On Monday I participated in the funeral of a beloved seminary professor and pastor, Dr. Renwick Wright. The eulogies of the men who served at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary with Dr. Wright, his sons and his grandsons captured so well this man’s love for God, His Word, his wife, his family and others. Read this well-written obituary by Pastor Doug Comin to learn more of Dr. Wright’s life and ministry. Below is the message I gave based on II Corinthians 5:8 as requested by his family.
II Corinthians 5:1-10
At Home with the Lord
The Funeral of Dr. J. Renwick Wright
October 12, 2009
Dear Mrs. Wright, Jonathan & Christopher and your families, our heartfelt condolences go out to you as feel acutely this day the separation from your beloved husband, father, and pastor. When Dr. Wright entered the pulpit, or when the Spirit of the Lord in him turned a classroom lectern into a pulpit, he would look at a congregation or his students with a penetrating gaze, speak in a pleading voice, often with his arms outstretched, and he would decrease and Christ would increase. I know that especially on this occasion he would want nothing more than that, for the focus to be on his beloved Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. So we turn to the Word of God. Yet even so it is not wrong for us to reflect further on the life of Dr. Wright as we do, for there was so much of Christ in him. With that in mind, let us go to II Corinthians 5:1-10.
II Corinthians 5:1-10
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight— we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
“At home with the Lord.” For the family and friends of Dr. Wright, we have great confidence that these words at the end of verse 8 accurately describe his current state. He is at home with the Lord. Yet what is it in this text that, exemplified in the testimony of Dr. Wright, gives us that confidence? Paul says “we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.” The word translated “prefer” is rather a strong word. Paul is saying to be absent from the body and be at home with the Lord seemed good to him, that it was pleasurable, something he was eager, ready and willing to do. How does one achieve that state of heart, where you can honestly say, “I would prefer to leave this earth now and be in heaven with the Lord?”
The answer begins with realizing, on the one hand, that life in this present world is temporary at best. To emphasize this, Paul compares our earthly existence to living in a tent.
· In verse 1, he states that we are like an earthly tent which will soon be torn down.
· While we live in this tent, we groan for a more permanent, heavenly dwelling as he says in verse 2.
· Then he goes on to explain in verses 3-4 that we groan because we are burdened with this body, for it suffers the pains and the tears of this world. Indeed, we carry our own mortality around in this body.
In his New Testament class, Dr. Wright commented on this passage. In my visits with Dr. Wright in these last years, he clearly echoed these same thoughts about his own life: “Paul can read his own situation: he is getting older and his body is beginning to fail. The body is a temporary structure, adequate to shelter us during our earthly pilgrimage, but as vulnerable to the winds of circumstance and the wear and tear of everyday life as a tent. This earthly house will certainly be dissolved. But this fact does not trouble Paul; he is even looking forward to the dissolution of this body.” (New Testament History and Theology: The Pauline Epistles, p.27)
As we saw a beloved man growing ever so weaker, as we know that later this afternoon we will be returning the body in the casket to the dust from which it came, these are reminders to us all that we are living in a tent. We are not in a permanent structure. The outer man is decaying. This present world is not our home. As Dr. Wright said, it is but the place of our earthly pilgrimage. We are traveling through it.
At the end of his life, the apostle Paul, knowing this, could then say these words in II Timothy 4:6, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” He not only wrote of this life being transient in nature but saw his own life as one of journeying toward eternity. Again, in his New Testament class, in his typical way of unpacking truth after truth from a Greek word or phrase, Dr. Wright said this about the word analusis (analusis) translated here “departure:”
· He said this word describes “the unyoking of an animal from the shafts of the cart or plow; death to Paul was a rest from toil.”
· But it was “also the word for loosing fetters; death to Paul was a release and liberation.”
· Then (listen to how it relates to the II Corinthians 5 passage) “it was also the word for loosening the ropes of a tent, symbolizing the time for striking camp once again.” (Now this next sentence is so like Dr. Wright, as he connects the author’s life with the words he wrote.) “Many a journey this tentmaker (Paul) had made across the roads of Asia Minor and Europe; he would be setting out on his last and greatest journey.” That’s what Dr. Wright has done.
· Finally, he goes on to comment “it was also the word for loosening the mooring ropes of a ship setting sail. Paul was ready to cross the waters of death in order to arrive at the heaven of heavens. In all cases, Paul gives the church here a beautiful view of Christian death.” (New Testament History and Theology: The Pauline Epistles, p.79)
So how is one made ready to cross? Please note that is a different question than “how to cross.” I know Dr. Wright would not want anyone of you here today to leave without being sure you know how to cross and, indeed, knowing that you will cross. You must know that regarding this journey there is One that has made it first for us, and blazed the trail we are to follow. For God sent His Son into this world, and as His divine glory took on human form He tabernacled among us – He shared this tent-like, temporary existence! Then He died on our behalf, was raised three days later, and ascended into heaven. Jesus entered heaven as a forerunner. He went there to prepare a place for us. Do not leave this funeral without believing in Christ. How Dr. Wright would be pleading for you to trust Christ to take you home! Believe upon Christ as your Savior and Lord.
Yet are you living ready to cross? Is it your desire to depart from this world? Do you have good courage in this? If we are honest with ourselves, too many of us have too great a fondness for this world and even a fear of being in the immediate presence of the Lord. We are intimidated by the thought of appearing at His judgment seat (5:10). How can we ready ourselves? The answer to this dilemma is found in verse 9. “We make it our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.” “To be pleasing to Him” is the answer. Reflect with me on three chief ways He has given us in His Word to be pleasing to Him, how Dr. Wright used those so wonderfully in his life, and how they prepare us to be at home with the Lord.
It is our ambition to be pleasing to the Lord when we turn our hearts heavenward in sincere prayer. When I came to the Reformed Presbyterian Seminary in 1988, I had only been in the RP church for 3 years. I did not know anyone, my father had just died that summer, I was a new father myself, and [though I had had a good start in the summer with another Irish Greek professor -Ted Donnelly] I was still scared to death of studying languages. I also just did not like the big city of Pittsburgh. So I was intimidated by the whole prospect. Yet that fall Dr. Wright was my teacher, and what a comfort that was. I could go on for hours about my experience in the classroom with him as he moved us on in our studies with patience and a spirit that encouraged success.
But what I want to relate, though, is how the seminary wisely put us students in groups under a faculty advisor, which for me was Dr. Wright. Every Friday he would gather us in what is now the computer lab but back then it was known as the “porch classroom.” For me, it became a sanctuary. I had prayed with other groups of men before, but when I first heard Dr. Wright pray I felt like I was beginning all over again. There were no ostentatious words, just the tender closeness of Dr. Wright to Christ that made each Amen seem like such a sure promise of answers to come. God’s throne had always been holy to me, and became even more so during this time, but it was being led by Dr. Wright there week after week those three years that Christ’s throne became the seat of mercy and love it is to me today. Hearing his unashamed expressions of love for God, for me, and for others; listening to his passionate pleas for more grace and more love for us all; how I saw in him where his heart’s true home was! That this could be the experience of every seminarian! His heart was at home before the Lord’s throne here on earth. So what must it be like for him at this very moment as he sees that throne? He is at home with Lord now because his heart rested in Christ here. Pleasing God with sincere prayer is a good way to prepare for an eternity of praising Him.
It is our ambition to be pleasing to the Lord when we shepherd others with tender care. Our Good Shepherd, who is tenderly guiding us to green pastures and still waters, delights when He sees us caring in a like manner for others. When we make it our goal to help others travel to their home in the Lord, certainly it concentrates our minds wonderfully on the same goal.
Several years after I graduated from seminary, Miriam and I were struggling in church planting. But Dr. and Mrs. Wright came to our home to visit us as part of his new job with a title that only a very few men could carry with truth and honor – the “Pastor’s Pastor,” given to him by the leaders in our denomination. In those two days in our home, Dr. and Mrs. Wright took two discouraged and beaten up people and buoyed us with their prayers and tender care. Afterwards, even years later and still today, we commented on how a precious aroma of Christ remained in our home for days after they left. We experienced the love of God through them. They brought our true heavenly home into our home. I know this room today is filled with others who have had this same experience. He lived with his heart at home with the Lord seen in his care for people. This example ties into the third way we can live in a manner pleasing to God.
It is our ambition to be pleasing to the Lord when we die even while we live. That’s the gospel. Die to live. In Philippians 1:21 we hear Paul again saying, “For to me, to live is Christ (to crucify my desires, to die for the sake of others), and to die is gain.” Again Dr. Wright said, “To live is Christ: Paul’s first thought when he woke in the morning, and his last when he went to sleep at night. Christ, Paul’s Lord and Master whom he served from dawn to dusk, his friend with whom his fellowship was indescribably blessed.” (New Testament History and Theology: The Pauline Epistles, p.47) Fellowship with Christ gave Paul the desire to live in this world in service to Him and others, and count all else as rubbish (Philippians 3:8).
It is in that capacity that I heard from Dr. Wright only one godly hesitation to his desire to leave this present world for heaven. At the 60th anniversary remembrance for Dr. and Mrs. Wright in 2004 at the RP International Conference at Calvin College, his family and some friends gathered and reflected on the goodness we had witnessed in their marriage. After several had shared, Dr. Wright was given the opportunity to respond. He spoke and had only one request. He told us that it was clear that their days were drawing to a close, and that most likely one would leave for home before the other. So because they have always been so inseparable, he pled for us to pray for the one left when the other died. It was so like him, always looking ahead but at the same time also looking out for others, especially for the one clearly most dear to him. We are and will keep praying for you, Mrs. Wright.
Again Dr. Wright said, “To die is gain: how good it must be to die, because it is so good to be alive in Christ.” The one he was named for, Covenanter Pastor James Renwick, said in his prison cell as he looked at the prospect of dying soon, “O Lord, thou hast brought me within two hours of eternity, and this is no matter of terror to me, more than if I were to lay down in a bed of roses…O! How can I contain this, to be within two hours of eternity?” Then later, as he was led to the scaffold, he cried out, “Yonder is the welcome warning to my marriage; the Bridegroom is coming; I am ready, I am ready.”
He was ready to go home. Dr. Wright was ready. Are you? Christ expects us to be and, praise be to His name, He has given us examples showing us both how to live and die ready to be at home with the Lord.