Close-up crucifix

In the Pentecostal tradition in which I’ve been formed, it’s often occurred to me that we’re very keen on resurrection but not so hot on death.

Thus, when it comes to holy week, it’s all about Easter Sunday. Many Pentecostal churches have no Good Friday service, and for those that do, it’s often quite a perfunctory affair. I remember one year sitting in a Good Friday service and hearing a message that was really all about Easter Sunday, with barely a pause to think about the actual events of Good Friday and what they mean. It’s as though Good Friday and everything it represents is really no more than a somewhat inconvenient milestone on the way to the glory of resurrection.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I believe with all my heart that the resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. As the Apostle Paul put it, if Christ was not raised, we are of all men most to be pitied. And I agree that the crucifixion is no place to live (think about it); it’s only a place on the way to resurrection. If the Christian faith is not finally about victory, it’s nothing more than a sham and a pipe dream.

But here’s the thing: without Good Friday, there would have been no Easter Sunday. Without the agony, loss and defeat of the cross, there would have been no resurrection.

As Christians, we’re called to be resurrection people: people who partake in and share the life of the risen Christ. We like this idea; we’re drawn to it like a moth to a flame. But as to the idea that something in us has to die before we can be raised to new life… not so much.

What is this dying we have to go through in order to be raised to new life? Isn’t it simply a one-time event whereby we surrender our lives to Jesus and ask him to be our Lord and saviour? Well, that may be part of it, but there’s nothing in Jesus’ teaching or the rest of the New Testament that suggests it’s anything more than a first step on a very long road.

The Christian life is a process of progressive sanctification, also known as being conformed to the image of Christ. I think we often tend to understand this process, subconsciously at least, as an ongoing series of improvement projects in which God tinkers around with us, tunes us up and smooths off our rough edges. However, given all that the gospels and the rest of the New Testament have to say about death and resurrection, losing your life in order to find it, taking up your cross, and so forth, I think we have it wrong when we think this way. I suggest that it would be better to think of sanctification as a process of constantly dying and being raised to new life. Paul also calls this crucifying the flesh.

But what exactly is this death we have to die? The details will differ for each of us, but I suggest the core of it is that we have to let go of everything that keeps us alive outside of Christ. Speaking from personal experience, this usually has a lot to do with our ego – some call it the false self – the secure identity we have constructed and through which we seek to strictly control how we are perceived by others.

This identity and all that it entails is usually so tightly moulded to us that it can’t be pried off gently; something has to happen that breaks it so it can be cast aside and something new formed in its place. Rarely does this happen without pain and loss; this is the crucifixion to which we must submit before we can experience resurrection. We have to pull the plug on our old life support in order to receive new life; we have to lose our old self in order to find the new.

For me, much of the life support to which I still cling is around wanting people to like me, to think I’m intelligent, witty, wise and insightful; wanting you, dear reader, to see how very clever and impressive I am; wanting anyone and everyone to know how right I am; and, above all, wanting no one to get even the slightest glimpse of just how insecure, broken and messed-up I really am. All these desires, and the patterns of behaviour and control birthed from them, are forms of artificial life support that I need to be prepared to pull the plug on. Which sounds great as an abstract theory, but not so attractive when I realise I don’t really know what happens after the plug has been pulled.

Any attempt to engineer just what our resurrection and new life will look like is simply the old life support system struggling to maintain control. I guess this is what it comes down to: just as Jesus on the cross had to commit his spirit into God’s hands, so we, as we finally let go and allow ourselves to fall and be swallowed up into the great unknown of our death in him, must trust that God alone will bring us through to resurrection and new life.

[ Image: Tim Blair ]