Sunday, August 30, 2015
“We all will die someday. Mortality rates remain at 100 percent, and nobody among us is getting any younger.” So writes Brian McLaren, tongue in cheek, in the beginning of this week’s chapter from We Make the Road by Walking. However, turning quickly to the point, he completes his opening by asserting that “Among the Spirit’s many essential movements in our lives is this: to prepare us for the end of our lives, without fear” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 249). It seems a curious thing to take a chapter entitled, “Adventures in the Spirit of God: Spirit of Life” to focus on death but that is indeed what he does this week.
As we come to the end of this journey with McLaren, it seems appropriate to spend time considering matters of life and death. He offers three scriptures from which to choose – the great 90th Psalm, with its contrasting claims for God’s eternal majesty and the fragile, limited life of humanity; Jesus confrontation with Sadducees about marriage in the afterlife (Luke 20:27-38); and Paul’s deep sharing about life and death with his friends at the church in Philippi. Each text says something significant about the nature of mortality and of eternity. In each case we are challenged to see death as part of life, inevitable in its coming, but not inevitably to be feared. Each tries to give us a view of life and the Giver of Life that will allow us to move from the limitations of the past through the present to God’s good and glorious future.
McLaren writes that “So many of us are afraid to even think about death much less speak of it.” Now I don’t know how that is for all of you but I have heard some of you say you are not afraid of death. Others may not be so certain. We won’t take a poll this morning, but McLaren continues to argue that “That fear [of death] can enslave us and can rob us of so much aliveness” (McLaren, op. cit. p. 249). What do you think? It makes sense to me. You know how it is when you worry so much about something going right that you ultimately spoil it? Surely those who live in fear of death are proportionately robbed of life. That is both sad and unnecessary for those claim to follow the way of Christ.
McLaren asserts that “The Spirit moves within us to help us face death with hope, not fear…with quiet confidence not anxiety” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 249). Does that sound right to you? Can you feel the Spirit of Life moving in you, bringing hope, quiet confidence, as with Paul, even joy? In spite of being in prison, in chains, Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4: 4, 6-7).
How can someone in such dire straits be as positive, as hopeful as Paul? The only answer I can discern is that, for Paul, living is Christ. That’s what he tells his friends in Philippi. He does not seem to be boasting or showing off for them. Of all the churches he planted, this is the one for which he seems to have the most affection and hope. This is a community in which he is freer to bare his soul than any of the others. So he lays it on the line for them, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” How many of us can hear ourselves making such a claim – living is Christ, dying is gain?
If you love life as much as I do it is difficult to imagine how dying would be gain. I hear the old song, “I love life so I want to live, and drink of its fullness; take all it can give…” or Dylan Thomas urging us to “rage against the dying of the light.” Is Paul suffering from a martyr complex here? A few scholars have speculated as to whether or not he was suicidal. I hear none of that in this passage. I think that, living in Christ, Paul had overcome any fear of death.
Whatever had driven his early rage against followers of Jesus was subsumed in and transformed by his encounter with the living Christ. Lying on the ground dazed and helpless he saw through blinded eyes that living is Christ and he gave himself over to that new reality. For someone who had given himself so completely to Christ, Paul believed that dying to this present life would only bring him closer Christ, lead him deeper into the reality of that life-giving relationship. But what is this reality? What does it mean for us today? What would it mean for you or me to make as our central life claim that living is Christ?
As I was working on this sermon, I recalled a verse from Rosemary Crow’s song, “Weave.” I think many of us are familiar with the chorus,
Weave, weave, weave us together,
Weave us together in unity and love.
Weave, weave, weave us together,
Weave us together, together in love.
As I learned it, the final verse of the song sings,
A moment ago we did not know
Our unity, only diversity.
Now the Christ in me greets the Christ in thee
in one great family.
When I first heard those words, that last line struck me as a curious claim – “the Christ in me greets the Christ in thee.” Isn’t that sort of absurd and a touch heretical? Christ in me? I don’t think so. At least that’s not how I learned it in Sunday School. Jesus is Christ and I’m a sinner headed for hell if I don’t get my act together. As I’ve come to let go of any notion of hell – except that which we create for ourselves, maybe even through fear of death – I have come to wonder about this way of Christ we walk. “For our days on earth are a mystery, a searching for You, a yearning for the Great Mystery to make itself known” (Nan C. Merrill, “Psalm 90,” Psalms for Praying).
I said to the Bible study group recently that I have come to wonder about the role of “Christ-consciousness” in our lives. I know this may sound heretical for some, but what if a dimension of the Great Mystery was the willingness of Jesus of Nazareth to allow Christ to take root and grow in himself. There is then an evolution of consciousness as Jesus lives into his Christness. Perhaps part of the mystery is that, if Jesus can own his Christness, we might at least follow him along that road, growing into our own Christness. Is this what he means when he invites to come and follow him? If this sounds silly to you let it go, but what does it mean to claim that living is Christ, that Christ in me meets the Christ in you?
Indulge me for a few minutes more to explore some of what it might mean to be Christ. What do you think were characteristics or qualities of Jesus that made him Christ? Might you also claim these as the Christ in you? I realize this list came from our human consciousness, what we know or think we know of goodness or righteousness, God’s desire for creation, the Jesus way. But maybe we can claim that these characteristics and qualities show us what it means to say living is Christ. Paul writes to the Philippians,
“8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4: 8-9).
Remember that one of the truth claims of our tradition is that in Christ death has been defeated. Through the resurrection Christ has shown that death, though a necessary rite of passage, has no real meaning for God who is all about life and living in every form. “Think about these things,” Paul instructs. McLaren picks up the challenge, “To be liberated from the fear of death – think of how that would change your values, perspectives and actions. To believe that no good thing is lost, but that all goodness will be taken up and consummated in God – think of how that frees you to do good without reservation. To participate in a network of relationships that isn’t limited by death in the slightest degree – think of how that would make every person matter and how it would free you to live with boundless, loving aliveness” (McLaren, op. cit., p. 250).
These seem to be the sort of things Jesus and Paul thought about that shape our faith tradition. These sound like the kind of qualities that might form a Christ-consciousness. These feel like qualities that will bring to life God’s Beloved Community to reality. In these ways, living is Christ. Can we claim it for ourselves? Amen.