Every month the clergy of the Gambella region in western Ethiopia come for two to three days of training. We are reading through 1 Corinthians, reading a book on the 39 Articles of Religion, and talking about pastoral issues in the area.
Bishop Grant shares about a recent clergy meeting: “one of the clergy came to me during a break. “Bishop, I have a problem. I need help to understand something”. David Onuk is the priest for the Opo people a small language group two hours into the bush from Gambella town. Although the Ethiopian census number only 1,700, there are probably closer to 5,000 Opo people in the world (it is hard to count people who are so isolated). In the last few years many of them have become (Anglican) Christians.
David’s problem took me by surprise, so I brought the story to the assembled clergy to discuss. A 19-year old nephew, James, who lived with David and his family, had gone off with a group of other young men to hunt for honey in the forest. They found a nest in a tree and James climbed the tree to retrieve the honey. The bees attacked and James fell from the tree impaling himself in the chest as he landed. By the time David reached the scene James was dead.
Then David explained his dilemma. James is the first Opo Christian who has ever died. Some of the people are confused. Are Christians supposed to die? What happens to a Christian when he dies? David explained that the Opo have no view of an afterlife. After relating the details of the story, and after receiving comfort and assurances of prayers from the other pastors, we turned to an attempt to help David to communicate the meaning of this event to his people.
The passage which, in the end, seemed most helpful was 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, but especially the first two verses:
“We do not want you to be uninformed brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve as those who have no hope. For, since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
Paul, it seems, had encountered a problem in Thessalonica which was similar to the problem that the Opo were having. Didn’t Jesus defeat death? Doesn’t John 3:16 say that those who believe in Jesus “will not perish”? So what does it mean that Christians die? We talked for quite a while about that fact that Jesus himself faced death. We talked about the resurrection of Jesus and how Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruits” of our future resurrection. We talked about how we do not have to grieve as if facing death means facing total loss and emptiness, but how our grief is intermingled with true hope – because Jesus rose, we have the assurance of being raised with him. James, even now, is truly in Christ.”
For more news from Bishop Grant and Dr Wendy LeMarquand, visit their blog; www.grantandwendy.com