The Dynamic We Cannot Do Without
Death and resurrection can be difficult truths to hold together, but together they have remarkable potency for church and society
People have selective memories and assimilate information in ways that suit them. This is just as true in memorising scripture. In Philippians, Paul says ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection’. These inspiring words are emblazoned on cards, fridge magnets and notepads across the world, but however well intentioned, they carelessly omit the following words: ‘and the sharing of his sufferings’.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death (Phil 3:10)
In fairness, do any of us feel comfortable owning the whole sentence? Being human, we prefer to share in the spoils of happiness while lessening our exposure to pain, as utilitarian philosophers have always supposed. The Easter story does not afford us such easy choices: death and resurrection are mysteriously and inextricably bound together; we cannot embrace one without feeling the other. But we try to. Yet we are constantly faced with the temptation to isolate one from the other.
There is a danger that death becomes detached from its moorings in resurrection. In public, this is shown when we make a morbid embrace of decline in both church and society and it is fostered by what other people tell us. The decline in practicing Christian faith can be reversed. There have been several occasions in British history when this has happened; furthermore, Christianity is flourishing globally, so its decline in the face of so-called progress is a specificity of European culture rather than a universal trend. When as Christians we succumb to this, we may lose the will to see the public world as a place that can be improved; if we do not believe the church can be reformed, our role as salt and light in the world is diminished. Stories which tell us the Church is dying and society is irremediable significantly belong together and are prevalent today. However, they do not bear witness to the power of resurrection in the mission of God. Death without resurrection is a gloomy and conservative trait which the Church should challenge, not acquiesce in.
On the other hand, the risk of resurrection being de-coupled from death is at hand. The Church demonstrates this when it tries to rush people through their suffering to a place where they can
witness to the triumph of God, as if the pain represents some kind of incipient challenge to the power of God rather than a mysterious component of it. Christians caught in this trap find it hard to testify to the sense of abandonment by God they may feel for fear of being ostracised. The Church is thus built up in unsustainable ways, like the foolish man who made his house on the sand; when storms come, the edifice is washed away. Its variant in society is the view that all change is for good because human progress is inevitable. Inconvenient testimony from the barbaric last hundred years is swept to one side. Resurrection without death is a naïve and liberal instinct which the Church should critique, not embrace.
Death and resurrection may be difficult truths to hold together, but they have remarkable potency and resilience, giving individuals and society strength to cope because they have the courage to hope for a better world even in the midst of an honest account of present failure and suffering.
There is a dynamic tension between these two spiritual realities which should be distinguished from balance. The risk of being scrupulously balanced in our faith is that we inch along with the pace and movement of a tightrope walker who fears falling and looking foolish. The dynamism in death and resurrection means we should welcome both as circumstances demand, without fear of morbid decline or baseless hubris taking hold; they are the heartbeat of a world God is patiently redeeming.
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