Something to Strive For

By Jon Adamson

I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. 

- Philippians 3:14

There was a sermon sitting right in front of him, the Baptist pastor who officiated by the funeral of my wife’s grandfather, Gerald. Seated in the pews were members of the family and friends—men and women alike—each wearing one of Gerald’s neckties. A grandchild had suggested this as a way to honor him—a token of remembrance. But it was more than a token—it was a word waiting to be heard, obeyed, lived, and preached. There was a sermon sitting right there in front of him, but he didn’t preach it.

Instead, it was the usual cookie-cutter assemblage of humorous anecdotes, pop culture references from days gone by, and overly glowing eulogizing—words that everyone expected to hear, could nod to and take some brief comfort from, and then summarily forget. It was forgettable because it asked nothing of them, because it missed the point of a funeral liturgy, and because it ignored the word that was surrounding them.

What was this word? Briefly, it was “marked,” as in “You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” Perhaps the Baptists do not have that sentence in their baptismal rite, so the pastor could be forgiven for not hearing it. But there it was nonetheless. Each man, woman, and child in the place was marked—marked with Gerald’s neckties, marked by his death, and marked by his life.

They were marked by his service as a faithful bread-winner, who due to a remarkable constitution and a stubborn will, never took a sick day in over forty years of his professional life. Though that was lauded by the pastor, it rang empty, for Gerald’s obedience and stability were never set in the context of markedness—how he might have heard and lived the call of Christian fatherhood and how that good gift might mark his descendants.

So there we were sitting the pews with the word around us. We were marked, marked by disobedience, dislocation, and death—those traits and consequence of the fall so readily brought to mind by the casket in front of us. But we were not all marked by that alone. The baptized among us were marked by another death—Jesus’ death—marked by water and the Holy Spirit as truly as we were wearing neckties. And not just marked by his death, but by his Resurrection and Everlasting Life.

That is the point of the funeral service—to sing the Gospel song at the grave! There was an opportunity for the pastor to exhort those assembled to take on Jesus—to be marked by him, his death and his life. To those baptized, to order their lives around the vows of stability and obedience that we might be further changed into the likeness of Christ, experiencing conversion of life again and again and again, so that in the end we are completely marked by him. And to those who were not, to acknowledge that thing, death, that we all fear and that marks us and to offer to them a little first step that leads into life.

The Gospel is always ready to be preached and lived. The word is always surrounding us. It is no accident that the word “obedience” is related in its root to the word “listen”. If we open our senses to God, to listen in our daily tasks and to follow up on what we heard in the community in which we have been called to live, we will experience conversion of life. St. Benedict sets that promise before us in his Rule. None of us has attained the fullness of that life, but it is something to strive for.