There is something delightful in seeing the paradoxes of the Christian faith come to life and take flesh in visible and tangible ways. Over the last few weeks, I have been ruminating a lot on the paradox associated with the via crucis, “the way of the cross” of Christian discipleship. The paradox goes something like this: to experience this resurrected life of Christ, we must experience the cruciform life of Christ. To put it another way,
“Truly our way to eternal joy is to suffer here with Christ; and our door to enter into eternal life is gladly to die with Christ; that we may rise again from death, and dwell with him in everlasting life.”
This paradox is expressed of course in different ways, whether by Jesus addressing his disciples, or by the Apostle Paul writing to Timothy his apprentice or to the Philippians, or by the Apostle Peter comforting suffering Christians. But Holy writ is unanimous in its testimony that the model that Christ gives to Christians for their lives corresponds much more closely to the hard wood of his cross than to the ease, comfort, pleasure, prestige, or power that we generally expect or hope to come our way.
Still, do our lives in fact bear witness to the truth of this paradox? I seem to be able to see something like it in the incredible lives of men and women around me who, in the face of evil around them and despite their own sufferings, remain stalwart in their faith and persevere with joy. However, none of these experts in “cruciform living” have actually attained to the glory that has been promised us in the Resurrection of Christ, and it can be difficult to obey the exhortation to “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” when we cannot see that outcome here and now.
Indeed, the difficulty in seeking visible and tangible confirmation of the paradox of the via crucis is that, according to the Apostle Paul, we are still waiting for “the coming weight of glory to be revealed in us which is not worth comparing to the sufferings of the present age.” Here and now we can only behold the suffering: the glory has not yet broken into our world. In order to consider the outcome of the lives of those who have taken up their cross and followed Christ, we must have faith, trusting that our Lord will honor his promise to “transform our bodies of lowliness into the same form as his body of glory, according to the working by which he is able also to submit to himself all things.”
But even considering the outcome of their “cruciform living” through the lens of faith, a tricky question can emerge for people like me whose own suffering appears minute in comparison to that of so many others. After all, in my short life of youth and vigor, I have enjoyed a loving family and firm friendships. I have eaten well, slept warm, earned degrees, travelled the world, and preached the Gospel in peace and tranquility. Very little about my life suggests the obvious suffering which the apostles, the martyrs, and so many others of the church militant have undergone as they were conformed to the “cruciform life” of Christ. The question is: have I and others like me been exempt from the via crucis?
Hardly. My tentative answer to this question may not be entirely satisfactory to some, but I find it is an important stab at it for Christians who, like me, have enjoyed enormous blessing, prosperity, and privilege in the present world.
As I have been travelling for the last three weeks I have been struck by the discomfort which comes with being a visitor and a guest in the homes of others. No matter how gracious the host or how posh the surroundings, there is an ache associated with being somewhere other than home. Homesickness reminds us with its unasked for jabs that we are not where we are most ourselves, not where we most belong, not where we hope to arrive at. Though well-fed, well-clothed, and well-cared for, we will never rest content until we are at rest in the place we claim as our own.
It is this kind of homesickness pain, be it dull, throbbing, or acute, which characterizes the heart of the Christian life as we are each stretched upon our crosses. As Paul lets on, when we become crucified with Christ, we remove our focus from earthly things and experiences, even when they are pleasurable, in order to set our minds on heavenly things, where Christ is seated, where our citizenship lies, where we have our home. To wit, if this world is no longer our true home, then its pleasures and comforts, its prestige and honor will all ring hollow as our homesickness for a heavenly kingdom casts its shadow over life in the present age. Suffering always comes to Christians in this world because, without exception, we have all died to the world we live in, and death is never without pain.
However, to the end we cling to the paradox that Paul exudes to the Romans: “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” And this is the hope: that home will come to us. Our risen Lord will return to earth to raise us up to be with him, bringing heaven with him, and he will wipe away every tear from our eye in that place where there will be no more place for suffering. Believe me: this homecoming will make all the suffering of our cross-marked lives worth every minute of it.