This sermon is part of the sermon series "Harmony and Humility in the Church". See series.
In All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert L. Fulghum writes:
All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday school. These are the things I learned:
Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash you hands before you eat.
… When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
I'm sure all those things are good to know, and they do cover a large part of life. But for those of us who are Christians, lessons from kindergarten don't cover all we need to know. In fact, they don't teach us the most important thing we need to know.
I have a friend in Dallas named Bill Lawrence. Bill is one of the godliest men I know. All during his life, Bill has let the Lord change him from a brash, insecure, sometimes-obnoxious young man into a spiritual leader who trains other church leaders all over the world. Bill has grown more spiritually during his life than any other person I know. But one night a few years ago Bill said something that has stayed with me. Commenting on his spiritual life, he said, "I don't really know the Lord like I want to." My first thought was, "Bill, if you don't know the Lord, none of us do!" But as I've thought about it since then, it's become clear to me that knowing christ—becoming so close to him that he's a constant presence in our lives—is the most important thing for us to do. Little by little our Christian lives are deepening, but we don't know him as we would like to.
Share in Christ's sufferings.
How do we draw closer to Christ? The apostle Paul pondered that question and wrote the answer to his dear friends in Philippi. I've tried to capture what he says in my title today: "All I Really Need to Know I Learned by Triumphantly Suffering Until I Died."
In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul writes that he will know Christ by sharing in Christ's sufferings. If he can experience the power that comes from Christ's resurrection, enabling him to live victoriously as he shares the kinds of suffering Christ experienced to the very end of his life, he will know Christ as well as he possibly can. That's the total thought; let's look at the individual phrases a bit more closely and ask why is this true.
In verse 10 Paul claims that if you are to know Christ, you must experience the power that comes to you through his resurrection. When Jesus rose from the dead, he proved he was the Son of God and that his Spirit could give you the power to live life as Christ would live it. The Resurrection means that he is alive and that he can prompt you and strengthen you to approach situations the way he would approach them. You can face situations without being devastated or defeated. You'll be able to triumph through life because of the power that's available to you because of his resurrection.
Paul goes on to say that to really know Christ, you need to sense this power in situations of suffering. If you want to know him, you need to experience the sufferings he experienced, and react to them the way he reacted. You must know the "fellowship of sharing in his sufferings."
Why is that the case? Because our greatest spiritual growth always comes when we successfully endure situations of suffering. We have the greatest advances in our spiritual life when we face something that hurts badly—the loss of someone or something dear to us, a betrayal by someone close to us, injustice, or overwhelming sorrow. If you look back on your life, you'll likely see that it was during such times—if God's Spirit was producing a godly response in you—that you came triumphantly through suffering and grew spiritually.
My first experience with this came when I tried out for the junior high basketball team. It came down to the final cut, and I was one of the last five players cut. I knew I was better than some of the guys who were kept on the team. Late that afternoon, as I walked the mile to my house, I had a lot of time to pray. I had just lost all the dreams that a junior high student could lose. But somehow, walking alone, I was able to turn it over to the Lord and say, "Lord, I believe that all things work together for good." That afternoon I took a small step closer to knowing Christ, and being like him.
I've had many chances since then. I've experienced greater losses, deeper pains, and heavier sorrows. I've had opportunity to share the sufferings of Christ. I've been rejected by the people I most wanted to minister to. I've been charged with unjust accusations and given unfair treatment. I've experienced isolation and abandonment. Through it all, to the degree that his resurrection power enabled me to move through such suffering without becoming bitter, I've learned something of his heart and have come to know him better.
Some of you have been rejected by spouses and deserted by boyfriends or girlfriends. Some of you have been kept out of schools you wanted to attend or fired from businesses you poured your heart into. You've been spurned by children and betrayed by people you trusted. Some of you have been misunderstood, maligned, and mistreated. When you realize that Christ also suffered such things and let his power bring a godly response from you, you grow spiritually and know him better.
You want to know Christ. All you ever need to know him is to share his sufferings and triumph through his power.
Be conformed in his death.
Paul adds one more thing—be conformed to Christ's death. By this Paul means he wants his death to be like Christ's: he wants to die faithful and submissive to God to the very end. He knows that if he can experience death the way Jesus experienced it—triumphantly—then he will know Christ as much as anyone can.
Some people flake out down the line. They go along well for so many years, but then something happens later in life, and they do something inexplicable. They make some tragic, unexplainable decision that veers their life away from Christ, hurts those around them, and ends their years with sorrow. The only way to make sure that doesn't happen is to be committed to the very last moment of life.
In order for that to happen, Paul realizes he will have to die and be raised from the dead rather than ascend to heaven alive. In other words, Paul is ready to be involved in the resurrection instead of the Rapture. It was possible Christ could return before Paul died—and there would certainly have been some marvelous benefits to that—but in order to know Christ as intimately as he wanted, Paul needed to go through death as Christ died. He may face execution at the hands of Caesar or die a natural death, but one way or another, he needed to die and be included in the resurrection rather than be raptured beforehand.
My friend, we have been called to a rich life in which Christ's triumphant power is available to us so that the sins and injustices of the world cannot defeat us. This kind of life draws us closer and closer to him as we share his sufferings and learn his heart. If you want to know Christ, all you really need to know you'll learn by triumphantly suffering until you die.
Donald R. Sunukjian is professor of homiletics and chair of the Christian Ministry and Leadership Department at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.