“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you .” 1 Corinthians 15 :1
“I am old”, said Francois.
“Francois, how can you say you are old? How old are you?”
“I am 40”.
“40 is not old—I am 48”.
“40 is old when you live in a country where the life expectancy is 46”.
He stared ahead through the windscreen. It was impossible for someone who had come from the comfort of Europe and who would be returning there in a few days to have the slightest understanding of the reality of the life he lived each day. It was impossible to understand the thoughts that passed through his mind as he watched lives being lived out in poverty beyond our comprehension.
The extraordinary thing about the community in which Francois lived was the sheer vibrancy of the people. No sullen children, no dour greetings, everywhere people seemed filled with an irrational happiness. The churches were filled with people who seemed transformed by the words they heard.
“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you”, says Saint Paul to his readers in Corinth, and in the fifteenth chapter of that letter to the Corinthians he talks at length about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The people in Francois’ community would have listened to every word of Saint Paul; they would have paid close attention to this promise of a life to come, because only with that promise could they make sense of the life they were living.
It is easy for Europeans, growing up in cultures shaped by Enlightenment rationalism and assuming that worldview to be the correct one, to be dismissive of the strongly spiritual worldviews of African people. Maybe our perspective would change if we had to endure the daily reality experienced by those whose only life was lived abject grinding poverty, those whose lives are beyond our imaginations. I don’t know. What I do know is that if I didn’t have confidence in the words of Saint Paul, I would see no real point in life. If the totality of life for the people whom Francois encounters everyday was their few hard years on this planet, then life would seem no more than an existence, without direction and without purpose.
Paul writes to reassure his readers about the reality of the life after this one, to tell them that there is more than what you see and what you get here. He says that the power of death has been destroyed, it has been swallowed up in victory. I need to believe that. I need to be certain that when someone goes from this life there is something far, far greater to come.
I need to believe the mystery of which Paul speaks, because if I didn’t then I would have to conclude that those who work in Francois’ community, telling the story of one who has defeated death, and struggling for fairness and justice, are living pointless lives.
There is a confidence in that community that one day a time will come when there will be justice in the world, that God will reward his people. To dismiss what Saint Paul says, to say that there is no resurrection, that there is no life beyond this one, are saying that the hopes of Francois’ community are unfounded, that there is no better time to come.
Those people who would most readily dismiss the hope of a new heaven and new earth are mostly people from rich countries. If you have a comfortable life, if you have everything you need, it’s much easier to believe that this is all there is. People who have suffered centuries of oppression and injustice and poverty look to a life beyond because there is precious little consolation in this life. Look at the words of the North American spirituals, the only hope in these songs is in a God who will reward his people in the gloryland to come.
Francois’ community read the words, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” and in them they find hope, in them they would find a purpose in life, in them they find the encouragement to go on.
The African preachers across that whole continent, would quote Saint Paul,’s words from 1 Corinthians 15, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” If you were in any of the churches I saw, there would be shouts of ‘Alleluia’ and ’Amen’ from the congregation because these words are saying to them that their lives have meaning, that no matter how short and how troubled and how painful life might be, it had meaning because in the end they would win, in the end they had the victory.
Paul knows it is easy to become discouraged, easy to lose sight of the goal, easy to slip into thinking that this is all there is. What does he say to us? “Therefore, stand firm. Let nothing move you.”
In those moments when there is the temptation to feel discouraged, I think of those we passed on the road on that day in June. Say there is no reward in the life to come, and you say their lives have been pointless. Saint Paul doesn’t think so, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain”.
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” he says. We have the victory.