Paul’s statement that ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain’ is one of the boldest sentences in Scripture. As Christians, it’s a passage that we often quote and that we readily intellectually assent to; however, most of us—if honest—sense that we are not really living it the way that Paul was. Our lives (time, money, passion) are not wholly given over to serving; and we do not face death fearlessly, longing for union with God. I’ve wanted to really understand these words. And as someone who now has an illness, I feel it’s imperative. This statement of Paul is found in the book of Philippians, which though a short letter, has some of the most recognized and poetic passages in the Bible. And much to my surprise, when I took a deeper look, I found that this book is all about suffering. So why does Paul write an entire letter addressing suffering?
I just noticed something fascinating about the story in Luke chapter 5 (see text at bottom of article) where Jesus heals the paralyzed man who is lowered down into the busy room through the roof. In many of the miracles that Jesus’ performs, he enacts physical and spiritual healing at the same time. Or occasionally he grants physical healing first, hoping to prompt a subsequent spiritual awakening by the recipient, such as in the story of the blind man healed at the Pool of Bethesda in John chapter 5. But this story is different. Here, Jesus forgives the man first. And it’s only after that that Jesus then heals the man’s legs. What this text subtly indicates is actually quite fascinating: our spiritual healing is not connected with our physical health.
Jesus as the great iconoclast seems to be a recurring theme recently in passages I have read. I’ve always been perplexed by the story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll and the members of the synagogue then attempt to throw him off a cliff for it. Interestingly, as I was reading through Luke and stopping to focus on this story, I concurrently came to a chapter in Kenneth Bailey’s brilliant book, ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’, that deals with this confusing portion of text.
“The crucial question in prayer is not whether God suspends the laws of the universe, or whether he grants what people ask for, but whether we really open ourselves to him, open ourselves to his creating, saving presence” (Christianity Rediscovered, page 137). In his now classic book, Christianity Rediscovered, Vincent Donovan writes of his experiences sharing the message of Christianity with the Maasai tribes in Tanzania. Prior to approaching the various Maasai clans, the young Catholic priest resolves to simply present the message of Christianity—stripped as much as possible of his own Western rituals and conventions. He presents the teaching of Jesus without offering anything else that would cajole the people into a response. Nor does he ask for anything in return. As Donovan proceeds through his instruction with the Maasai, he is faced with the question, “How should Christians pray?”
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