Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead!

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!" -- the Troparion of Pascha, an Orthodox hymn chanted at Easter ("Pascha")

As I've been reading the Gospel of John, I see a God who is personally and intimately involved in bringing men and women out of death and into life. This makes me think of the ancient Christian Anastasis (Resurrection) icons, which depict the victorious Christ overcoming death and raising Adam (and sometimes Eve) from Hades. While there are four main thematic variants of the Anastasis, each designed to emphasize different features about the Resurrection, the most famous rendition looks like this:

I love this image because it shows Jesus victorious in splendor, mighty to save: "But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:24). Technically Jesus is enveloped in a dazzling white mandorla, which depicts his deity.

Jesus is standing victorious over Death, having broken down the gates of Hades to build his church (Matthew 16:18). He has "bound the strong man" (usually Hades personified, but also Satan in Western icons) and is now able to plunder the grave (Matthew 12:29; Isaiah 53:12; Jude 1:6). Jesus has loosed the cords of Sheol and rendered its chains asunder, shattering them to bits below (Psalms 18:4, 5; 107:14; 116:3).

Best of all--what most touches my heart--is that a dynamic Jesus is taking Adam and Eve each by the hand and lifting them out of the grave and upward toward himself. He is personally and intimately involved in their salvation. (This particular rendition implies lifting them into the life of the Trinity.) "As recorded in John 5:24-30 Jesus teaches that it is his voice which will call the dead to life. "I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and live. . . . Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (vv. 25, 28-29). Jesus is teaching that one day in the future, all who are physically dead will be called by him to rise; but today Jesus calls to the spiritually dead, and those who hear his voice and come to him for life are not only quickened spiritually, but also will rise to life everlasting and not be condemned.

"My Father's will," Jesus teaches, "is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (6:40). There will be no generic resurrection in which the dead simply "rise up." Crossing over from death to life (5:24) is never a merely mechanistic consequence of some predetermined plan of God. Rather, our Savior himself comes today to speak into out hearts his call to life: "Come to me, Andrew, that you may have life!" (5:40; Matthew 11:28). And one day, even as he has done already, so he will complete the work he came for, crying, "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead!" (Ephesians 5:14). He will reach his hand deep into the grave to rescue my body from death, just as he once did for my spirit.

I imagine that when we hear Jesus' voice it will be as the edict of a great and magnanimous king, knighting his valorous, faithful servant and bestowing upon him a crown. "Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:21). The whole world will be hushed in awe. Perhaps he will have a different call, different words for each one of us: "Little girl, I say to you, get up!" (Mark 5:41; note here that Jesus took her by the hand as he called her back to life). "Lazarus, come out!" (John 11:43). And for those who rise to be condemned for their self-love, evil deeds, and lack of faith--well, I cannot imagine what terror and shame the King's decree will bequeath upon them.

The King, He comes to claim His own,
To raise His fallen, flesh and bone.
The blood they’ve spilled is not for naught:
His blood their resurrection bought.
--from "The Kingdom Comes" by Ryan Tinetti

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Death and Victory: for Oma

Mathilde Margarethe Monika (Steinkohl) Bork, my maternal grandmother, died on Sunday, July 19th--her eighty-fourth birthday. After losing her husband of sixty-one years and in near-blindness and ailing health, "Oma" simply gave up her will to live. She died a peaceful, dignified death, surrounded in her last days by her family and loved ones.

I didn't cry.

After receiving the dreaded phone call from my younger brother Jordan, Olivia and I drove over to the hospital to be with my mom and uncle. We prayed for a while as I stroked Oma's hair and kissed her forehead goodbye.

Staring in the face the reality of death, the only thing I could think about was this: Jesus really rose from the grave. To this day I have no explanation why; even the best apologetics cannot stand. But all I know and am convinced of, without any explanation, is that Jesus is truly living and has triumphed over death itself, making a mockery of it. In what is one of the greatest Easter homilies of all time, John Chrysostom wrote thus:

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell* when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

* * *

This Sunday, which will be our last gathered with the saints at New Song, is Communion Sunday. How fitting! For we will feast when God wipes out death (see Isaiah 25:6-9). Death, which once swallowed men in its insatiable appetite (Isaiah 5:14), is now itself swallowed in Christ's victory! I rejoice that what is fed to us by Jesus in this Meal, his broken body and poured-out blood for our forgiveness and life, is what (or rather who) will bring us into the Wedding Feast of life everlasting, where death is abolished. Right now I feel a craving for this meal as the comforting promise of life beyond death--the promise of my life in Christ.

"I thank You for the body and the blood of Your Son, Jesus Christ, my Lord. I go to His holy Supper as though I were going to my own death, so that I might go to my death as though going to His holy Supper. Surely, my cup overflows with mercy, and I can depart in peace, according to Your Word." ("Devotion at the Approach of Death," from The Lutheran Book of Prayer)

*Other translations of Chrysostom's sermon render "Hell" as "Hades," which is probably more correct. (Chrysostom spoke Greek.) Hades represented not only the dark realm of the dead separated from the joys of life, but also Death itself as a consuming power. To those who think of this as a Greek abstraction foisted upon Christianity from without, you will note that the ancient Hebrew concepts of Sheol (death as a realm) and Abbadon (death as a destructive power) were very similar.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Light for the Journey

As Olivia and I prepare for our move to Richmond, Virginia, at the end of July, we've had to reckon with the fact that we'll need to find a new church--together. Which church will be not only the place for me, but the place for us? Of course, being somewhat fearful and prone to worry, this causes me all kinds of consternation: All churches are not alike; how shall we choose? Being a matter of contention and difference (though an important and practical one, I believe), baptism has occupied a lot of my thoughts, studies, and worries lately. What does it mean? What does baptism do? How should it be conducted? Who are the proper recipients? It's enough to drive even a person crazy! And all the more for me because, as a "J" on the Myers-Briggs type inventory, I have to have closure on something conceptual before I can confidently live it out. "It is not good to have zeal without knowledge!" is often my theme (Proverbs 19:2).*

But amid all the madness, my wise wife has had the guts and grace to keep me on the right track. She lovingly reminded me that to discern God's "will of direction" for our lives--including which church to join--is simply a matter of loving God with all our hearts and minds and being obedient to what light he has clearly given us already (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29; Philippians 3:15-16).** Included in the New Covenant is the promise that because God is for us, he guides us. We will hear his Spirit saying, "This is the way; walk in it" (Isaiah 30:21). This passage in Isaiah doesn't show some magic, mystical path like a labyrinthian British garden. Rather, it's a path of wisdom and worship, that is, fear-of-the-Lord (see v. 22). To know God's direction for our lives is simply to know what it means to love and serve him and our neighbors wholeheartedly.

The tricky thing is that this walking on this "way" of discipleship requires faith. The well-worn psalm lauds God's written Word as "a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (Psalm 119:105). Of course, walking with a lamp to my feet doesn't illuminate a whole lot. I know where to place my foot next, but that's about it. Should I be afraid of what I cannot see? of a future which is uncertain? No. For though it is unknown and uncertain to us, it is known and certain to our loving Father who holds our lives in his hands. What he desires of us is to love him and walk in obedience to what we already know; and the rest he will reveal to us and teach us in his due time as is needed. "And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained" (Philippians 3:15b-16).

I want to have all things certain and known; I want them comfortable. In other words, I do not want to live as a servant under God's lordship, with him in control. But as God's good pleasure and purpose is "to bring about the obedience of faith," he is fully committed to teaching his people what they need to know in order to do his will--even if he may choose to do so only on the spot, just a step ahead of time.

*I previously wrote on this here.
**"Will of direction" is a term I heard from Kevin DeYoung. His new book Just Do Something is an excellent place to start for anyone wanting to know what it means to "find God's will for your life." I haven't read all of it, but the sermon series from which it sprang has been a big influence in my life.