HEALTHY CHRISTIAN HEARTBEATS
There should be a specific dynamic at work in the Church, as regular as the rhythm of a clock or the beat of a heart
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10)
These words of St. Paul are often quoted by Christians – or should I say half-quoted. Scriptural memory sometimes conveniently falls away after I want to know the power of his resurrection. Those unsparing words about sharing in Christ’s sufferings are easily overlooked. Human beings prefer to share in the spoils of happiness and tread warily through life in ways which minimise exposure to suffering, like soldiers tiptoeing through a minefield. We reason that suffering will overtake us eventually, so why go looking for it ahead of time?
The two sides to Paul’s ambition: to share in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, run into trouble today. We are vague about what the resurrection means for daily life and we know for sure we want to avoid suffering. In trying to live it, we face the constant temptation to isolate one from the other.
The redemptive suffering and death of Jesus has been a source of great wealth to Christian people who have endured terrible things. This is one reason why the persecuted Church has usually grown against expectation. History has shown that churches are often at their best in this kind of adversity. It is shallow to romanticise the persecuted Church and we do it no favours when this leads to a failure of imagination in prayer, but faith endures because of the hope of resurrection; the belief that God does not abandon us and can transform us, even if the situation we are in remains unchanged. As Winston Churchill almost said: death is not the end for the Christian, it is not even the beginning of the end; it is merely the end of the beginning.
The risk comes when death is detached from its moorings in resurrection. In more prosaic settings like ours, this is demonstrated by a morbid embrace of decline. Some people complain about falling numbers in church and failing standards of personal and public conduct but by their tone seem almost to relish these developments, as if they serve to shore up their own sense of worth; in doing so we separate death from resurrection. God’s power to renew human life can transform the experience of decline and instil a joyful sense of what is possible. We need a fresh perspective on resurrection power, but to do so compels us to shed our resistance to change and our aversion to risk.
To be filled with this resurrection power is to allow the Holy Spirit to move with unfettered access into our lives. Our unstated preference is to inhibit the Holy Spirit; as if we were placing roadblocks and checkpoints and asking for papers to hinder him in his desire to move freely across our landscape. We can become so ingrained in our habits that we fail to see how they prevent God from doing what he needs to. Resurrection power obliges us to tackle repeated sin, to grow the fruit of the Spirit and to strengthen the particular gifts God has given us. God dares us to be different and to live in a way that other people notice. We would rather blend in than stand out, but the power of the resurrection cannot permit this.
By the same token, there is a form of Christianity which affirms the resurrection at the expense of the cross. When this arises, people tend to deny the impact of suffering. This happens either when people make the assumption that anyone who cannot rise above the misery of suffering is simply not being a faithful enough Christian or when people believe the resurrection should overcome suffering quickly before it starts to change someone from within.
Many Christians keep quiet about their suffering for fear of appearing a failure. If you doubt me, think about the shape of Christian testimony. People are more willing to speak up when they are in a good place, looking back on when they were once in a bad place than they are prepared to stand up and say how black the world feels for them at that moment. We are afraid others will judge us or interrogate us week after week until we are coerced into saying we feel better. All the while we deny the nature of God, who says his strength is made perfect in human weakness. We cannot cope with this doctrine of the survival of the frailest because it doesn’t fit with the story our culture leads us to believe about the strong and the weak.
To be true to our calling as St. Paul describes it in Philippians we should embrace the power of the resurrection and share in the suffering of the cross. These are not separate events, but one seamless piece. There may be times when one dimension of this spiritual truth speaks more pertinently to our experience; moments when God fills us with power or exposes us to suffering, but overall there is an unceasing dynamic in play.
When a room falls silent, we can train our ears to hear the tick-tock of a nearby clock, whispering the slow but inexorable advance of time. In the life of the Church and the lives of the people who make it up, there should be a similar rhythm, not one which sounds tick-tock, but one which breathes death-life, death-life; the heartbeat of a healthy Christian body.
This is how we come to know Christ.
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