1 Corinthians 15:20
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are of all people most to be pitied.
- 1 Corinthians 15:19
Between 1982 and 1985, I often worshiped at Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston Salem, North Carolina. For my first two years, Mr. Warren Carr was the Senior Pastor there, and I thoroughly enjoyed him. He was kindly and learnéd and sharp-witted and wise, and he wrote sermons which were both deep and fun. I can still picture him, eating and talking with my professors in The Pit (the cafeteria) or walking and discussing with them in Reynolda Gardens, the park-like estate adjacent to the college campus.
One sermon in particular I remember: “And If I Am Wrong, So What ?” Usually, the church secretary placed typed copies of the previous week’s sermon on a side-table in the entryway of Wait Chapel so anyone could take them away to read. My copy of this particular sermon is in a box somewhere in our cluttered house— but I don’t really feel the need to look for it. That’s because, when I heard it and read it back then, it quickly changed my life and my way of thinking.
Mr. Carr’s sermon referenced 1 Corinthians 15:19, (above) but he disagreed with the apostle Paul.
Mr. Carr did not believe that anyone should pity us Christians if the details of what comes after this life turn out NOT to be as we read them in the Bible. Mr. Carr talked about the practical, current advantages of living our lives according to the teachings of Jesus. He declared that the Christian life is the best life, regardless of what (if anything) awaits us following the deaths of our earthly bodies.
Maybe I should dig that sermon out of its box and remind myself of the interesting list of examples Mr. Carr gave us. But in the years since then, I have been making my own list of reasons why the life obedient to Jesus’ teachings is best, whether there is an afterlife or not.
The greatest of these reasons is love. We have the love of God, both directly from God and also reflected off of creation and people around us... even if this present, earthly life is the only life. We have power to love. By itself, this would be enough of a reason to stick with Jesus and his ways. Love.
A clear conscience is another great reason to live as Jesus taught— afterlife or not. Jesus preached integrity. He preached putting the other person ahead of oneself. He affirmed the Golden Rule. He forgave sinners and told us to forgive sins. As Peter summarized in his sermon to the household of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38) That’s a good life, where one needs not have any regrets, but rather focuses on doing good and treating people right.
Yes, that long-ago sermon set me on a course, trying to live each day as if there were no other day beyond, on earth or in heaven. Jesus Christ has given me plenty to do without worrying about what comes after my death. Not that I won’t be pleased to find that heaven, eternal life, and all the other New Testament statements about the age to come are true. The best kind of life, life according to Jesus’ teachings, is also true.
But.... I heard Mr. Carr’s sermon, “And If I Am Wrong, So What ?” back in the ‘80s. That was l a long time ago. And recently, I have been trying to remember: What did I actually do, back then ? What did I do wrong in those days, that I don’t even remember, now ? Who did I offend, back then, who I never told I was sorry, whom I never asked for forgiveness ? In what ways am I a different person now than I was, back then ?
This much I know for sure: I have definitely sinned and made a lot of mistakes, down through the years... as we humans do.
Of course, this touches upon the challenge facing our Virginia leaders today. Each of them has their own peculiar past, with its record of good and evil. Each of them, in their own peculiar situation, has to decide how to live today. The rest of us may pray for each of them, that they will decisively trade regrets for righteousness now; that they will make amends now— and in whatever future awaits them. And we may pray the same for ourselves.
Mr. Carr is long ago gone to meet his Maker. I will someday enjoy comparing notes with him as to how it all turned out.
I the LORD test the heart
and search the kidneys,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.
- Jeremiah 17:10