“Although ‘sharing Christ’s sufferings’ is essentially an expression of obedience to God (participation in Christ’s ‘obedience unto death,’ Phil. 2:8), Paul never formulates ethical participation in Christ’s death as an imperative. He comes closest in the summons, ‘imitate me,’ which often includes sharing Christ’s sufferings. But this imperative is not a command to suffer, but a call to ‘be receptive to the fullness of God’s power which never is to be separated from weakness and suffering.’ As Philippians 1:29 puts it, ‘What has been granted to you for the sake of Christ is not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him.’ To that extent it [suffering with/for Christ] is not an action that can be performed but something passive in the radical sense of the word. The active (ethical) side of this suffering is the obedience that exposes one to suffering, but the experience of suffering itself is something that overtakes believers.
It is the essentially passive aspect of existential participation in Christ’s cross that prevents a Pauline slogan like ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’ from becoming a formula for power or success. Although Paul celebrates his weakness (‘that the power of Christ may rest upon me’), he never says that he makes himself weak, as if weakness and suffering in Christ could be acted out or orchestrated, so as to promote the operation of God’s transcendent power on the stage of Paul’s frail flesh. Existential participation in Christ’s death happens to Paul; witness his passive formulations (2 Cor. 1:6; 4:11; cf. 1 Thess. 2:14).
Paul’s letters to Corinth suggest that the Corinthians tended to resist again and again—and under various theological conceptions—the idea that being in Christ involves ongoing participation in the cross. To put it generally and at the risk of oversimplification, where 1 Corinthians suggests that the community accepts Paul as a suffering apostle but fails to see that the weakness of the cross applies to them, 2 Corinthians 10-13 (together with other letter sections or fragments in 2 Cor. 1-9) suggests that they eventually come to reject Paul’s cruciform weakness as well, his apostolic participation in the cross. In both cases the Corinthians sever the link between the ‘death’ and ‘life’ of Jesus by rejecting the cross as a constitutive symbol of existence in Christ. Paul’s argumentative projection of the problem at Galatia suggests that the Galatians also violate the unity of Christ’s death and life, but in a different way. By attaching the life-giving Spirit of Christ to ‘works of the law’ they in effect replace the cross with the law as the fundamental reality by which the Spirit is mediated. It is not that the Galatians spurn the cross as a symbol of Christ’s identity or refuse to share in his sufferings. The problem is that they have lost sight of the meaning of the cross. ‘Oh foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you—you before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?’ What the Galatians are to understand about the cross is that it alone mediates the Spirit, a fact that has both a positive and a negative significance. Negatively, the cross as the death of the cosmos to the believer (and vice versa) means that life in the Spirit depends on nothing in the present world order, since being in the Spirit lies on the far side of death to the world. Therefore, nothing belonging to the present cosmos, however good or righteous, can mediate the life of the Spirit: ‘I through the law (Christ’s death under the curse of the law) died to the law (as part of the present world to which I have died with Christ—6:14-15) that I might live to God’ (2:19). Positively, the cross itself is the beginning of new creation and life in the Spirit, which means that life in the Spirit belongs to those who are crucified with Christ. Just as Jesus’ death ‘occasioned’ the coming of the Spirit upon both Jews and Gentiles (3:13-14), so participation in his death ‘occasions’ eschatological life in the Spirit as ‘living to God’ (2:19) or ‘Christ living in me’ (2:20).
The preceding reflection leads us to a final, more nuanced answer to the question of how the Galatians might promote the powerful presence of the Spirit in their lives. We have seen that every ground of the Spirit’s advent, on both the epochal and the existential planes, lies decisively in the believer’s past, where it is therefore beyond the scope of any human willing or doing, except one: crucifixion with Christ. Paul expresses this conduit of the Spirit’s arrival in the perfect tense (2:20 and 6:14), which suggests that dying with Christ has a present dimension that ‘occasions’ life in the Spirit…[However,] existential crucifixion is not something that can be acted out in life, hence it does not lie at the discretion of the Galatians to make it a reality in their own lives. What does lies at their discretion is the active dimension of the cross, which entails the risk of sharing the sufferings of Christ. That active dimension is the love, sacrifice, or self-giving that meets with assault from the powers of death. This love is weak in the world, for it is subject to death (‘He was crucified out of weakness,’ 2 Cor. 13:4), and as an ethical act Paul calls it ‘obedience unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). In Galatians he expresses this ethical act of Christ as ‘love’ and ‘self-giving’ (2:20). These considerations reveal that for Paul existential participation in the cross has its occasion in obedient to Christ. Hence, if there is any action that can be construed as promoting the power of the Spirit, it is obedience to Christ’s lordship (walking by the Spirit), since obedience to the crucified Lord draws one into the sphere of Christ’s sufferings, where God is always at work bringing life out of death…
But this link between obedience and blessing is a decidedly unstable one, since the cross, which constitutes it, is a symbol of both death and life. As far as the eschatological future is concerned, Paul is prepared to assert unhesitatingly that ‘those who sow to the Spirit shall reap eternal life from the Spirit’ (Gal. 6:8). For present existence in Christ, however, no such formula holds, since the ‘location’ of eschatological life in the present is the cross, which represents not only the birth of that life but also the assault on its bearers by the powers of death that crucified the Lord of glory. It may be a universal logic to think, despite every contradiction, that blessing must somehow follow upon the heels of righteousness in this world. Paul has a different understanding. In his view righteousness (in Christ) finds itself subject more often than not to powers of death, and the life of Jesus sustains those who share Christ’s sufferings in both manifest and powerful workings of the Spirit as well as in hidden and paradoxical ways. ‘Life’ is firmly attached to the Crucified, but for that very reason the form this life will assume in any given moment in the church’s existence, as well as the fate of that life in the world, lies outside the control and calculation of believers.” (Charles H. Cosgrove, The Cross and the Spirit: A Study in the Argument and Theology of Galatians, pp. 191-94)