By Neil Earle
Church life often seems a never-ending ever-changing series of losses and gains, comings and goings, victories and seeming defeats.
Through it all it is our Hero and Champion Jesus Christ the Son of God who gives us the victory every time. Even in the face of death and loss.
On September 29, 2010 the Glendora Church lost one it’s most dedicated and well-loved servants. She was a 65 year old Deaconess from Monroe, Louisiana named Bessie Mae Adams. We only learned at the funeral service on October 8 that Bessie was nicknamed “bee” or “Bea” by the rest of the family. Partly this was because she was given the exact same birth name as her mother. Her brother Tolla, a ramrod straight 84-year-old ex-Marine Pacific War veteran visiting from Washington State, joked with the 250 people in attendance at Oakdale Mortuary that “in a family of 12 you have to start recycling the names.”
Born weighing only 3 pounds 7 ounces she suffered multiple hurts and diseases over the course of her life’s journey. In the end diabetes, cancer and kidney failure finally caught up with her but not before she compiled a striking track record of exemplary service. She seemed to be right there when there was a person in need of a bed, or a meal or a ride. Her sister-in-law Myrtle Tate said it best: “She was blessed with a nurturing nature and put the needs of others ahead of her own.”
Amen to that. This was true even more after Bessie met the love of her life, Tom Adams, a Deacon in Glendora. Tom worked faithfully for more than two decades at the former Worldwide Church of God headquarters in Pasadena, California and made the ideal partner in a life of service through Gospel choirs, special music and the like. All who knew Bessie knew of her penchant for showing up at unexpected hours to drop off flowers, work on musical programs, call you in the hospital or even pick you up for a ride if you needed one. Good friend Laverne Wyatt-Paige, visiting from Arizona, joked that Bessie’s car was always “full of things.” Yeah, you know what people like that are like. They’re always cruising in their “spiritual batmobile” on the way to help someone else. Every church has them – thank the Lord.
A young man from Louisiana told us at Bessie’s eulogy how scared he was to come out to California to relocate years ago, hardly knowing a soul in the big smoke. He was told that, “Tom and Bessie Adams will look after you.” He was astonished that the Adams were so trusting to a stranger, even to the point of loaning him their car.
Shelby and Marietta Grundy testified that when Ambassador College in Pasadena started accepting more and more black students in the 1970s the Adams house was a favorite meeting place. Such reports were typical. In Romans 16:23 the apostle Paul wrote about a man named Gaius whom he called “host of the whole church.” Bessie and Tom were very much like that.
She is gone but not soon forgotten. Not by a long shot. Her funeral services on October 8 and her farewell tribute service in Glendora Friends Church on October 9 were surprisingly upbeat and positive – everyone seemed to sense that our dear sister Bessie Mae Adams had gone on to something better. That she is now in a better place.
But how can Christians be so sure of that?
Well, if Scripture be our guide it is possible to summarize (without oversimplifying we hope) this subject in three short words: Good, Better, Best.
GOOD: Right now Christians are living “in Christ.” Paul uses this phrase about 169 times in his letters. To be “in Christ” means to be part of what he is doing, to be joined to him in brotherly relationship through the impregnation of the Holy Spirit of God. When Bessie was baptized in 1965 she had hands laid on her for the receipt of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life-giving divine spirit from God. That made her a child of God and a brother to Jesus Christ the Righteous. That is Good. But it gets Better.
BETTER: Jesus Christ came to “break the power of death and to bring life and immortality to light” and “to deliver those who all their life through fear of death were subject to bondage” (2 Timothy 1:10 NEB, Hebrews 2:12). Wow and double-wow! What a pair of verses. At times of death we Christians cling to these statements like a life raft. When Jesus met his friend Martha at her brother Lazarus’ funeral, he announced that he, Jesus, in person was the Resurrection and the Life. He then said “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26).
How can you misinterpret “never die?”
Paul put this with stark clarity when he said he would rather depart and be “with Christ.” So in this life Bessie was in Christ, serving and helping and showing forth Christ in her Christian walk. Now we believe she is with Christ. In Revelation 6:9-11 the martyrs from the First Century are described. They are the first victims of the Roman attempt to exterminate the church. They have “just showed up in heaven,” according to one commentary. Are they conscious? Are they able to communicate with God? To appeal to God? Are they answered by God? Yes. Yes, Yes. Ditto on all three. “Lord, how long?” they ask. This vivid picture confirms that what Romans 14:8 says is true, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” Add also 1 Thessalonians 5:10 which states that “whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” Somehow Christians are taken to God’s presence at death (see Luke 16:22) where they experience what theologians call ”the intermediate state.” John W. Cooper of Calvin Theological Seminary says of those who seem to outward appearance to be sleeping and resting in Christ that they are still, in fact, “conscious and active but not in earthly, bodily ways” (Body. Soul and Life Everlasting, page 115).
Better? Yes. Numbers 23:10 says, “Let me die the death of the righteous and let my last end be like his.” But even conscious existence after death in the presence of God (see Revelation 7:9-17) is not all there is to God’s plan. There is yet to take place what the brilliant Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has been calling “life after life after death.” And that is best of all.
BEST: Being in Christ is good, being with Christ in the future at the end of our physical lives is better, but being like Christ is best of all. That’s found in 1 John 3:2, “when he is revealed we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.” Philippians 3:21 says that our lowly earthly body will eventually be refashioned and “conformed to his glorious body.” This will take place at the Resurrection of the Just at the end of the age when “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12: 23) will be reunited with our physical bodies and form what Paul calls “a spiritual body.” This is what Wright the Anglican Bishop calls “life after life after death” even though the Presbyterian Church has taught something like this for 400 years. It appears in the Westminster Confession of 1646, Chapter 32. Here it is:
“The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls [or spirits] which neither die nor sleep…immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies…At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed and all the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever” (Leith, Creeds of the Churches, pages 228-229).
In all of this reunion of body and spirit at Christ’s return Jesus is the Pattern, the Leader, the Forerunner, the Captain of our Salvation. In the upper room after his resurrection, Jesus displayed his wounds and marks. Even though he was now resplendently alive forever he was even able to enjoy physical food (Luke 24:42-43). This is the spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15: 44). This is what faithful Christians such as our dear sister Bessie have to look forward to – life forever with God and Christ and all of us in a new creation where heaven and earth are one. That’s why it says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…that they may rest from their labors” (Revelation 14:13). The righteous dead are those saints who shine in glory as it says in Vaughan Williams great hymn “For All the Saints.” We are linked to them already through our brother Jesus Christ who oversees both heaven and earth. “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believes in me though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
That’s the God we serve, the One whom we can trust with our every care and concern, the One who makes everything new and who promises to bring our loved ones back with him. God speed that day.