Falling and Rising – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Philippians 3: 4b-14

A visitor to a monastery went up to the abbot, and asked him, ‘What do you monks do all day? The abbot replied, ‘We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again.’ I think that is a pretty good description not just of the monastic life, but of the Christian life itself. It describes I think each one of us who try to follow Jesus Christ. As we try to live this life, we inevitably fall, mess up, we make mistakes, we sin, we fall short. But what is also true about this life of discipleship, is that when we do fall, Jesus is always there ready to pick us up. That is the paradigm of the Christian life: falling and getting up again, dying and being raised to new life.

Many years ago, I spent time living in a monastery in Belgium. It was very influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the monks had adopted many Orthodox practices. The one I loved most happened during Lent. Whenever we entered the church during Lent, each of us, including the oldest monks, would not just bow to the altar, but we would fall down onto our hands and knees and touch the ground with our foreheads, acknowledging that we are but dust. But we didn’t stay there! Having acknowledging our fallenness, we immediately jumped up, because Christ has raised us up. I used to love doing that!

This pattern of falling and rising is the most fundamental movement at work in the Christian life and in order to better understand it theologically, we have been given this wonderful passage from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians as our reading today. Philippians is my favorite letter by St Paul, and chapter 3 is probably my favorite part. If you want to get to the very heart of Paul’s faith this is a very good place to look. In passionate words, Paul describes how he came to faith in Jesus Christ. Before he met Jesus, he was a strict Pharisee. He knew those Ten Commandments we heard earlier, as well as every other aspect of the Law. For him, to ‘fall’, to mess up, not to keep the law perfectly, was a terrible prospect. The law would judge you mercilessly. He says, ‘As to righteousness under the law I was blameless.’ He prided himself on not falling, and yet this did not give him life. This did not set him free. He did not yet understand that divine paradox, that what he really needed, to set him free, was to fall.  ‘O felix culpa!’ And so, it was on that fateful day when he was traveling along the road to Damascus, that, we read, ‘suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him, and he fell to the ground’.  He remained there, blinded and powerless, until he was lifted up and led by the hand into the city. If he had not fallen and been blinded, he could not have been raised up and eventually healed and restored by Jesus. What Paul learned on the Damascus road, was that unless you fall, and acknowledge your own weakness, your need for help and forgiveness, you cannot receive the gift of grace. You are living in your own earned strength, and not in the strength of God, and you cannot be free. Paul called that kind of life, life lived under the law. And it was killing him. Paul learned on the Damascus road that it is OK to mess up, it is OK to fall. But we must not stay there. We must at once allow Christ to lift us up, to restore us and set us on our feet, and set us free.

I am sure many of you, like me, love the movie ‘Chariots of Fire.’ It is about a young Scottish sprinter, Eric Liddell, who competes in the 1924 Paris Olympics. He is a great runner and a great man of faith. There are so many moments in the movie which I love, but there is one moment which for me really shows the mettle of the man. It happens right at the beginning of the 400-meter race. The athletes are bunched together as they come around the first bend, and suddenly Eric is pushed over, and he falls right off the track. Disaster. But, quick as a flash, he is on his feet again, and as though electrically charged by the incident, amazingly he caught the other runners, and made up the 20-meter deficit to win the race. How did he do it? I often wonder whether Liddell was thinking of our passage today from Philippians, and especially the second part of the passage.  After Paul describes falling, and then being lifted up to faith in Jesus Christ, he then goes on to describe the Christian life as being just like running a race. Coming to faith is just the beginning of the race, he says. True Christian maturity is about recognizing that you haven’t yet arrived, and that every single day you must keep pressing on forwards to the finishing line. When you fall, look to Jesus, and get right up again.  Paul writes, ‘Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’

Falling and getting up again, running the race and straining forward to what lies ahead. This is how Paul understands the Christian life. And I think they are an invitation for us to reflect on our own lives of Christian discipleship.  Perhaps read this passage from Philippians at home, during your time of prayer.  And then look back over your life, and remember those times when you fell. Perhaps you did something which you really regret. Perhaps you messed up a relationship, or made a really bad choice.  Those moments of falling sometimes haunt us from the past. We can still feel guilt and shame many years later. But what about your experience of being lifted up by Jesus? Remember those times when you felt the joy of forgiveness, of being raised gently to your feet. Remember what it was like to be looked at by Jesus with eyes of love and not of condemnation. There are some gracious words about this in our community’s Rule of Life. It says, ‘We fall and fall again. We encounter Christ in the place of our brokenness and poverty, and allow him to bind up our wounds and set us on our feet.’ What experience do you have of that?

And then, what about running the race and straining forward to what lies ahead. Our Rule says, ‘We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ who goes before us if we are encumbered with guilt.’ I love this image of Christ running ahead of us and turning to us and saying, ‘Come on, follow me’.  And we saying, ‘I can’t keep up with you because I am too weighed down.” Maybe Jesus is saying that to you this morning. What is weighing you down right now? Will you allow me to take the weight from your shoulders, and gently lift you up and help you get back in the race? God longs for each one of us to know the joy of being lifted up when we fall, because each time that happens, we get a little glimpse, a little anticipation of that final, glorious moment, at the end of our lives, when we shall be lifted right up by Christ into heaven.

What do you do all day in that monastery? We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again. May each one of us do the same, ‘forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead; the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’

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