Surprised by Death
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
—ROMANS 5:6,8, NRSV
In 1996 James Van Tholen, then 31, and his wife, Rachel, moved to Rochester, New York, where Jim became pastor of a Christian Reformed Church. Members of the church found themselves drawn to Jim's ministry, especially to his preaching, which gleamed with biblical intelligence and humane understanding.
Then, the unthinkable occurred: in the late winter of 1998, physicians identified and surgically removed a liposarcoma from behind Jim's right knee. Within weeks Jim had another tumor behind his chest wall, and then spots on both femurs and one kidney. Recent tests confirm cancer up and down Jim's spine, with the result that he now thinks about how he moves, always conscious of the risk of spinal cord compression (and paralysis).
From March until October, Jim struggled to recover from surgery and to absorb forms of chemotherapy that offered no cure but could prolong his life somewhat. By October, the chemotherapy had suppressed Jim's cancer enough that he was able to return to his pulpit.
What follows is the sermon Jim preached from Romans 5:111 on the morning of his return, October 18, 1998. As the members of the congregation listened to their young preacher's sermon, they understood something about dying and rising with Christ that they hadn't known just that way before.
—Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.,
dean of the chapel at Calvin College
and a former teacher of Van Tholen's at
Calvin Theological Seminary.
This is a strange day—for all of us. Most of you know that today marks my return to this pulpit after seven months of dealing ...