I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)
These are the words of the apostle Paul, preacher, theologian, traveler, church-starter, letter-writer, and martyr. He wrote the letter to the church in Philippi while he was in prison, though we’re not sure which time – he was imprisoned a number of times for disturbing the peace by preaching the Gospel of Christ. There are hints throughout this letter that he thought his current imprisonment might well be his last; he writes with tenderness and urgency of someone setting down his last words. Chapter 4, verse 1, summarizes the tone of the whole letter: “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord, my beloved ones.”
In today’s passage, from chapter 3, Paul lays out how he thinks about his own dire circumstances, probably both to ease his friends’ minds about his suffering and to encourage them when they encounter persecution and struggle. He’s also touching on one of the hotbutton issues of the mid-1st century: did non-Jewish converts to Christianity have to become Jews first, and in particular, did they have to be circumcised? Paul’s answer is an emphatic No.
That’s where he starts here: I did everything right, as a Jew – I have the right lineage, I was circumcised as a baby, I was zealous and faithful in practicing my beliefs, I even persecuted Christians. But when I turned to Christ, I realized that none of that mattered. All those ways that I measured my righteousness before now look to me like what you wash down the sewer. (That word, “rubbish,” in our translation, is cleaner than the word Paul really uses.) Paul says, The righteousness I have now isn’t even mine. It’s Christ’s, living in me, through faith.
And then he says this bold, fierce thing: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Becoming like Christ in suffering, in death, in the hope of becoming like him, too, in life beyond death.
This in on Paul’s mind because he anticipates his own death, perhaps soon. But this idea of participating in Christ’s death is a bigger idea for him, too – it’s part of his ecclesiology, his understanding of what makes us the Church, the people of God. Christians are people who have died to self and been reborn, remade, resurrected, in Christ. In the second letter to the Corinthians, for example, Paul
writes, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” And in the portion of the letter to the Romans that is always read at the Easter Vigil, Paul says, “Don’t you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? By baptism, we have been buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Paul’s language and theology of participating in Christ’s death is woven into the language and theology of our sacraments. It’s in our baptismal rite, when we thank God for the water of Baptism, in which we are buried with Christ in his death, and by which we share in his resurrection. It’s in our Eucharistic rites too, as we offer the sacrifice of our lives to God, as we accept the bread and wine that are, in some mysterious way, the body and blood of Christ, and become one with Christ, in death and in life.
Why would you choose this? Why would you want to be part of a religion that talks so much about dying? Whose founder was brutally murdered by the civil authorities? And that invites us to join him in suffering and death? A religion whose initiation ritual – according to our ritual language if not our actual practice – involves drowning babies?
What does Paul mean, what does the Church mean, by this idea, this image, of participating in the suffering and death of Jesus? In the immediate context of today’s passage, Paul is looking at the possibility of dying for his faith. He quite literally means that he hopes to have the courage to die like Jesus, and looks forward in hope to rising with Jesus. But he’s also saying something more universal about life and death, about suffering and faith, in the Christian way. I think one thing he’s saying, maybe even the central thing, is that our suffering and God’s suffering interpenetrate. We suffer with Christ because Christ suffered with us. We die with Christ because Christ died with us. In the artful words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “I am all at once what Christ is since he was what I am.”
Why would you want to be part of a religion that talks so much about dying? That invites us to join our God in suffering and death? Because we suffer, and we die. And so we badly need a God who suffers like us, who suffers with us. Our psalm today, Psalm 126, keenly reminds us that both struggle and joy are part of the human story: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” And our Gospel today – which I promise to preach about properly in June – gives us this moment of tenderness and poignancy, as Mary washes Jesus’ feet. It’s one of those moments we know in our own lives, when the sweetness of the present is flavored by our keen awareness that the moment won’t last. That things are always changing, and often ending. As the Dread Pirate Roberts puts it in The Princess Bride, Life IS pain; and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
And that’s the thing about Christianity, about our faith. Christianity isn’t selling something; it’s telling the truth about human life. In the first chapter of Unapologetic, author Francis Spufford talks about an ad campaign run by the New Atheist movement on London buses. The buses say in big letters: “There’s probably no God. Now, stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Spufford says, the part of this that offends his faith isn’t “there’s probably no God” – fine, fair enough, God is not provable. The part of this that offends his faith is the word “enjoy.” As in, “Stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Spufford writes, “Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion… Only sometimes… will you stand in a relationship to what’s happening to you where you’ll gaze at it with warm, approving satisfaction. The rest of the time you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion, and the rest.” (8) The slogan on the bus endorses an idea of human life centered on enjoyment, an idea borrowed wholesale from advertising. If all you knew about humanity came from commercials, you might indeed think that human life was all about enjoyment – and also that most people are attractive 18- to 30-year-olds.
Spufford invites us to imagine people watching that bus go by whose lives are mired deep in suffering. In pain or illness, in grief, in addiction and desperation. What does that bus with its message of enjoyment say to them? Nothing, and worse than nothing. It says that they are invisible. It says that they are alone. There’s no comfort, no consolation, in those peppy words.
In contrast, writes Spufford, “A consolation you could believe in would be one that didn’t have to be kept apart from awkward areas of reality. One that didn’t depend on some more or less tacky fantasy about ourselves, one that wasn’t in danger of popping like a soap bubble upon contact with the ordinary truths about us… A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it.” (p. 14)
Another of my favorite faith writers, Gretchen Wolf Pritchard, who creates the “Sunday Papers” we use for our kids, likewise writes about why we need the cross – and the suffering and death it stands for – in our story of faith, even in the story of faith we tell to our children. She writes, “The cross is a mystery and a terror; we feel we would gladly shield our children from it. … [But] children know that the world is full of terror, that no answers are easy, that no comfort comes without cost, pain, and mystery. It is not the cross that terrifies children, but the false gospel that bypasses the cross and leaves us forever alone with our pain and guilt.” (Offering the Gospel to Chilcen, p. 4)
Why would you want to be part of a religion that talks so much about dying? That invites us to join our God in suffering and death? Because we suffer, and we die. We struggle with pain, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, betrayal, grief. And our faith tells us, shows us, that we’re not alone, never alone, in any of that. It offers us a consolation we can trust, because it accommodates the truth about us, about our lives. We suffer with Christ and Christ suffers with us and nothing, really nothing at all, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
That’s why we can’t, shouldn’t, skip to Easter, however tempting it is, the eggs and fluffy bunnies and pretty butterflies, the joyful Alleluias and the relief of the empty tomb. Don’t skip to Easter. The stuff in between is so very, very important. This Sunday feels a little to me like that pause at the top of the roller coaster. When you catch your breath, and think, Here goes. Hold on tight. Hope I don’t lose my cookies.
This coming Friday we walk the Way of the Cross in downtown Madison, in a public even that’s become a gateway into Holy Week for me. Saturday morning we welcome the kids of the parish and beyond to receive the whole story of Jesus’ final week, his death and resurrection. Next Sunday we recall Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, greeted with palms and shouts of Hosanna! … and then his betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution. On Maundy Thursday, we’ll tell and enact his final meal.
On Good Friday, we will tell – once more – the holy solemn story of his death. We’ll bow before the cross, the instrument of shame and redemption. We’ll linger round an icon on Christ in the tomb, letting grief and loss be part of the story, letting ourselves weep and wonder. Then in the deep dark of Saturday night we’ll retell our ancient stories of salvation and liberation, and then SHOUT with joy as we mark the moment when Christ bursts forth from the tomb into new life. I know not everybody can handle the late night, but I gotta tell you, the Easter Vigil is about a hundred times cooler than Easter Sunday. But Easter Sunday is great too! – music and flowers and food and kids getting grass stains on their best clothes running around looking for plastic eggs.
We need it, all of it, the whole arc, all those moods and moments. If you’re away from your home church, as you may well be, I hope you’ll find another church with whom to walk this path, or spend your own time in prayer with each day, each chapter. We need the whole story because we need a God, a faith, that isn’t selling something. That tells the truth about our lives, and meets us there. That is the gift of God in Christ, and this is the time in the church’s year when that gift comes to us most fully and vividly, in all its messy prickly grace-filled complexity and completeness. Catch your breath, and hold on tight.