September 19, 2007

Never In Vain

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

-- 1 Corinthians 15:58

Just now, another night of rest has given way to one more underserved morning. It turns out that with each day of our living, both realities—the night at the end of a day; the dawn that so generously comes with each morning—provide opportunities to remember our finitude and to give thanks for the good resurrection hope. This gratitude is good daily practice, because at the end of all our days (our final "night"), hopefully we will have learned to rest soundly in the gracious promise that even the apparent finality of death will not be the final word. God has promised it so (Romans 8:37-39). As it was with Jesus, so it will be with us: one more surprising, generous morning. And this very last good morning will be a permanent one; one final Sunday morning gift called resurrection (Luke 24:1-12; Revelation 21-22-27).

It is fascinating to me that after spending 57 verses extolling the many features of our promised resurrection hope, the Apostle Paul finishes chapter 15 of his massive Corinthian letter with verse 58 (noted above). Given all this talk about our future, one might think the final apostolic word would be something like this: Don't bother with all the details of this life. It's all passing away anyhow. Hang loose, brother.
Don't sweat the small stuff. None of this present effort will matter much when we come out in the wash.

(Note that we expect this kind of ending because we regularly confuse salvation with escape. Either die or flee—those are the only outcomes we can imagine in our despair. Yet over and over again, the New Testament easily imagines God being in the transformation business: taking the broken pieces of this creation and making them whole (see Matthew 11:1-5). God neither resuscitates or abandons. God resurrects and transforms.)

So along with the warm sun and those chirping birds outside your window (the latter either lovely or annoying, depending on your mood), today's new morning greets us with a provocative stewardship question: Will we excel in our work for the Lord, knowing that the resurrection promises that our labor is never in vain? Paul sees our present work as the very stuff God will raise up and transform in the world to come.

Every good and gracious act, every thoughtful and encouraging word; every public act of virtue and every private act of service; every attempt to build up what others have torn down, every effort to make God's good creation a better place for neighbor and naysayer alike; every act of blessing you bestow on your family, friends, fellowship … even on your enemies—none of these labors will be lost in the resurrection. No act offered in faith, hope, and love will be passed over by our transforming God on that final Sunday morning. Even if in this life one never sees a tree of good labor bear any workable fruit, the believer lays down to rest at night knowing that in the resurrection to come there will be fruit a-plenty. God does not abandon; God transforms.

With a sigh on her lips and grief in her voice, a friend once confessed to me that she didn't see the point in visiting her aged loved one in the nursing home since, "no one else ever comes anymore and my mother doesn't even know if I'm there or not." I appreciated her deep frustration. Most of us have sighed to the heavens and asked what difference any of our efforts make. But with 1 Corinthians 15:58 in my mind, I tried to gently remind her of one little comforting fact: "Remember that someone does know if you've come or not: the brooding Holy Spirit. So trust that your labors of love are never in vain. Even if no one else ever sees, God sees. And that's enough to matter."

Precisely because of our future hope in Christ, this present life matters today. What labors in this day now before you can you offer to Lord? Whatever they may be, great or small, be steadfast, immovable in all your hard work. As you labor on in love this day, remember that "in the Lord" your work is never in vain.