That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)
As St Paul continues describing the proper perspective the Philippian Christians ought to emulate as seen in him, we get to the purpose behind it. Paul’s rejection of even what could have been a potential spiritual benefit to him is found in this sentence fragment. Whatever the motivations of the Philippians or generations of faithful since may be, Paul’s goal is a thorough knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. An intimate and experiential knowledge. Not mere head knowledge. The fact that Paul shares his motivation is indicative of his hope those who read or hear his words might come to share the same motivation as well.
What makes me think Paul is talking about experiential knowledge? Consider the action verbs Paul uses to describe what accompanies knowing Christ for the apostle. He wants to share in Christ’s own sufferings. He wants to become like Christ in his death. He wants be part of the resurrection of the righteous on the Last Day. This is clearly not the easy way out. If anyone thinks living by faith instead of according to the works of the Jewish Law is simple, a passing glance at what Paul’s spiritual goals should quickly disabuse us of such notions.
“Aw, but Fr. Lenny, don’t we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection already in baptism sacramentally? That’s a pretty easy task. Even babies do that in liturgical churches.” But that hardly answers St Paul’s desire to “share in his sufferings.” Whatever your view of the sacrament of baptism on the spectrum from mere symbol to efficacious means of grace, it beggars belief to think Paul has this first and foremost in his own mind. This is the same man who outlines the numerous ways he faced deadly persecutions during his itinerating, gospel-preaching travels writing elsewhere to the Corinthians. However much we may connect our baptismal hope to a lived experience of knowing Jesus, Paul doesn’t have mere symbolic action in mind. Nor does he reference the imputed grace of justification. He is talking about the lived experience of sanctification in mind—one that genuinely suffers as Christ did, experiences the transformation from incorruption to immortality that happened at Christ’s death, and will ultimately obtain that final hope—a resurrected existence in the new heavens and new earth. This is a spirituality that is felt and lived in a palpably physical way. Hardly the kind of pie-in-the-sky many Christian preachers have talked about (still talk about!).
Accepting a spirituality that has this-world ramifications is not easy. It grates against that long-standing gnostic impulse in the West that wants to relegate the physical world to the dustbin for some idealized non-material existence. It also grates against our post-Cold War bent to consider the slightest pain or discomfort the highest assault on our humanity. Even ancient Stoics saw the benefit of delayed gratification and going through moderate suffering for the sake of a greater good. And they didn’t have the promise of God dwelling in them that we have in Christ to be able to face such difficulties. How can we ignore the fact that Christ sanctifies the experiences Americans dread as much any curse or plague—poverty, pain, lack of public acclaim. But Paul thinks these are worth the price of knowing Jesus.
What priorities in your life fight with a deep, lived-out knowledge of Jesus Christ for preeminence? What is your view of suffering’s role in the spiritual life? How does your attitude about your daily experiences in life support or diminish your pursuit of knowing Jesus?
Father, whose greatness knows no bounds, whose glory is seen your Son Jesus Christ; may we make knowing Christ our highest goal, following him in any circumstance our highest joy, and the promise of his resurrection power raising us our greatest hope, through the grace made available in the cross and empty tomb, and the power of the Spirit dwelling in us. For sake of Christ’s glorious name, we pray. Amen.