Phoenix

Matters of Life and Death

Recently, a friend tweeted this:

Adam Russell Tweet

In such a brief and uncomplicated way, Adam managed to articulate what I think is a huge gaping hole in the theology I have been acquainted with my whole Christian life. As I see it, there are 2 major points of significance:

  1. For something new and better to be born, death is inevitable.
  2. Death is unpleasant.

While this may seem at first glance like Christianity 101, there is a tendency among Christians to either believe the first part and deny the second, or the reverse. To spell it out:

  1. We believe that death is a necessary precursor to new life, but pretend that the joy of new life negates the pain of death (I’ve recently seen the useful term “spiritual bypassing” to refer to this).
  2. Alternatively, knowing full well that death is painful, we try in vain to produce new life without allowing anything to die.

I believe that mature faith holds both the necessity and the reality of death in tension. We know that death is necessary for new life, and we know that death is painful and messy.

Death and Resurrection

In terms of a Christian theology of resurrection, we all learn about two major kinds of death and rebirth: the physical and the spiritual. We are subject to physical death when, for whatever reason, our bodies stop functioning. The great Christian hope is that this death, although it is an end, it is not the end. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, with a physical body that was no longer subject to pain and suffering, we too now lay claim to that hope for ourselves.

The other death, of a spiritual nature, is described by Paul as dying “to sin,” and it too is followed by a resurrection:

Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:11

I have (along with most people if I’m right) tended to think of these two major kinds of deaths as singular events. Just as I was once “born again” after renouncing my life of sin, so too will I be “born again” in a new body after I die.

However, although I continue to see those as two fundamental and cataclysmic events (I am an evangelical, after all), I now believe that Christian discipleship involves what Thomas Merton calls a “paschal rhythm.” The word paschal refers to the events of both Easter and of Passover; in other words, events of massive physical and spiritual significance, involving a process whereby a death initiates a new freedom from some kind of slavery. If Merton is right, then there is a “basic paschal rhythm of the Christian life.” Paul spoke of this when he said:

I die every day!

1 Corinthians 15:31

The “passage from death to life in Christ” must therefore not be understood as a one-time event but, as Merton says, it is a rhythm. I’m sure Paul agrees with this: there’s a sense in which the Christian has died and been reborn (as Paul says in Romans), but the life of discipleship is one of many and repeated deaths and rebirths (as Paul says in 1 Corinthians).

Dying Every Day

What is it that needs to die every day? Although the particulars will change, it is selfishness that arches over most, if not all, of that which arises in rebellion to God and must therefore be put to death. When I allow my own sense of my right to myself to rule my thought and action, I have denied the Lordship of Jesus. As James Hudson Taylor said: “Christ is either Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all.”

Merton and many like him have seen the primary method of repeatedly putting selfishness to death as being the practice of Spiritual Disciplines. Although the idea of spiritual disciplines once excited me, it’s taken me 20 years to actually take them seriously. I think this has to do with my tendency (which I’m sure many share) to expect a great deal of work to be done by the big moments of life. We often expect, mostly unconsciously, that the shockwaves from our earthquake moments are going to take care of all the mundane details that follow. However, a beautiful wedding does not inevitably lead to a good marriage – that takes work of an entirely different order.

A decision to follow Jesus is not the same as discipleship. Many of those who believed Jesus and chose to follow him nevertheless fell away. The excitement that bubbles up with a new thing – a new job, new home, new relationship, etc. – often wears out when we’re faced with the reality of life with that new thing. An initial decision to follow Jesus, while necessary, is not sufficient for discipleship; we must choose to follow him daily, and follow all the way to the cross.

Although spiritual disciplines have many names and many ways of practicing them, here are some of those disciplines and the ways in which I believe they can contribute to the “basic paschal rhythm of the Christian life”:

  • Silence is a putting to death of my own agenda.
  • Solitude is a putting to death of my need to be seen.
  • Prayer is a putting to death of my control over the outcomes of my actions.
  • Simplicity is a putting to death of my lust for possessions.
  • Fasting is a putting to death of my bondage to anything but God.
  • Confession is a putting to death of my pride and my right to be my own judge.
  • Celebration & Thanksgiving involve putting to death my envy over what I don’t have.
  • Worship is a putting to death of my sense of having earned what I do have.
  • Meditation is a putting to death of the poisonous narratives that have taken hold.
  • Study is a putting to death of any sense of ever having arrived at wisdom.
  • Service is a putting to death of my prioritisation of self over others.

Out of all of these little deaths, new life is able to sprout and take root, so that even now, within my perishable body, there are signs of eternal life.

 

Jesse is the Worship Pastor at the Kingdom Vineyard in St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland. He’s most at home behind a guitar, but is becoming increasingly comfortable behind a lectern. Having recently completed a degree in Theology & Biblical Studies, he’s now planning to teach himself Koine Greek. For fun.

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