For me, to live, is Christ
Easter Day: 4th April, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
The six words of our heading sum up Paul's singular passion in life. Later in this little letter to the Christians at Philippi, he says that the secret of severing all else as rubbish or manure, is to savour Christ as gain (Phil 3:8). He condenses into six words three basic essentials of the Christian message.
1. 'For me' — it is personal
There is a story that is told about the great philosopher, Bertrand Russell. One day, he was walking down a road when he suddenly stopped and said to himself, 'The ontological argument for God's existence is right after all'! (I might add, it was only a passing thought in his case, and he quickly dismissed it!).
On another day, somewhat earlier in human history, Saul of Tarsus was walking down a different road when he encountered the risen Christ.
Russell had encountered an idea.
Saul/Paul had met a person.
There is all the difference in the world between those two experiences. The encounter with the risen Christ certainly gave rise to a set of ideas. But lying behind them as their source and origin was the risen Christ.
Take, for example, the gospel scene of Mary Magdalene at the tomb on the first Easter morning. It is one in which the living Lord manifests himself in stages:
First, two angels appear in dazzling robes. In the Scriptures the presence of angels is an intimation of God's transcendent action. At the empty tomb their presence is an eloquent, though wordless discourse. In the angels, the One who has disappeared from there is present in an inexpressible way.
In the next stage, the Lord himself appears, but the vision is veiled and he is unrecognized. He is the glorious Lord, but mistaken for a gardener.
In the final stage he is recognized when, as the good shepherd who knows his sheep and calls them each by name, he calls her name, "Mary". In that instant something deep within her shifts utterly. Weeping is exchanged for sheer joy.
All this is expressed in his name pronounced by one who loves him: "Rabboni!" (a title of endearment — "Dear master!").
Three days after the crucifixion Mary Magdalene went looking for Christ the object (an inert corpse) but instead was herself found and gradually comprehended by Christ the living subject, raised from the dead.
It has been said that, 'we could never stand apart from God as observers watching him in the way that a biologist might watch the antics of a tadpole'. God is always a subject and never a mere object.
I thought I was the one doing the seeking and the holding, and I discover that I am the one being looked-for and held-onto. I am no longer the one taking the initiative, staking out the territory. I have been found. I have been kept.
In this time of institutional confusion and controversy within our Anglican Church, of pressure groups on the right and pressure groups on the left, I am grateful that the Christian faith is always quintessentially a deeply personal experience of the 'sovereignty of grace', rather than merely propositional or institutional.
Currently, the media is focussed on the deplorable revelations of sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, but all of our churches are, in one way or another, partly sound and partly not. None of our churches would, on the basis of their virtue and their strength alone, merit God's approval. All of us must constantly look to the crazy generosity of a merciful Lord whose love we can never earn, or merit or deserve.
The Christian faith is not private nor is it individualistic. But it is nevertheless about you and me as persons encountering, in Word and Sacrament, that personal, three-personed God. That is where every Christian life has its centre and where it draws its energy. — 'For me'.
2. 'To live' — it is practical
The acid test of authentic belief is practice. Paul writes to the believers in the church at Philippi: 'Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others' (Phil. 2:4). He then goes on to quote what appears to have been an early Christian hymn extolling the wonder of the Incarnation. But, as so often, Paul uses doctrine as a lever for the way Christians are to act towards one another. He writes: 'Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant' (Phil. 2:5-8).
Forming the mind of Christ is not simply about information processing. It is the cultivation of practical wisdom. Paul would resonate with T.S.Eliot's lines: 'Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?' The wise disciple is one for whom orthopraxy matters as much as orthodoxy. The purpose of doctrine is to aid and abet 'lived understanding'.
A favourite Bible verse for some Christians occurs in Paul's second letter to Timothy (2Tim 3:16,17). It reads: 'All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work'.
Bible-study piety tends to emphasize the beginning of that verse — 'inspired by God'. But of equal importance is the end of that verse, which points to the whole purpose of Bible study — 'equipped for every good work'.
Christians are 'do-gooders' however much that term brings scorn and ridicule from others. Bible study that does not lead to concrete changes in ourselves, our community and our world, aborts what God designs the Bible to give birth to.
Christians are first and foremost, those who practice the way of Jesus in doing good — working at eliminating racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, war, economic and social injustice.
'For me, (it's personal) - to live' - (it's practical).
3. 'Is Christ' — it is possible
The problems in our world are not small. The most casual glance at the newspaper or TV news will remind us of global crises — global warming, the AIDS pandemic, local catastrophes of senseless violence, family failures and church skirmishes. They are robust — powerful, pervasive, and systemic. The question is: 'do we have a gospel big enough for these problems?'
It is the fundamental conviction underlying Paul's six words in Philippians 1:21, that we do. Writing from his prison cell and reflecting on the ups and downs of his life, Paul writes to his Philippian friends, 'I can do all things through him who strengthens me' (Phil 4:13). He understood that 'impossible' is a word that must be redefined in the light of the gospel.
C.S. Lewis sums up the enabling power of the risen Lord when he says of the Christian believer: 'the inside is bigger than the outside'. In the gospel, a gift is given, supplying hope and giving courage, as well as strength for the journey.
How then can we settle for a little gospel, a miniaturized version, one that cannot address the robust problems of our church and of our world?
The little gospel promises me personal salvation and eternal life. But the robust gospel of the risen Lord doesn't stop there. It also promises, in the power of the Spirit, a new society and a new creation.
Here then, in six words, is the heart of Paul's spirituality. It is deeply personal; it's practical and what is more, the Spirit of the risen Lord makes it possible.
Supposing the final word fell off the end of Paul's short sentence: 'For me, to live, is .... what?' How would you complete that sentence? What consumes your waking moments? What really excites you in life? What is your passion?
Surely Paul's intention in writing those six autobiographical words in this delightfully personal little letter to the Philippians was that all his readers might be equally determined to make his motto their own, until they draw their last breath: 'For me, to live, is Christ'. Alleluia!