A homily for the memorial service of Lyle Hillegas
by Robert H. Gundry, Scholar in Residence at Westmont
For a number of years Lyle Hillegas and I taught together in the same department at Westmont College. So in memory of our sharing that role, I’m going to don the mantle of a teacher once again, just for a few minutes, and deliver a homily that’ll probably sound like a mini-lecture. Maybe you wouldn’t mind playing the role of students — perhaps Lyle’s students more than mine.
We all know how the Bible begins; it begins at the beginning with the beginning.
Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s a plain enough statement, straightforward enough. But right away things get a little complicated, a little wrinkled, you might say, because the very next verse says that the earth was “without form and void,” that “darkness was over the surface of the deep,” and that “God’s Spirit,” like a wind, “was moving over the surface of the waters.” What’s this about God’s Spirit? There was God. Now he has a Spirit, a Spirit that has something mysterious to do with creation.
If we make a giant leap to the New Testament, the story of creation gets another wrinkle. Take the first three verses of John’s Gospel, for instance: “In the beginning” (an echo of Genesis 1:1) was the Word.” Despite the obvious echo of Genesis, there’s no reference to God or to his having created everything, or anything, for that matter. As if to compensate for these omissions, though, John immediately states, “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Then he takes us back to the beginning and finally does say something about the creation: “This one [the Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into existence through him [the Word], and apart from him there came into existence not even one thing that did come into existence.”
Fair enough, but it takes John over a dozen more verses to tell us that this Word, God’s agent in creation who himself was God though also distinguishable from God, rather like God’s Spirit back in Genesis — it takes John over a dozen more verses to tell us that this Word appeared on Earth, much later than the creation, in the person and flesh of Jesus Christ or, to use John’s picturesque phrase, that the Word “tabernacled among us” — an allusion to the Old Testament tabernacle, a portable tent in which God as Spirit dwelt among his people Israel, only here it’s God as the Word-made-flesh that dwelt among us.
The Apostle Paul puts it a lot more succinctly: “For all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, . . . were created in him [‘God’s beloved Son’]. [Which is to say that] all things exist as created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). So as God the Father’s agent in creation, the preincarnate Christ was the Creator of all that exists.
Christ’s functioning as Creator had everything to do with the dim and distant past, the beginning. But what does it have to do with us, or with the death of Lyle Hillegas just a couple of weeks ago? For an answer, let’s go back to the Apostle Paul, this time to his second letter to the Christians in Corinth, Greece. 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Look! New things have come into existence!” You come to be “in Christ” by believing in him. Then you receive God’s Spirit, the very Spirit that blew over the chaotic waters at the old creation. But he’s also the Spirit that indwells Christ, God’s Son. So if you have the Spirit that indwells Christ, you too are in Christ.
But why a new creation in him? Answer: Because God raised him from the dead Jesus Christ is himself the beginning of a new creation, so that anyone who is in him by faith helps make up this new creation. Such a person becomes a new creation in miniature within the new creation at large that Jesus embodies. The old things that have passed away are the sinful behaviors that characterized us as fallen creatures before incorporation into Christ. The new things that have come into existence are the godly behaviors that characterize us if we’ve truly been created anew in him.
And here’s the payoff: The passing away of those old things and the coming into existence of these new things, this new creation consisting of individual believers in Christ merely previews — I should say, gloriously previews — what John the seer records on a grand scale in the Book of Revelation 21:1–6: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And the sea [those threatening, storm-tossed waters of the old creation] doesn’t exist any more. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Look! The tabernacle of God is with human beings. And he’ll tabernacle with them. And they’ll be his peoples, and God himself will be with them. And he’ll wipe away every tear out of their eyes, and there won’t be death any more. Neither will there be grief or crying or pain any more, because the first things have passed away.’ And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look! I’m making all things new!’ And he says, ‘“Write [what you’ve just heard], because these words are faithful and true.’ And he said to me, ‘They’ve come into existence! [The new heaven and the new earth are so sure to come into existence that they might as well have already done so.] I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the person who’s thirsting I’ll give as a gift [water] from the spring of the water of life.’”
Christ as Creator in the beginning! Christ as Creator at the end! As such, he personifies the beginning. He personifies the end. But the end is only a beginning, the beginning of everlasting life in a new, resurrected body, part and parcel of the new creation previewed right now in every Christian conversion, and previewed just recently and gracefully in the Christian life of our dear departed friend.
So this little Scripture lesson closes with an invitation that goes out to all, to all of you, who long for new life in Christ. As the Creator of that life he issues this invitation, nearly the last verse in the Bible: “Let the person who wishes take as a gift the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).