I’m convinced that one can easily find three basic phases or stages in the Gospels that reflect our general spiritual journey to heaven, which are loosely grounded on Jesus’ life. Using Jesus’ mission as our guide and model – that He was sent and willfully came to die, that we might have life in the Kingdom – what are these three missionary stages?
I see them in the following manner: the first stage or phase is Jesus’s hidden life, the second is his public ministry and the third is His passion, death and resurrection. I believe many but not all of us, will generally follow this same path that Jesus travelled in our journey to the Kingdom. Lets examine each stage of this journey a bit closer.
In the first stage of Jesus’ life– and ours – much is often hidden about our origins and the context surrounding our birth! As literal babes, we have to rely on the stories shared by others to find out about our birth and earliest life. From these stories, we come to know and understand much about our own hidden parts: like from what kind of relationship we were created, how we were originally perceived and eventually received by our parents, family, the larger world, etc..
Like Jesus’ life as presented in the Gospels, our hidden life also contains gaps, missing historical sections and strange memories which are all grafted into an existing family narrative that can paint a very accurate picture outlining what life was really like when we were born. And just like Jesus’ life, sometimes truths hidden in these narratives will resurface later in our life, giving us a new meaning, truth and mission. Grappling with these painful memories and hard core truths is tough stuff and may require professional help.
Without getting into those arguments regarding what Jesus definitively did or did not ‘remember’ as a baby – we do know for sure that his parents certainly shared this history – and their reflections on its meaning – with him later!!! Their sharing of these events certainly shaped and prepared Jesus to first understand and ultimately to face and defeat those same forces of death that initially surfaced at his birth.
Similarly, often the seeds that eventually grow into both the wood of our personal crosses and the contexts of our life missions can be found in these earliest and often hidden parts of our lives. In conjunction with a growing and integrated prayer life, professional help, the prayers of our friends and prayer warriors, etc. we can uncover and learn how deal with and then offer to God these real life crosses in a grace filled manner.
This early hidden life education about our unique crosses and contextual challenges, often yields and becomes the ground from which many of our specific gifts and character traits surface and are developed.
The second phase or stage is Jesus’ life is His public ministry. This three year period in the Gospels often starts when we leave home through and continues into the period of establishing of our families and vocations – the basic ministries of our lives. The family is the first church, where both parents exercise an actual and practical spiritual priesthood in the family of modeling and imbuing the family in Christian character. All work and vocations are extra community invitations in which believers are sent out to serve and love, through one’s gifts and in Jesus’ name.
Like Jesus’ second stage of public life and ministry, we too must leave our family to find, build and to live out our unique ‘mission’ in life. For most of us, the path to our mission is found through the exploration and development of our personal gifts. For others, the path to their mission may come through a unique opportunity to work, to live in a different area, or through the meeting a specific person – all examples of new life possibilities that will deepen our spiritual journey.
Like in the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, we too often undergo some kind of baptism – a public declaration of and witnessing to our gifts and/or calling. This baptism is often coupled with a public acknowledgment of our gifts which correspond to our specific calling. After finding and initially responding to our call, many experience a kind of ‘forty day fast and preparation in the desert’ – (college, training, mentoring, etc.) – which prepares us to answer God’s call more effectively. Finally, often successfully passing ‘tests in the desert,’ we are able to break free, going forth to begin our specific ministries of serving and loving with our gifts.
I believe this second missionary stage of our lives, our public ministry, is by far the most extensive and can be the longest. It includes the vocational work that we do, the friendships and loves that we build and live commitments to, the families and children that we parent and the greater communities/nation/world better served with our specific gifts. This period in our lives, which can span from the late teens to our sixties or even later, is analogous to Jesus’ three year ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and saving.
Whereas the challenges of the second phase are often more exterior, public and relationship based as we work to ‘give ourselves away’ in the community as we grow in holiness and love, the third phase reflects a deeper, more interior spiritual challenge and work. It often includes a very real ‘stripping away’ of the very gifts, ministries, families, etc. – all that we have seemingly built – as we return to a simple dependency on the Spirit to make Its final preparations for us to enter the Kingdom
Finally, the last stage of our missionary life is that of our passion, death and resurrection. I could be dead wrong (ok – bad joke), however I have come to believe that for many people, God saves this last stage of suffering for the end of one’s journey. Why? Only God knows… but by faith I am certain, that God indeed knows what is best for each of us. For those like myself who are not yet (as far as we know) on Calvary’s final Road to the Cross, the Gospel narratives about Jesus’ suffering reveals some powerful insights about this final stage…
For instance, a prayerful reading of the Gospel reveals that it was not the three year ministry that saved us. It was what Jesus did on the Cross -the last stage of His suffering, passion and death – which saved us!!! As a chaplain, I have been blessed to witness many holy men and women follow Jesus’ model…
That is, after showing their family, friends and the world for x decades how to live, love and serve in faith, they finally through stage three show them how to suffer and die in faith that same faith and hope in God’s Kingdom. These saints are following Jesus’ example, and showing others how to live for God and how to die for Him.
In fact, modeling how to fearlessly confront death in a holy manner is one of the greatest gifts we can leave to our first church and family – how to defeat the final enemy in faith and with hope. By following Jesus’ example, our witness of faith and hope can, by grace, empowering others to likewise fearlessly stand on God’s Word and follow Jesus to the end.
God also reveals in Jesus’ resurrection, that despite all the very real sin and suffering surrounding each human life and natural death, God can and will continue to proven what is witnessed to in the Gospel: that He will ‘write straight’ with the crookedness of our lives leading us to His Kingdom. He will teach and save others via our sufferings, while leading all of us to His Kingdom.
In our personal passion and through our unique cross, we are by grace, finally able to imitate Jesus by making a sacrifice and gift of love to the Father which is complete, reflecting Jesus’ total surrender and giving back of His very Self. Whereas Jesus gave all from the beginning, I believe that through obedience, grace, faith and the Crosses given – we grow via these 3 stages to imitate Jesus’ total sacrifice by the end of our lives.