Sunday, September 27, 2015

Who Am I?

The following is a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his time in a Nazi prison, awaiting what would be his eventual execution.

"Who am I? They often tell me
I step from my cell's confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
    my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine." 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Great Excuse


Perhaps you've had this conversation. It goes something like this. A pair or group of Christians are standing around recounting the goodness, mercy, courage, power, wisdom, self-control, forgiveness, etc. of Jesus. “He was so great at that!” “I love how Jesus always did” such and such, and “I wish I could...” fill in the blank. After we've basked in the beauty of Christ, we end our conversation with a long sigh as we conclude, “...but he was God after all.” What we seem to be saying in these moments (disguised as humble piety, no less) is that Jesus, as the God-man, has a distinct, intrinsic advantage over his followers in regard to the messy business of being human. What's more, when we appeal to the divinity of Christ as the reason we bear such little resemblance to him, we invalidate the authentic humanity expressed in his incarnation and ultimately pay little more than lip service to the disciple's one and only goal of becoming like him. In short, I think we miss the point—big time.

Before we continue, let's take a minute to cover one of the essential doctrines of the Faith with a brief discussion of the hypostatic union. Just about every heretical quasi-Christian movement has a core misunderstanding about the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. This is no coincidence. It's unmistakably by the enemy's strategic design. The Scriptures are clear that what we are seeing in the First Century incarnation of Jesus is the undiminished deity of the eternal Son of God expressed in genuine human form. So did you get that? He's 100% God and 100% human. I know the math doesn't add up. It's one of the great mysteries of the Faith. And If you think that one is tricky, just ponder the hyper personhood of a triune God who exists as three persons in one being for awhile. It's enough to make your head spin.

All that to say, it is absolutely appropriate to note the uniqueness of Jesus as the Creator of all that was made, the great I AM, the eternal and transcendent YHWH. But let's speak for a minute about the purpose and nature of his incarnation. I believe the good news explains how God became human in order to show us how to be human. Of course, the plan of redemption is a little more complicated than a simple demonstration of ideal humanness. You see, we had mucked up the whole thing beyond recognition. Starting with the first humans, we had devolved into something unrecognizable and irreparably damaged from our original YHWH image-bearing design. Untainted by this universal cancer plaguing humanity, Jesus steps into the world unencumbered and with a distinct advantage over any other human descended from Adam. He is the only one capable of carrying out the plan. In his authentic humanity, he is a viable surrogate for all humans. In his deity, he contains the moral equity to pay for the crimes of every person who has ever lived or will live. His intent, however—and we simply can't afford to miss this—is to make this intrinsic advantage at being human widely available to anyone who wants it.

Think of Jesus in the incarnation as a prototype, a working model of the new human (which incidentally looks just like the old human—the original human—for the ten seconds before they went all renegade and doomed every one of us to death and decay). Jesus is the reset button for the human race. Through his death, burial, and resurrection he effectively dealt with humanity's crippling sin problem and offered us the option of a new ancestry and better DNA. For believers who are freed from the bondage of sin and empowered by his Spirit, Christ fully expects us to live as the new radically transformed humans that we have become. Paul says it like this, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29). Likewise, the author of Hebrews explains, “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:10-11). Jesus isn't looking for mere passive admirers. He intends to make genuine “sons” and “daughters” out of us. He intends to give us all that we need to live incredible lives as new creations, ministers of reconciliation, full partners in the Family business. In fact, he has done just that. Who better than the “only begotten” to teach his adopted siblings what it is to be fully submitted children of God in the truest sense?

There is certainly an unavoidable element of mystery involved when we set out to talk about the mechanics of the incarnation. Anyone who speaks with absolute certainty about the nuanced implications of the God-man should rightfully make us nervous. That said, there are some strong indicators throughout Scripture that shed light on what we're seeing play out in the life of this unforgettable First Century carpenter. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains that Jesus “emptied himself” or “made himself nothing” in the incarnation. And though he was certainly God, he did not count his deity something to be leveraged, “grasped,” or “used to his own advantage” during his sojourn on Earth (Philippians 2). “...he had to be made like them,” says the author of Hebrews, “fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17). John goes so far as to say that anyone who refuses to acknowledge that Jesus came as an authentic human being, or “in the flesh,” is a “deceiver” and “antichrist” (2 John 1:7).

We see Christ growing up in what seems to be complete obscurity until the Spirit of God activated him for his mission. The Gospels describe how the Holy Spirit descended upon him at the beginning of his ministry, empowered him, and led him every step of his incredible life. When Jesus kicks off his public ministry he reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news” (Luke 4:18a). Throughout his ministry he regularly reiterated that he doesn't speak for himself but he only speaks what his Father tells him to say. I would propose that what we're witnessing in the incarnation is the Word of God, the eternal Creator of the universe, fully and humbly committing to the arduous task of authentically demonstrating the new humanity, which is made possible for all through the power of his Gospel. That is to say, he didn't cheat. He never played his God-card. Unlimited, cosmic powers were at his disposal, but I would argue that he never utilized them during his life on Earth (this seems to be what Satan was trying to incite him to do in the wilderness. He resisted). I would further argue that all of Jesus' incredible power demonstrations were achieved vicariously through the power of the Spirit (assuming we can even distinguish the Spirit's power from the Son's) at the express will and timing of the Father (at this point in our conversation we are neck deep in the head-spinning territory of the Trinity). Having accomplished what he set out to do, the resurrected Jesus triumphantly announces to his followers that he is reclaiming his temporarily set aside authority and power, or, said another way, it “has been given” back to him by his proud Father (Matthew 28). It seems that in his glorified state, Jesus is no longer sent by the Spirit but is now in a position to send the Spirit.

The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (Luke 6:40). This comment from Jesus rings in my ears. It sounds like he actually expects his followers to mature to his level of awesomeness. Jesus incredibly promises, “...whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12). I believe the “greater” Jesus is referencing may be understood as greater volume, as there will be an exponential number of these new Spirit-filled humans, these carbon copies of the prototype, running around. I'm not saying we will rise to the role of Savior of the world. The hero of the story of God has already been cast. We will never be more than human (nor should we want to be). But I am saying—no, Jesus is saying—that the disciple is supposed to actually become “like” his or her teacher. In this case, a radical, uncompromising, sacrificial, humble servant, in perfect step with his Father, possessing an unshakable identity, full of genuine goodness, exuding joy and hope, compassionate, courageous beyond words, and more alive than anyone you or I have ever met. Is it so absurd that this remarkable Teacher fully expects his Body to actually resemble him?

Speaking of his “Body,” this process of becoming like Christ is not to be misunderstood as merely a private endeavor. The unavoidably communal aspect of becoming transformed into the image of Christ must not be overlooked (especially by the American Church, which is prone to extreme individualism). It is the familial interactions that often become the primary method by which Jesus transforms and matures his people. In Ephesians 4, Paul explains that Christ has gifted his Church with various kinds of members “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” He goes on to say “...we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” It does no good for us to be exclusively preoccupied with our own personal growth (although each individual effort cannot be divorced from the success of the collective aim 1 Corinthians 9:27). We must band together to “spur one another on” (Hebrews 10:24). No one is to be left behind.

He is everything we were meant to be. He is everything we long to be” says Darrell W. Johnson (in Who is Jesus?). By God's grace, becoming like Christ is not only possible, it's the clearly articulated goal of the incarnation. When we excuse ourselves from actually resembling Jesus “because he was God,” we are not being humble. We are expressing cowardice and obstinate disobedience. We are like the wicked servant that Jesus spoke of who buried the investment his master left in his care. My prayer for myself and Jesus' Church is that we will not maintain an image in our hearts and heads of a strictly etherial and aloof Savior who is beyond our grasp, but that we will instead look unflinchingly into the eyes of a very human Savior who has made his divine nature scandalously and readily accessible to us. Without a hint of irony, he invites us to “follow” him. Having gone to such great lengths to re-create us in his image and reanimate us with his Breath—I think he's serious about this whole becoming like Jesus thing.