continues in a long, heroic battle with cancer himself. All of these people are Christians, all are suffering, all are wrestling with God, suffering and faith.
Some Christians would tell all of us that if we just had enough faith, then all of our problems would go away: people would be healed, we would have more than enough money, in short we would have a comfortable, easy life.
I believe Eugene Peterson gives us a better answer. We live in the country of death. The quote in the title comes from Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. This is the entire quote:
The church is “a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God”.
I think that this idea is countercultural to our day and time, maybe to any day and time. We do not like to focus on the “negative” and when you talk about this world as the country of death it is clearly negative. But when we fail to speak that plainly, we find ourselves living in a fantasy world. Sin, suffering and death are major realities of this world. Jesus has come to undo all of this but will not finally do that until he returns.
The second thing that is unpopular is that he says the church is a colony of heaven. It is clear from Peterson’s writing that he is talking about the local church, the one around the corner where real people with real problems facing real suffering come together to pray, worship and fellowship. America is the most individualistic culture in the history of the world and Americans do not like to say “I need other people, I need a network of friends, I need the member of the colony of heaven”. Even Christians often think they can make it alone and opt out of the local church but it is the church in all of its struggles and failures that God has put into this “country of death” to move the kingdom of God forward.
Lastly even Christians today are not all that sure about this “kingdom of God” stuff. For most Christians that is all off in the future (witness the number of folk getting ready for the second coming in May) when Jesus returns and the kingdom is established in all of its fullness and glory but Jesus made it clear that the Kingdom is a reality now and that it is advanced by the preaching of the wonderful gospel of Jesus.
The Gospel is what drive the Kingdom of God, it is what drives the colony of heaven. When people come to understand:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1Ti 1:15 ESV)
then it does three things: first, knocks them off their high horse of self-righteousness (yes I am the foremost of sinners); secondly, puts Jesus in his rightful place as the loving Savior of sinners who at the cost of his own life paid the price for their rebellion; thirdly, the gospel lets them know they can’t do this alone, they are called to the local colony of heaven (after all I Timothy was not written for and individual Christian but to a pastor of a local church, a local colony of heaven).
So as my friends wrestle with a mother suffering a stoke, as my friends struggle with parents with cancer and as my friend continues to battle cancer it is a reminder of two important things we do live in the country of death but it also reminds us that Jesus has established glorious colonies of heaven to equip and strengthen his children during times of suffering and death.
As C.S. Lewis said: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity).