The Christian faith from beginning to end is loaded with paradox. By its very nature, paradox transcends reason and often leads believers into a realm where ordinary modes of reasoning are about as helpful as air brakes on a turtle. This can create a great deal of confusion for the new believer.
Take for example Jesus’ statement about the necessity of losing your life to save it. On the surface, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. However, this one paradoxical statement presents the essence of the Christian walk of faith. All aspects of practical spiritual formation ultimately point to this fact, as do even the most arcane theological speculations.
If you want to truly live, you have to die.
Of course Jesus isn’t talking about a physical death, just as he wasn’t talking about being born again physically when he met with Nicodemus under the cloak of darkness. No, here the Lord is speaking of a kind of non-physical death in which we die to self and rise with Christ in order to be “in Christ.” Just as Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected after three days, we, too, have to die and be resurrected. The question then becomes: What is it that dies?
Put simply, we have to die to our lower self, sometimes called the ego and biblically called “the flesh.” In essence, we are called to die to our self-centered concerns and, in being raised with Christ, reawaken our sense of spiritual vitality as well as our heart of compassion. We die to self and subsequently live for Christ and for others. In fact, Christ clearly tells us that when we live for others, we are actually living for him.
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison and you visited me.
Then the righteous ones will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or, thirsty and gave you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?
And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40 NLT)
What is Christ getting at here? It’s simple really. We die to self so that we can rise in newness of life in order to serve others.
The Apostle Paul also uses this theme of dying and rising throughout his letters. One can accurately say that for Paul, as it was for Jesus, the Christian path of transformation was found only in this process of personal death and resurrection. As Paul stressed to the Corinthian church, “So if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17). Once we engage this process of death and resurrection Paul says that we are “in Christ.” The spiritual state of being “in Christ” was highly significant for the Apostle. He used the phrase 165 times in his letters, and he used the synonymous phrase, “in the Spirit” at least 20 times.
It is not a stretch at all to say that for Paul, the essence of the Christian life was the cross. And what was nailed to the cross as far as we were and are concerned? Our lower self, the ego – in the words of Paul – the flesh. When Paul said with sincerity that he intended to preach nothing but Christ crucified, it was this process of death and resurrection he was talking about. The way of Christ was the way of personal transformation – the way of the cross.
The beloved disciple John also spoke of death and rising. In one passage of scripture John spoke with stark clarity in reference to what we must do as Christians:
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels – a plentiful harvest of new lives. (John 12:24 NLT)
It is interesting to note that this statement by John is soon followed by Jesus’ paradoxical utterances about loving one’s life and losing it and hating one’s life and gaining it.
As Christians, you and I may have heard this teaching and failed to understand it. Or, it could be that some of us have heard this death/resurrection theme and believed it applied to Christ but not to us. Still others may have heard it so often it has ceased to have any true personal meaning. Like the Lord’s Prayer, words that we encounter time and time again often fail to move us any longer. The fact is, however, that this theme cannot be ignored, misunderstood, or misapplied. As said earlier, the cross is a personal experience; it applies to everyone who dares take on the title of “Christian” or “Christ-follower.”
Marcus Borg, a somewhat controversial Christian scholar and teacher, speaks clearly to this issue:
…..the early Christian movement saw the cross as a symbol of “the way.” It embodies “the way”: the path of transformation, the way of being born again. The cross, the central symbol of Christianity, points to the process at the heart of the Christian life: dying and rising with Christ, being raised to newness of life, being born again in Christ, in the Spirit. It is no wonder, and yet it is, that Paul vowed to preach “nothing but Christ crucified”; no wonder, and yet it is, that the gospels saw the way of Jesus as the way of the cross; no wonder, and yet it is, that the season of Lent climaxing in Good Friday and Easter is about participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
By now it should be obvious that the way of the cross, which is the way of Jesus, is of utmost importance in the process of spiritual formation. If we aren’t willing to lose our lives, we cannot possibly gain them. If we refuse to die, according to Christ, we have no hope of living.
So, how do we go about dying and rising? Where the rubber meets the road, what is it that I must do?
Stay tuned for Part Two……
© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved