Sunday, August 30, 2009

Brothers of the Same Family

This morning as I read Hebrews 2:5-18, I was struck by how Jesus, the Son of God, who is the effulgence of God's own eternal glory, so gladly emptied himself to take up our cause before his Father. In a true familial solidarity far surpassing the utopian ideals imagined by Marx and others, in his incarnation and baptism Jesus bound up himself with sinful, enslaved, derelict mankind, even calling us "brothers," and suffered the agonies of temptation, rejection, shame, and death so that we might be set free from fear, death, deception, and futility and share in his place of glory and love as co-sons and co-regents before the Father.

A beautiful 15th-century Latin hymn, "O Love, How Deep" (author unknown, translated by Benjamin Webb), captures this story well.

O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
It fills the heart with ecstasy,
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake!

He sent no angel to our race
Of higher or of lower place,
But wore the robe of human frame
Himself, and to this lost world came.

For us baptized, for us He bore
His holy fast and hungered sore,
For us temptation sharp He knew;
For us the tempter overthrew.

For us He prayed; for us He taught;
For us His daily works He wrought;
By words and signs and actions thus
Still seeking not Himself, but us.

For us to wicked men betrayed,
Scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed,
He bore the shameful cross and death,
For us gave up His dying breath.

For us He rose from death again;
For us He went on high to reign;
For us He sent His Spirit here,
To guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.

To Him Whose boundless love has won
Salvation for us through His Son,
To God the Father, glory be
Both now and through eternity.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Imitating God

Being a high school science teacher demands a lot of patience. I mean a lot. Many students come into my room sometimes two or three years behind in math, have difficulty finding main ideas when reading, and don't know what a complete sentence is. On top of that, they're often raised in households with only one parent, who probably works two jobs and leaves the child-rearing to their teenager. Even if a steady male figure (live-in boyfriend or stepdad) is around, it's not uncommon for anger to be the sole disciplinary tool.

Yet when I ought to have compassion and patience, instead I find myself exasperated by minimal efforts, lack of prior knowledge and skills, and torpid progress. Some of my students are honestly just plain lazy. A few are even, yes, stupid. On top of that, they often want every day in class to be like an episode of CSI, yet my school lacks the funding to obtain much lab equipment which is considered pretty basic. And then--the lack of respect teens have for others and their sense of entitlement can really put me over the top.

But the gospel addresses me to live differently, to bear with my students as God has borne with us in Christ. I immediately thought of my students when I was reading Paul's letter to Titus yesterday.
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:1-5)

I was reminded that if it weren't for God's merciful re-creation by his Holy Spirit, I too would be in the same mess: foolish, disobedient, and ruled by self-centeredness. God didn't wait until I cleaned up my life and paid respectful attention to him before pouring out his kindness and love.

In the same way, then, I need to live out this gospel with my students. I need to encourage them and build them up instead of belittling them in exasperation. I need to be patient and considerate of their needs instead of giving up, dumbfounded. I need to be gentle and gracious with them when they disappoint me or anger me, persisting to be for them and on their side. After all, it's only when "kindness and love" appear that change happens.

"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 4:32 - 5:2).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cleaning House

Taking my previous post one step further, my wife brought up another sanctification analogy today. We recently moved to a new home in Richmond, Virginia; and though the house is a huge blessing, the kitchen was really dirty. Olivia has spent hours laboriously peeling back layers of film and grime. Yuck.

"As I kept cleaning," she said, "it just seemed like there was still more grime!" She made the connection that, like Christian growth, it's not like our kitchen wasn't getting cleaner; it was just that bad to begin with. As more and more of the dirt and corruption of our sin is uncovered and brought to our attention, it's not necessarily that we aren't getting "cleaner." It's just that we were even more sinful and rotten to begin with than we had ever realized. Like a bad mold, the grime of Adam's rebellion--and ours--goes so deep and fills every corner and crevice of our being--our thoughts, perceptions, attitudes, emotions, desires, words, and actions--that we need much more than just a spring cleaning (see Jesus' teaching in Matthew 12:43-45). We need the whole house to be torn down and built anew.

But thankfully we have a Savior who was a carpenter, and even more than a carpenter. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Puzzled by sanctification?

As Olivia and I were putting together a puzzle last night, we grew frustrated by how much slower and more challenging its completion became once we had moved past putting together the straight edges, corner pieces, and areas of apparent contrast and design. In our puzzle of a beautiful Greek coastal town, large swaths of bone and azure dominated the scene. And while not as immediately striking as the shorelines, church domes, and other brightly colored structures, these areas were vital toward fleshing in the whole picture. As we found and fit in the more obvious pieces, the more obscure and less evident ones became harder and slower.

This seems so much like my own growth and maturation in Christ. God has designed that through faith and the work of the Holy Spirit (which are one and the same), Jesus Christ is to be formed within us (Galatians 4:19), and we are to be conformed to his glorious image (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). In my life (and in countless others' as well, I'm sure), the basic framework of a godly life developed fairly quickly, within a few years. Just as the frame of a puzzle is the first step and gives place and order to the rest, so did the basic shape of Christlikeness form in me as I put aside my old ways of life and learned to live under the gospel.

Then other pieces of the image started coming together, but this time a little more slowly and deliberately. At first the puzzle was exciting to assemble; we were fresh and eager. But now it was starting to take more work, and even after a few hours of work, instead of seeing how much we had accomplished, we starting seeing just how many pieces still remained. Rather than being glad at how much had been finished, we were instead exasperated.

As I grow in Christ, I seem to see more and more pieces of Christ that still remain on the floor and not in my puzzle. I get more and more frustrated at how slowly they find their way into me. When a whole box full of pieces was there, I rejoiced that I had a framework and didn't care too much about everything else. But now I'm starting to see the pieces that still remain, and I get upset.

The beautiful truth is, though, that I can only see them because so many more of the others have already been cleared away. The formation of Christ in my life is perhaps slower and more piecemeal now, but this is because more of his image has already been formed in me. The image is coming together even if I don't see it, focused on what it still lacks. But of this I can be confident: "that he who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). And just as God rejoices in all his works, we ought also to look at what God has already done within us, and rest and rejoice.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lead On, O Shepherd

"The sheep hear his [the shepherd's] voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice." (John 10:3-4)

If you've been around the church long enough, it will come as no surprise to hear that Jesus is our Shepherd. He says he is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (John 10:14; 21:15-19; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4). But what is remarkable is that our shepherd is also himself a lamb (John 1:29: Revelation 5:5), a human who meekly came and bore our low estate. He "wore the robe of human frame / Himself, and to this lost world came."* Jesus came in the flesh, took up our cause, battled against sin, death, and the devil, and triumphed over them all. Having suffered and been vindicated, he is now "the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:9).

How astounding it is that now this Lamb is our Shepherd! But instead of some restful pastoral scene--as true as this is sometimes--we need to know that we are also enlisted into his army. The biblical imagery of a shepherd referred to a general-king who led his people out to battle and back in to worship and rest. And though our final rest is secured, we aren't there yet. This life is still a "struggle against sin" (Hebrews 12:4). We live between two ages in the tension where we have the Holy Spirit and are justified, yet we still sin (simul justus et peccator).

The two earliest forms of the Anastasis (Resurrection) icons depict this reality and give us good cheer and hope. The first (above) shows Christ, the Victor over death and sin's enslaving powers, drawing Adam (symbolic of all humans) from the grave toward himself. Salvation has been won and is now being offered. But to come to Christ, Adam must first pass under and embrace the Cross. He must trust in Jesus' finished work and have his old life put to death in submission to Jesus' lordship. This portrayal is decidedly baptismal. (I find it of note that even though Adam must embrace the cross is faith, the work in drawing him there belongs entirely to Jesus. Calvinism in the eight century!)

The second form (above) is quite different. Jesus is still holding the Cross and drawing Adam from the grave over the ruins of hell. But here Jesus is walking, even marching, forward. He's leading Adam out of death and into glory in "triumphal procession" (2 Corinthians 2:14).** As the "founder of [our] salvation," Jesus is "bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10). This word translated "founder" is archegos, one who leads from the front, a "pioneer" or "captain." Jesus himself lived under sin, died our death, and now has risen in victory into life everlasting as King. He now conscripts us to share in his reign and follow him into all he has secured for us. We live now in tension: Will we endure in faith, or will we succumb to worldly pressures? Will sin ever be put to death within us? Will evil and sickness and malice and selfishness and unlove ever cease within and without?

Yes. Amen and Yes--in and through Jesus Christ alone, the Alpha and the Omega, who holds the keys to Death and Hades (2 Corinthians 1:20; Revelation 1:17-18). Our hope is sure and steadfast, because with Christ as our Shepherd, we're not left to wander aimlessly in the dark. He doesn't sit on the sidelines to cheer us on. He calls us, takes us by the hand, and leads us as he battles at the forefront, taking us where he has already gone. Lead on, O King eternal!

* "O Love, How Deep"; attributed perhaps to Thomas a Kempis.

** The idea of being led in a triumphal procession, however, is not all glory and honor. Roman military generals led their captives in a victory parade toward the Coliseum, where they would be put to death. Only we who have allowed ourselves to be conquered and put to death in Christ in this life will find life now and in the age to come.