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Crossing borders: growing in Christ

The 50-day cycle from Easter day to Pentecost teaches Christians about spiritual growth

Some places and territories we might call borderlands’. They are places betwixt and between’; for example, those territories at the edge of countries or between land and sea. In life we travel through spiritual borderlands too. They are places of passage, often of dislocation and pain, yet places through which we grow. 

I think our culture, by contrast, does little to equip us for life transition. It seduces us with self-modification through retail purchase, cosmetic surgery, or tabloid seven steps’ to self-improvement. It does less, however, to acknowledge the downward, challenging aspects of personal change. William Bridges, an expert on human transitions, says many people going through personal change in contemporary culture drift in an unritualised life-passage”. By this, he means a process not held within any larger container of meaning. 

This was my experience in my 20s and 30s when, as an agnostic, I was psychologically wounded, spiritually hungry, and looking for answers in all the wrong places. Stranded in this bleak cultural territory, my life felt confusing for too long. Yet God, I believe, calls men and women into such territory throughout the pages of scripture for the purposes of new formation. 

Equipped with the example of Jesus and His disciples, we discover that personal transition and suffering can invite us into fruitful growth. We no longer feel lost. Accepting God’s invitation, we release the past. We open ourselves to emerging realities. As Christians, we owe it to ourselves to understand the costly relationship between human growth and suffering. The church will never witness potently to a hurting world unless it is filled with people of Christ-like depth who have grown through struggle.

From Easter to Pentecost: the 50-day cycle

As evangelicals, we emphasise personal conversion and surrender to Jesus as Lord but sometimes neglect a considered model of discipleship for growing further in Christ. In fact, scripture offers us rich resources, most notably in the narrative of the great 50-day cycle from Easter day to Pentecost. In this period we see enacted dying to self, rising with Christ, and blessing and power for new life. This cycle embodies the suffering intrinsic to human growth, as well as the revitalising new life that God brings forth from the grave. The cycle offers a roadmap to our working with change and to growing in Christ. It is both spiritually profound and existentially truthful.

Expanding the 50-day cycle further, we observe a contrast between the disciples’ flight from Gethsemane and their flight from Jerusalem after Pentecost, to spread the gospel to the nations. The first fugitive move represents an evasion of the call of the cross. The second expresses the willing engagement of matured men who now know their purpose and personal and collective destiny. Although the disciples’ actions through the 50-day cycle are frequently spiritually wide of the mark, this is precisely why they transparently witness to the challenges of spiritual growth. 

One of their key lessons is to absorb the truth of Jesus’ insight in John 12:24: I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds”. Dying to self is foundational to Jesus’ teaching through His earthly ministry. Yet any Jesus follower may struggle with its knotty reality. This dying is, though, the vital prelude to spiritual growth. This is the lesson that the disciples learn in retrospect once they meet the risen Christ. They see that no tomb need prove final, and that what may feel for a while like agonising death is actually a doorway to new baptismal rising. 

Dying to self

So, it is when I pastorally counsel people in local ministry. Sometimes one has to let the person hit rock bottom and know a personal death of their old identity. Sometimes one has to resist pulling the nails out of their crucified flesh and resist seeing them rise before they have fully died. There is a resurrection to come but there is also a Good Friday to endure first, a good one being the bitterest of ones. There must be a rigorous dying to self. 

The 40-days between Easter and Ascension illustrate a further lesson. For the disciples to grow in Christ, they must let go of Jesus. This they will do at His Ascension. Jesus prepares them for this over the preceding 40 days. He effects this through periods of presence and then absence, a form of spiritual weaning which the psalmist describes thus: I have stilled and quietened my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Psalm 131). 

The disciples also have to learn to stop dwelling in the past or future. We see this in Jesus’ reprimand them at his Ascension not to await a political inauguration of the kingdom and the angel’s command for them to turn their eyes away from heaven. To grow spiritually in the post-Ascension borderland, a disciple must be grounded in the present. He or she is called to thirst after the Holy Spirit that Jesus has promised, seeking God’s kingdom on earth rather than in any nationalistic kingdom or heavenly abstraction. 

Emptying themselves in worship and prayer over the following 10 days, the disciples stay in the city” (that is, close to God’s presence) and prepare to be clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). This spiritual dressing and infusing by the Holy Spirit is not something that can be controlled, though it can be thirsted after. It is pure gift from the sovereign God. 

When the Spirit comes, He equips the disciples to live out their destinies and extend God’s kingdom on earth. Divine tongues hover over them, releasing apostolic witness. When the authorities respond with persecution, these filled, empowered disciples now travel to and across new borderlands with resilience. Where they formerly cowered within a locked room, they now prove to be threshold adventurers. They tenaciously spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. 

These, then, are just a few of the lessons of spiritual growth from the 50-day cycle: dying to self, balancing dependency on the ascended Christ with our captaincy, hungering for the Spirit, and receiving Him fully. Keeping our eyes trained on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2), we navigate life’s unexpected borderlands with grace. Most importantly, we grow deeper in Christ. In doing so, we come to understand ourselves as borderland people whose spiritual life is lived in exile. We learn to regard each territory this side of eternity as a further borderland. For it is only in the glorious homecoming to come that all our travelling will cease.

Mark Brickman is associate minister at St Aldates Church, Oxford, and author of Borderlands: Navigating the Adventure of Faith (published June 2018).

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