I don’t know if every Christian college develops this subset of students, but I had friends at Milligan who developed a certain and sometimes disturbing fascination with persecution. In somber tones they would proclaim at coffee shops and in the mess hall that the main problem with American Christianity is that no government body was at the moment trying to kill Christians, and we had become complacent. (As some reading are no doubt anticipating, these kids were almost all seminary-bound.) Even as a twenty-year-old English-and-philosophy major, I could see some problems with this position, not least of which was a certain boutique-suicide vibe to it: wouldn’t it be cool to name one’s own means of death?
No doubt readings like this week’s epistle have something to do with the fascination that suburban twenty-somethings develop: after all, Paul links his own experience in an Ephesian prison directly with with the death of Christ, giving his own imminent death the heroic character of completing the sufferings of Christ. Paul comes by this situation as honorably as one could imagine, confronting authorities with the same proclamation but getting the tepid “we’ll hear more about that” in Athens and the lynch mob in Ephesus. There’s little sense that he’s possessed of the fascination with death that my classmates were, much less the tendency to insult people gratuitously and call himself a “prophet” because they respond the way that human beings respond to insults. The way that Acts presents him, not to mention the way he presents himself in the epistles, he truly does set forth a paradigm for faithful proclamation, and when he tells the Philippians to imitate him, he does not posit a universal “moral code” and then claim that he follows it better than most (that would be contrary to the rest of the letter and to the rest of the Pauline corpus) but notes the historical fact that he’s among the first generation even to attempt to follow Christ.
So the fact that Paul has surrounded the account of his own life with the most soaring Christological hymn in the New Testament is no coincidence: Paul is by no means the first political prisoner to wait for his judgment in Empire’s prisons, and he is by no means the last. But because of the King whom he serves, and because he believes that the Romans have him in prison because of his defying the kings of his age, Paul is entirely convinced that his sufferings are not properly sufferings (suffering, after all, being pain without meaning) but participations, a sharing of the bitter that will lead in the end of things to a sharing of the glory of Christ.
The killers in my own life have not been government agents (despite what some Tea Party folks fear). Car wrecks and heart attacks and cancer and suicide have taken the most people in my own circle of acquaintance, and these forces do not lend themselves as easily to the heroic tale that Paul tells. Nonetheless, because King Jesus defies not only Caesar but also Death and Sin, I can share the confidence that Paul asserts in the midst of the song of the great Cosmic Christ that the deaths closest to me, none closer than the death that ends my story at a moment I do not choose, themselves stand to participate in the suffering of the Christ, that the glorious celebration of the end of our age will sing songs not only of Perpetua and Felicitas and Paul and Sebastian but perhaps also Buck and Joyce Gilmour, of Greg Paas, perhaps even a farcical mock-epic of Nathan Gilmour. If Death itself is the final conquest of King Jesus, then all of us die in battle.