What does it mean to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
[Jesus] saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”
(Luke 9:22-24 NRSV also see Mt. 16:25 and Mark 8:35)
What a delightful scripture. I remember how these words were first presented to me, and I guess many of you do too. The basic message was:
Self is bad; self is evil; self needs to die!
Do you remember that kind of religion? If anything was fun, it was sin. If you desired it, it was of the Devil.
It is for good reason that people abandon that type of religion and seek deeper understanding. And that is what we’ll do in this exploration – honestly seeking the meaning and beauty of what Jesus communicated here.
One of the alternative interpretations that has been developed around the above scripture, places the focus on our inclusion in the death and resurrection of Jesus by adding scriptures such as 2 Cor. 5:14: “… we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died”
and Rom 6:10,11: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
These scriptures shows that the death and resurrection of Jesus included us in some form. Consequently the ‘death of self’ and ‘death to sin’ should no longer be dependent on individual effort, but rather an identification with his death: “consider yourself dead…”
So much could and should be said about this identification, about the beauty of our inclusion in these events, but I want to specifically look at how it relates to Luke 9:23,24 – the idea of taking up our cross daily and following Christ. Unfortunately, the idea of our inclusion in this death and resurrection, is often used to simply explain away the very words of Jesus that refer to a daily ongoing experience. Instead of ‘inclusion’ illuminating the meaning of ‘follow me; deny yourself, take up your cross daily’ it simply makes these words non-applicable… irrelevant. The way this sounds is: “You’ve died with Christ, so there is no need to take up your cross daily anymore” or
“The old self came to an end on the cross, so forget about losing your self etc and start discovering the new self that was raised” Does that sound familiar. Such interpretations do not explain the meaning of Jesus’ words in Lk 9, they explain them away.
So how do we understand our inclusion? Before we get to the good stuff, I wanted to make you aware of some of the ideas around inclusion we have encountered in our conversation that I don’t think are very useful or coherent.
This substitutionary view takes this form:
Jesus dies… so that I don’t have to. I only do the living part.
Jesus experiences the pain and suffering of the cross… so that I don’t have to. I only experience blissful resurrection. Etc. Etc.
Can you see why the idea of following Jesus and taking up your cross daily is rather difficult to reconcile with such a substitutionary view?
You don’t follow a substitute. You observe the substitute from a distance. Maybe you can identify with him mentally, but in practice you let him do the tough stuff, the dying stuff… and you’ll do the fun stuff. Isn’t that proof of how much he loves us – he protects us from all contradiction, all the hard stuff? This perspective is in reality just an avoidance strategy – a way of suppressing what we don’t have the courage to deal with, hoping that if we deny reality and avoid it long enough it will disappear. Consequently, the idea of taking up the cross daily is simply discarded as no longer valid… as ‘old covenant’ or whatever other wording can be found to ignore this passage forever.
Now I know this view might be a surprise to many, but we have encountered a number who hold to this view. These folk believe that they were included in the death and resurrection of Jesus because they were personally present and mystically united with Jesus 2000+ years ago. In other words, every person has some sort of pre-existence and that every person was individually present and part of these historic events.
There is nothing in scripture that directly supports such a view – it is dependent on highly imaginative interpretations. The line between mystery and fantasy can be very thin at times and this view seems to drift away from the mystery side. Its a niche view but I thought it’s worth mentioning.
But let’s move on.
The incarnation, the idea of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus, is the context for the view of ‘representation’. In this section I want to draw attention to the work of the ancient church father Irenaeus and how it has been illuminated by the work of Rene Girard. This perspective, opens up an ancient treasure but also exciting new possibilities to understand the representation of Jesus Christ.
Irenaeus (ca. 125-202) was bishop in what is known today as Lyon, France. His central theological thought came to be known as the ‘recapitulation’, meaning that Jesus summed up human history and brought it to a conclusion in this drama of redemption. Christ’s achievement is a transformation of the human story… not an abstract narrative, but one in which God becomes an active participant in the real history of humanity.
It is because Christ’s life effects a narrative reversal, which unwinds the story of sin and death and re-inaugurates the story that God tells from before the foundation of the world – the story of the creation he wills, freely, in his eternal counsels – that Christ’s life effects an ontological restoration of creation’s goodness; (David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Kindle Locations 5113-5115). Kindle Edition.)
Despite the fact that much of our anthropological, sociological, archeological knowledge, was not available to Irenaeus, his intuitions has been remarkable enriched and affirmed by what we discovered of the human story. Rene Girard illuminated the ancient human story, preserved in both myth and ritual throughout many cultures. He showed how ancient origin myths shared common traits and uncovered the events that gave birth to these stories. In a way these stories document the perversion of human desire and the cycles of chaos and order that formed our civilizations. It is the story, in Biblical terms, of the first Adam. Myths of dying and rising gods, of sacrificial violence that turns chaos into order, of angry gods pacified by the blood of our victims… these myths occur all over the world.
The Biblical stories are remarkably similar to these origin myths. In other words the scriptures do not ignore the human narrative and simply tell a different story. No. The scriptures entangle themselves with these ancient narratives, but instead of hiding the events that gave birth to these stories, they begin to expose the truth behind them. Scripture is in the process of subverting the human story by entering into conversation with it.
Jesus, in the fulness of time, comes to summarize time, comes to reveal what was hidden since the foundation of the world. Irenaeus and other ancient church fathers recognized this aspect of Jesus work – Jesus recapitulates and summarizes all of human history. He enters our narratives not in a theoretical abstract way, but as an active actor within this drama – an entangled participants in this story. If you are human, this is your history as well.
Ultimately he enters into the heart of our narratives to subvert them; to reveal that our victims are innocent; to reveal that God does not condone our violence nor is God the angry one needing our sacrifices to be pacified. Rather, God is the one who suffers our violence. In Jesus God identifies with the victim and in the resurrection demonstrates how victims and victimizers can be transformed. Forgiveness breaks the cycle of victims becoming victimizers.
So much more can be said, but the focal point is this: There are many ways of understanding humanity’s inclusion in Jesus Christ. One that has ancient roots and has been given new depth through the work of Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory is recognizing how Jesus’ story recapitulates all of human history – a history we all share in – and then inverts it, opening up a whole new way of being human.
But remember our central quest here: how do these ideas of being included in the death and resurrection of Jesus relate to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, to take up our cross daily? Well, this ‘representative’ view opens up real possibilities of following Jesus in living a counter-cultural adventurous story, one which subverts every narrative that still justifies violence.
Jesus enters into the heart of our narratives, not only in this universal and general way, but specifically and individually into your story. The broad history of humanity is concluded in the fulness of time, but Jesus also enters the depth of the human experience with all it complexities, contradictions and confrontations. And so Jesus demonstrates the depth of God’s entanglement with us. God is deeply intertwined in the human experience.
In contrast to the substitutionary view or the pre-existence fantasies, there is nothing in the ‘representative’ view that prevents us from following Jesus. The same Paul who wrote ‘one died for all, therefore all have died’ in 2 Cor 5, also gave us the practical application of that reality in the previous chapter, saying: “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (4:10,11)
Do you notice that Paul did not say “always carrying within my mind a doctrine of the death of Jesus.” No. This death is an ongoing experience, an unfolding phenomena.
This question might help in highlighting the point. Is your inclusion in the death and resurrection of Jesus a once-off event, or an ongoing process?
It certainly seems like both Jesus and Paul spoke of an ongoing daily experience… of both death and resurrection, of gaining when losing. If the new creation is something that came about once in the resurrection of Jesus, or for you personally when you made a decision for Christ, then it is not really new anymore, is it? It’s getting old quickly. For it to remain new it has to be an ongoing process; an unfolding story.
So what does this ongoing participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus look like?
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:8-10)
Being afflicted, distressed and pressured from every side, can easily become a devastating and crushing experience. My union with Christ Jesus is not a magical way of avoiding such affliction, but rather, it is exactly in his identification with our affliction and my recognition that he is with me in it, that the experience can be transformed. And instead of the outcome being crushing, a new solidity can be formed.
“…perplexed, but not driven to despair”
Being perplexed, bewildered… confused. What?! Should absolute certainty not be our constant experience in all situations? Paul acknowledges this perplexity. Without Christ such confusion can easily lead to despair, but in consciousness of our union with Christ it too is transformed. It becomes the necessary bewilderment that leads us to greater astonishment at the beauty of truth. And so, instead of a boring, static set of beliefs, faith becomes the never ending journey of unfolding wonder.
Our participating in Christ’s death and resurrection is an infinitely unfolding experience in which:
Life is made visible in death (2 Cor 4:10)
Light is part of darkness. (2 Cor 4:6, Gen 1:3)
Gaining comes through losing. (Luke 9:23,24)
Power is found in weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)
Foolishness is wiser than wisdom. (1 Cor 1:25)
Glory springs from dishonor. (1 Cor 15:43)
Contentment is found in hardship, insults and calamities. (2 Cor 12:10)
Renewal is a process of wasting away. (2 Cor 4:16)
And I do not simply mean that the positive sequentially follows the negative, but rather that these experiences are inseparably intertwined.
And so denying self and losing self becomes essentially part of recognizing and saving self. It is not that there is a bad self that needs to be replaced by a good self, but rather, the self you are conscious of is less that the possibility of being available to you. God is conscious of more and to partake of that consciousness you have to lose the boundaries of your own awareness; of your own definitions of self, of your own certainties.
The way of entering into a greater fulfillment or actualization of self, is by giving self away. It is by denying the boundaries and certainties of the current self that the impossibility of resurrection life can be realized.
A two part video series will explore this theme further -available in the next week.