When we read the letters of the Apostle Paul to the various Christian communities he wrote, we see the theme of death bringing them together like relatives to a funeral. At times it seems like Paul was obsessed with death and dying. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he said, “I die every day” (15:31). It is important to note that Paul had bitter and dangerous enemies. Every day he put himself at risk of death by proclaiming the Gospel. And although I think that on one level Paul was talking about the suffering he endured as a result of his ministry, I can’t help but think that he was preaching a ministry of death, an otherworldly religion unconcerned about the quality of life in the present; but the Gospel deals with the present reality of God’s rule and its future realization. In the very same letter Paul wrote, “I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death.” I’m still talking about the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul wrote, “The appointed time has grown short” (7:29). The appointed time has grown short? In other words, time was running out for Paul.
In other letters Paul conveyed this impending sense of doom, of death fast approaching, of the end of the world as he knew it. I believe that Paul believed that the end was near. Not only do I believe this, but many of the early Christians did too. In fact, one of the issues in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians dealt with this ministry of death. Some Thessalonians had stopped working because they believed that the end was near. Paul had to write to them and tell them not to stop working. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he had to deal with this very same question of death, and the resurrection. If there is not life after death, the people said, let us eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But Paul instructed the Corinthians not to stop living, and not to live in excess. Live as if the end is near, but live as if it isn’t. The key word here is “live,” and we’ll get back to it.
Paul has traveled a long way since he was on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians, since he began to proclaim the Gospel, and he may be a little tired. Carrying the cross wasn’t an easy thing in Paul’s time. Christians were being persecuted. Paul may be tired of living and his understanding of the end of time probably contributed to this thinking, which comes across as a theology of death. But the lesson of the cross is not the dying that Jesus did, but the living that we must do so that his life and his ministry on this earth will not have been in vain. Paul knew this. In the letter to the Romans he wrote:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:3-4, 11).
If we follow the cross we don’t follow it in anticipation of death, of life after death – at least not physical death. No, we don’t have a death wish. We don’t follow the cross as if it is a road leading toward death. The ministry of Jesus wasn’t a ministry of death. It was a ministry of life. That’s why Jesus was healing people, so that they could participate in the life of the community. The ministry of Jesus wasn’t simply a ministry of the afterlife, which is another way of saying death, perhaps a “life” we don’t understand. Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of life. And we say yes to the ministry of life, and no to the ministry of death.
Let’s talk about life, not death. To Paul’s statement that he dies daily, let’s say that every day we live. To his statement that he is living under a sentence of death, let’s say that we are living under a sentence of life. To his belief that the end is near, let’s say that we are at the very beginning. Let’s talk about life, not death. But we can’t talk about the cross without talking about the death of Jesus. And we can’t talk about the death of Jesus without talking about the resurrection. And we can’t talk about the resurrection without talking about Paul’s witness and ministry. And we can’t talk about Paul’s ministry without talking about this ministry of death.
The cross is not about death. As Delores S. Williams writes, “People do not have to attach sacred validation to a bloody cross in order to be redeemed or to be Christians.” When Jesus cried out on the cross that he was being forsaken by God, it was because he valued life; he didn’t want to die, even though it was written and would be fulfilled. Jesus’ instincts told him to fight for life. Remember, Jesus didn’t choose the cross. Like any death row prisoner, Jesus fought for his life.
The cross symbolizes life, revealed in the resurrection. The resurrection is about life after death, in more ways than one. For us, it’s not simply the afterlife, after physical death. It’s a new life for those while they’re imprisoned. It’s life after prison. When we talk about death, we mean that the sinful persons we were are dead. We are “born again” as new men with a vision of life. We take up the cross and the idea of resurrection in order that we can live, in order that we can rejoin the community of believers.
When we talk about resurrection, we talk about Paul’s understanding of this. Now, Paul is one of the central characters in the early development of and propagation of the teachings of Jesus. He wrote many of his letters from prison. I like the idea that he illuminated the Biblical faith from prison. What does Paul say? He’s an “ambassador in chains,” and he’s not ashamed of his chains. As Malcolm X often said, there is no shame in having been a criminal, but in remaining a criminal.
As I said, Paul’s often writing from prison. Despite this, he’s a central character in the story of Christianity. However, he’s not always right. I should say, we don’t always agree with him. He wrote from a particular social location, where slavery was accepted, where women were considered subordinate. We don’t agree with Paul that slaves should obey their masters or that women should be seen and not heard in the church. I’m saying this to say that Paul is deeply influenced by his social context and heavily burdened by the demands of the cross. He often lost heart and spoke about the end of time, which was hard for him to visualize. Moreover, his letters have been interpreted in far too many instances to form a theology that’s purely otherworldly – let’s get out of this physical world and to the next! How many times have we heard people say, “I’m ready to die for my Lord!” Jesus didn’t ask anybody to die for him, but to live through him, walk the way he walked.
The Psalmist wrote, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps 28:13). I believe this. Jesus talked about the realization of a new community on earth that would live a certain way. This community would embrace justice and lovingkindness. The kingdom of God is right here, not in some place beyond space and time! Jesus was saying that the kingdom of God can be realized on earth as it is realized in heaven. Look around, right here, right now. So when Paul talks about the ministry of death, let’s think about the burden of the cross and how sometimes it overwhelmed him. He probably thought that that place beyond time and death was better than the present order.
When we carefully read the letters of Paul, we see that it’s not the ministry of death that Paul believed in, but the ministry of life. Let us carefully note one verse in the text for today. It is, “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (4:11). I want to repeat a part of that: so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
Now, if we’re talking about the life of Jesus, we’re talking about his ministry, we’re talking about the way he lived it. If we read the Gospel carefully, we see that Jesus, this mortal Jesus that lived, loved life. All of the acts he performed were life-affirming. He gave the blind their sight so they could see the beauty of the world; he enabled the lame to walk so they could get around on their own; he cleansed lepers so they could rejoin the community; he gave the deaf hearing so they could hear the good news, the Word of God; he raised the dead. Why raise the dead? For life. Yes, Jesus was about life, not death. In providing bread, Jesus fed the hungry. This is life-affirming. In turning water to wine at that wedding Jesus enabled the guests to make merry. Yes, Jesus liked to eat and drink and I dare say be merry. This is life-affirming. When he was on the cross and screamed out that he was being forsaken, perhaps he was crying out because he didn’t want to die, he didn’t want to stop living and ministering to the people he loved. His earthly ministry of life, he knew, was coming to an end. And if what is said about death approaching is true, his life, his ministry, probably flashed before his eyes. Perhaps it so overwhelmed him that he screamed out that he was being forsaken. It’s a human instinct not to want to die, to fight for life. Why would we go totally against our instincts, the right to life, the breath of life that God gave us, and follow the cross if it means death?
In the text for today, Paul talked about his afflictions. They were foremost in his mind. They were practically a part of his ministry – they came with the cross. But I think if Paul had to do it all over again, he would. He really had no choice. He’d heard the voice of God. He was instructed what to do. He was chosen as an instrument for God’s purpose.
A pastor who visited prisoners preached from Acts 9:1-22. That’s the story of Saul on the road to Damascus. That’s the story of the beginning of Saul’s conversion. The pastor preached that Saul was given a second chance. With that second chance he became Paul and embarked upon his ministry. And the rest is history. His letters in the New Testament are a testimony to his ministry, are a testimony to how we all must live, how we must travel.
Once we choose the road we’re going to travel down, our walk in life, especially if we choose to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, we must keep in the forefront of our minds that every step we take our faith is being tested. We have to walk the walk, not just talk it. Every step we take we should come closer to our calling, to hearing the voice of God. Of course all conversions aren’t as dramatic as Paul’s, but we all come closer to that second chance that we ceaselessly hope and pray for, but only if we are on the right road. That’s what life is all about. Rarely do we get it right the first time. Many of us don’t even get it right the second or third time. Still, don’t give up. That’s what the teachings of Paul are all about. Hearing and living the Word. That’s what the Gospel is about. Hearing and living the Word. We know this in our hearts, we know.
We are not always optimistic. It’s hard to remain optimistic in this political climate where our leaders talk peace but wage war. Even the language of “crime-fighting” is couched in terms of war. The “war on crime” and the “war on drugs.” In all wars, there are casualties. People die. Many physical deaths, some spiritual ones. That’s the giving up on hope, because we give up on God. God, where are you? Have you forsaken me? When we reach this point, we may scream out like Jesus on the cross that we have been forsaken, we may, like Paul, think about death and dying, go straight to that afterlife which must be better than this life.
We often feel that we are a million miles from redemption, a million miles from restoration to our communities and our families. We have traveled long and are often tired, but we should not lose heart. “This slight momentary affliction” is preparing all of us for a glory beyond what even we expect of each other. For this reason we should not lose heart. We know that there is a ministry of death, and a ministry of life. Let’s choose life. Let’s say yes to the ministry of life, and no to the ministry of death. Let’s hope and pray that all of us will just say yes to the ministry of life, for it is the ministry of life Jesus preached and believed in. It is life we should believe in, not death. Let’s eat and drink and breathe this ministry of life.
We have this treasure, this life in earthen vessels, or clay jars, if you will. From the womb to the tomb we have a lot of living to do in what seems like a very little time, but whatever time is allowed us, it is time beyond measurement. Let’s make the most of this time. It is time in which we must find our calling, our ministry, and fulfill it. And it’s a ministry of life, not death. Listen to the voice of God. Hear the Word of the Lord. This life was created for living, not dying. Just say yes to the ministry of life. Just say yes to the ministry of life. Amen.
 Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993), pp. 200-01.