We know how it ends - Jesus wins.
Had we made the Final, I’m not sure I would have coped with the tension. It was bad enough in 1966. Such was the stress I remember only too clearly retreating into the kitchen as Lothar Emmerich prepared to take the free kick in the 89th minute. If they scored, West Germany would level the score. The tension was unbearable. They scored. At the time I thought that it was all over – for the West Germans. I don’t think I could go through all this again. Maybe Croatia did us a favour. But watching England (or Everton) is usually an ordeal, even/especially when we are a goal in front - as on Wednesday. In a prescient piece for the BBC website, Tom Fordyce commented: “It is why being 1-0 down can often be more relaxing than being 1-0 up. What's the worst that can happen now the worst thing is already happening?” Retreating into the kitchen to cope with the tension must be written into my DNA because this was how my daughter handled the penalty shoot-out with Columba last week. However, she had forgotten one vital piece of information. Watching with her husband for some reason or other they had paused their television for a few moments at the beginning of the match. This meant, of course, they were not watching in real time, not that they realised this at the time. So standing in the kitchen, watching the drama from afar, she happened to look at her mobile phone. Again that’s the kind of thing I do to cope with the stress. To her astonishment it told her the outcome, that England were now through to the quarter-finals. So for those few nail-biting minutes she was in two time zones. Watching each penalty being taken in fear and trepidation and yet at the same time the other half of her brain knew the final outcome. Even so, it was still unbearably stressful! Just like living the Christian life. Certainly for the apostle Paul living for Christ meant hardship and suffering. As he approached the end of his ministry this pioneer for the Gospel writes to Timothy: “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God.” (2 Timothy 1:8) It seems that this energetic evangelist suffered much more than most of us. That’s how he expected the Christian life would be lived. With his back to the wall (again) he is forced to justify his ministry against rivals in the Corinthian church who are claiming a higher status. What criteria does he choose to use? His sufferings for the Gospel. It’s worth quoting in full to get the full weight of his argument.
“I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummelled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard travelling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labour, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27, Message translation). Quite a list – but Paul hasn’t finished. There’s one hardship all in a category of its own. “And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches.” (v28). The apostle lived a life of continual anxiety. It must have been highly stressful finding yourself in a Roman prison (again) and hearing of yet another church in danger of going off the rails. And people letting you down, again. “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.” (2 Timothy 4:10) However (and it’s a big However) Paul knows the final result, the eventual outcome – and this makes all the difference in how he handles life. For he knows that at the final whistle, Jesus wins. So the hard-pressed apostle may rejoice in the darkest dungeon: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18). It’s as if he balances his present sufferings with the glory he anticipates which is going to be revealed in the day of Christ – and the scales come crashing down on one side such is the weight of glory. “For our light and temporary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs our troubles.” (2 Corinthians 4:7). All this needs to be said loud and clear in our affluent experienced-centred Christianity where if Christ is not raised - to misquote the apostle - we can still make the best of it and live fulfilling and worthwhile lives. No, authentic discipleship means having our eyes fixed on Jesus and so take the immediate consequences of following him, whatever. For in the resurrection victory of Jesus we can see the final outcome. We now know how it ends. No threat may daunt us as we anticipate “the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21). As we await Christ’s coming in glory, we look forward to the day of God’s new creation when the lion shall lie with the lamb. Even today we know the final score. Halleluiah!