As Lent approaches, here's a hot potato to juggle with: which event is more important, the death or the resurrection of Jesus? Good Friday or Easter Sunday?
You could argue it both ways. Jesus' death paid the price for our rebellion against God, without which we couldn't know, and be in the presence of, a perfectly holy and loving God. On the other hand, St Paul describes Jesus' resurrection as the ultimate proof of his divine Sonship, without which he couldn't have been our saviour at all. The resurrection proves that his death was effective.
I am, of course, making a false division. We cannot separate the events of Easter: both the death and the resurrection of Jesus are equally important. And yet for most of us would-be followers of Jesus, it is so hard to give due weight to both, to live in the light of both Christ's death and his resurrection. Mature faith demands it – but how to do it...?
Who are you? Like so many of the deep issues of faith, this simple question frames the debate. And in this particular case, the answer is that we are both sinners and saints. It's a kind of shorthand for describing our dual identity as followers of Jesus – retaining our natural human flaws (sinner) and also forming a completely new humanity in which God dwells by his Spirit (saint). After Easter, we are both simultaneously – citizens both of fallen earth and perfect heaven.
As an aside, it's become popular nowadays to insist that the New Testament only ever uses the word 'sinner' to denote our status before salvation – but that's not strictly true. Writing to Timothy near the end of his life, Paul – the great architect of our saintly identity – still declares to his young protégé: 'I am the worst of sinners' (1 Timothy 1:15). Not was, am. Paul knows as well as anyone that we never attain perfection this side of heaven. We remain sinners in continuing need of God's grace.
Sinners and saints
What it means in practice, though, is that a mature approach to faith is both sin-denying and life-affirming. One that lives in the valley and on the mountaintop. That never excuses the pain of life or sweeps it under the carpet, but does so with joy, peace and determination to overcome it.
To live with this tension is to live as a disciple of Jesus, precisely because Jesus testified to the reality of both. The same Jesus who promised life to the full (John 10:10) also calls us to take up our cross, if we are serious about following him (Mark 8:34).
But what does it mean to take up our cross? At its root it must mean anything that connects us to the sufferings of Christ. When we take on a hard task because we know God is calling us to it, we take up our cross. When we suffer ridicule or discrimination or even outright persecution for being open about our faith, we take up our cross. When we make a stand on an ethical issue which costs us something – popularity, friendship or something worse – we take up our cross. But also, when we give ourselves wholeheartedly to fighting our sinful inclinations, we take up our cross. After all, was it not for our sin that Jesus took up his? Therefore, to fight sin, to discipline ourselves, to cry out to God for strength, to avoid places and people that cause us to sin: that must also be what it means to take up our cross.
The great 19th-century missionaries could teach us a thing or two about this. It is said that the average life expectancy of a missionary at that time was six months from the time of their departure overseas. In the face of this knowledge, many would pack their belongings into a coffin instead of suitcase, knowing it would be required sooner or later. But they went anyway.
And yet, a faith which is all hard graft and self-denial is in danger of missing the other dimension, the other half of this dynamic tension. Life in all its fullness is not only after we die. It is meant to be our reality here too. Life is essentially everything that God is, and by extension gives to us. It is about relationship, community and even victory over sin. Not always, this side of the grave – but little by little, bit by bit, and occasionally spectacularly. I have a friend who stopped swearing immediately upon his conversion, it was an instant change. But I also know this same friend has battled for years with poor self-image, walking only very slowly towards a place of greater wholeness.
Similarly, fullness of life means enjoying good food, deep, supportive and joy-giving relationships, meaningful community. We can have these even as we carry our personal and corporate crosses of sin, sickness, suffering, or whatever it is. Indeed, we must have these life-giving, 'resurrection' elements, or many of us will simply stumble under the weight of our crosses. We need this kind of life to co-exist alongside the hard stuff: filling us up, strengthening us and giving us resolve to keep on keeping on.
In other words, we need joy. Joy inspires us, energises us, empowers us. Joy also happens to be infectious, which is why every community needs a few joyful people in it. As Nehemiah said to a weeping people: 'The joy of the Lord is your strength.' Amen to that.
Dying and living
So what might we do to embody a life which is both sin-denying and life-affirming? Here are five brief suggestions, aimed at cultivating both:
1. Engage with our traditions. The modern church has seen a great explosion of new initiatives: there is fresh impetus in mission, in rediscovering the vitality of the New Testament church, of seeing God move in our generation. For all of this, praise God! But in our rush to embrace the new, I have seen many churches ditch what they see to be outmoded expressions of church tradition, or at least to minimise them. We do so at our peril, especially when in some cases they form such a fundamental part of our Christian heritage.
Confession, communion and Lent are three of them. Each of these historic traditions connect us with the 'death' axis of in-tension-al, 'both/and' life. They focus us on our sin, on Christ's death, and on how we respond in the light of it – the ongoing quest for more purity and holiness. No cross, no crown.
By the same token, however, in embracing the traditional rhythms of our historic faith, it is worth asking whether these rhythms give sufficient emphasis to the new life of the Spirit. Why does Lent get 40 days but Pentecost only one? I long for the Church to inaugurate a period after Pentecost which offers an equivalent focus on the new life of the Spirit, as Lent does for self-denial.
2. Life in two places. We have already referenced the valley and the mountain as two images which express the highs and lows of the spiritual life. However, the contrast sometimes feels a bit stark compared with the sort of regular life most of us have. I want to introduce another pair to you instead: the wilderness and the garden.
Sometimes life is rosy – whatever you touch seems to flourish. But then there are other periods when everything is like pulling teeth: a period of barrenness and not fruitfulness. Nearly all of us visit these two places periodically in our lives: the garden and the wilderness. The one a place of fruitfulness and abundance, the other a place of dryness and frustration – but both places in which God is working powerfully.
It is often in the wilderness that we grow in that sin-denying, cross-bearing capacity. After all, it was where Jesus fought the devil with his temptations, it was where people went out to hear John the Baptist tell them to be cleansed from their sin. In the wilderness we learn to depend on God again, to cry out for him to pull us out of it, and into new life again. In the garden everything just seems to grow of its own accord. In the wilderness we develop the spiritual toughness which enables us to see that growth in future times, and, indeed, not to credit ourselves too much for it.
Are you in a wilderness or garden at the moment? Don't try too hard to leave the first one too quickly. What is God teaching you through it? And don't feel guilty if you are in the second one. Or think it's all down to you. Rather, give thanks that God is granting you a season which is particularly life-affirming. It will last forever one day – in heaven – but until then, don't presume the wilderness will never appear again on the horizon.
3. Short accounts. As a sage once said, confession is good for the soul. It also enables us to live as sinners and saints. We remind ourselves regularly of how much we need God's forgiveness and therefore his grace; and yet at the same time, we 'clear the decks' quickly, allowing God's life to course through our veins.
Keeping short accounts with God usually also helps us to keep short accounts with each other – which can only facilitate the flourishing of Kingdom life in our community. Not only that, the more we recognise our common flawed humanity, the more likely we are to exhibit 'saintly' compassion and forgiveness. Once again, the two go hand in hand.
4. Finish well. As someone from the charismatic tradition, I have always prayed confidently for healing – and sometimes wonderfully seen it happen. However, as I've got older I've also accepted that we must learn to acknowledge our mortality, and prepare people for a good death – and yes, there is such a thing as a good death. We need a theology which both prays for life and prepares for death: that can sit with the sick and the dying, and comfort their spirits; that knows when prayer for physical healing is not the right response; that enables people to finish well, close to their Lord and ready to be with him.
In short we need to know when our 'faith' is really a denial of our mortality, one that looks uncomfortably like a secular fear of death. For the Christian our joyful hope in death is that eternal resurrection is our ultimate reality. The fullest and greatest life of all!
5. Cultivate celebration. One of the great weaknesses of the institutional church is that our highly structured acts of worship and hierarchical models of organisation have too often obstructed a model of church as places of real community life, including hospitality and celebration.
But what does the Bible tell us about heaven? It's not just a massive worship session, it's a feast. So let's cultivate that in our community life: more hospitality, more celebration. The details are up to you...
The last word
One last observation. To live a life which is both sin-denying and life-affirming is not one we can manufacture. They are both ultimately manifestations of the life of the Spirit: the Spirit who purifies and the Spirit who renews. The Spirit who convicts people of sin and then fills them with joy. The fruitful, in-tension-al, work of death and resurrection.
Rev Matt Trendall is Rector of Walton Churches Partnership, Milton Keynes.