“The Fear of Resurrection”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
October 12, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
“Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” Paul sounds so dramatic, but it is because he feels protective. He wants the church to stay intact, but there are meddlers afoot, out to convince the people that not everyone belongs. These meddlers are preaching that some folks don’t have it quite right, and in order to belong, they must first get circumcised—or they must eat kosher or they must quit smoking, or they must get their act together, or they must wear their hair in tighter buns. That is to say, these “evil workers,” as Paul calls them, want to draw lines in the sand. They want to say who gets to be in and who gets to be out, and if someone who is out wants to get in, here are the requirements.
Paul adamantly opposes such voices of division. Paul says you don’t get to say who is in and who is out based on outward appearance or marks of the flesh or any other important-to-you reason. You mutilate the body of Christ when start cutting people out based on your own criteria.
Paul is so convinced of this he sounds almost vicious, calling his opponents “dogs” and “evil workers.” But I want to go ahead and defend the dogs here for a moment, because I can understand their position. It is a scary choice to fling your doors wide open and allow just anybody off the street to walk right in. Who are you gonna get, if you do that? Can you imagine these longtime faithful, law-abiding Jews watching Gentiles walk among them who did not adhere to principles the Jews had valued all their lives? It did not seem fair or right that they could all stand equal before God.
I mean, what if a Gentile starting teaching Sunday School, and your kid came home thinking it was okay to eat meat that had been offered to idols? What if a Gentile teacher slipped in a story about Zeus or told your kid it would be fine to get a tattoo? It was better to make absolute certain the new guys were willing to comply by the same standards as you before you let them all the way in to the church, all the way in to your family, and all the way in to your heart. Best to keep yourself safe from contamination and your children away from exposure to the outside world.
I can see where these concerned old-timers are coming from. They feel protective of the community. You could say both Paul and the guys preaching circumcision want the same thing. They both desire to preserve the unity of the church, but they propose two very different methods for how that is going to happen. One group wants to build a fence. The other wants to take fences down.
Paul is not unaware of the dangers. It is just that he is thinking on a higher plane. He is sharing the mind of Christ, as his letter to the Philippians so often exhorts us to do. And you may remember, Christ himself did not consider his equality with God as something to be exploited. Christ did not think himself too fancy or too good to mingle with humans—the whole lot of them. This mingling with the humans was not a side plot to the Christian story; it was a front and central theme of one of the very first Christian hymns and confessions, that “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7). Christ himself laid aside all that made him superior and sat with lepers, with tax-collectors, with the folks who were said to make a person unclean if you spent too much time in their company.
So Paul figures, if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for him. Paul did have a lot he could boast about, loads of external proof that he belonged to the people of God. He could produce a list long as your arm full of bragging rights. He possessed an impeccable résumé but decided this was not a thing to be exploited but a thing to be expunged. If he were to share the mind of Christ, he was to lay those titles down and sit at the table with sinners.
But why? Why lay all those pedestals and prizes, those perks and positions aside to mingle with the riff-raff? Accomplishment feels so good; it is what we want; it is what we are told we want. Why would anyone forgo all the great stuff? Why abandon your sense of security, your proof of membership, your shining achievements?
This is the part of Paul’s letter where, if you haven’t experienced what he is talking about when he raves about knowing Christ, then you’ll have to trust his word, for all this is mystery. The surpassing worth of knowing Christ is not a thing you can know about until you know, you know? Paul is talking here about a thing so wondrous he would give up everything to have more of this Christ.
Specifically speaking, Paul is willing to give up his qualifications. He is willing to admit to the possibility that anyone can know God, not just folks like him. But it’s not like this was an easy idea for Paul to embrace. Just think with what zeal and righteous indignation he used to persecute the church. The Spirit of God had to transform his mind entirely before Paul was ready to fellowship with those who did not abide by all the same laws he did.
Something happened on the road to Damascus and in the years of solitude in the desert directly following his conversion. Something happened that was worth more to him than the rest of his life’s events and achievements combined.
But this thing that had happened, this experience of Christ—it was not a one time occurrence, but an ongoing growth and relationship. Paul is quite transparent about the fact that he has not yet attained this participation in Christ’s mystery. He does not already have it, but it is clear he has tasted it. He knows something of its power, its grace, its magic, and whatever small part of it he has known was enough to let him know, this is what he wants more of, and he wants it more than anything else.
Paul is so bold to say he wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection, even though he understands this involves sharing in Christ’s sufferings and Christ’s death. This is a bold statement. In today’s culture, many intellectuals debate whether Jesus even resurrected at all. Richard Rohr says we discuss such things because is much easier to ask about the science of Jesus’ physical body “than to ask whether we could really change or resurrect.” We would rather not die, not transform, not resurrect. Paul says, “I want it all. From death to life, I’m in.”
Rohr explains, “Death is not just physical dying, but going the full depth, hitting the bottom, going the distance, beyond where I am in control.” This “going beyond” is what Paul has known—the giving up of his control, the moving past his way of thinking, the death of ensuring his own righteousness. Rohr says if we are attentive, we learn that “grace is found at the depths and in the death of everything . . . [Therefore] we must not be afraid . . . When you go into the full depths and death . . . you come out the other side—and the word for that is resurrection. Something . . . carries you across [from death to life]. None of us,” he writes, “crosses over by our own effort or merits, purity or perfection. We are all carried by an uncreated and unearned grace . . . Worthiness is never the ticket.”
Rohr says the only truly detrimental thing we could do would be to keep swimming on the surface of things, never to explore the depths, never really desire to know the fullness of God’s love and mercy. But to dive the depths of God’s love means we are always and forever confronting our apprehensions and stretching our limited understanding of just how big this love and this mercy really are.
As another contemplative writer puts it, we must “strike out upon the water of uncertainty to seek another country where reality is experienced as unified bonds of mercy, service, and love.” Once we know this love, it “instigates our being born to new lives over and over again.” Or to say it in yet another way, Thomas Merton writes, “If we are involved only in our surface existence, in externals, and in the trivial concerns of our ego, we are untrue to Him and to ourselves. To reach a true awareness of [Christ] as well as ourselves, we have to renounce our selfish and limited self and enter into a whole new kind of existence, discovering an inner center of motivation and love which makes us see ourselves and everything else in an entirely new light.”
These “dogs” whom Paul reprimands: their position is understandable but untenable for those who want to know the mystery of Christ. Their desire to set hard and fast boundaries is based on fear—fear of what is unfamiliar, fear of loss, fear of death, and most of all, fear of resurrection. They are not ready to move into brand new life in Christ, because such a life means transformation. Transformation of how I see myself, transformation of how I see my neighbor. My merits fall away. His flaws no longer get to grip my attention. Her shortcomings are not mine to critique or control. Resurrection means stepping into the terrifying, unchartered territory of drastic Grace, the frightening experience of being true church and knowing true God in Christ. You never know where the call of God will lead, because it takes you to the grave and beyond, and that is a place none of us have never known, except by sheer miracle and grace.
Not that we have already obtained this or already reached the goal, but we press on to make it our own, because Christ Jesus has made us our own. We have tasted it, though we do not yet know it fully, and so this one thing we do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the call of God in Christ Jesus, that we might share his mind and his death, and last but not least, share in the power of his resurrection. Amen.