Saturday, March 31, 2018

Of First Importance

I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

In a post during Holy Week, I reflected on Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God,my God, why have you forsaken me?” in light of the horrific story of Christian Choate who was kept in a dog cage and eventually beaten to death by his father. Such stories are the test of anything we say about God and faith.

The Christian story of Incarnation and cross claims the promise of God’s solidarity with his creatures caught in the web of sin, brokenness, and death. The credal affirmation that the Son of God has descended into hell is hopeful. God has poured the potent, relentless mercy of Jesus’ presence into every hell, on earth or beyond. There is no one, no place, and no situation that is god-forsaken. Hopeful as that is, is it enough? What more can we say about the good news of Jesus Christ in light of the tragic story of Christian Choate and those of so many others?

In his first letter to the young church in Corinth, Paul reminds them of what he considered of first importance, what he in turn had received – that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures
I suspect few of us have done anything as egregious as Christian Choate’s father. But each of us has failed to love as we are meant to love. Each of us has been negligent of God and neighbor. Each of us has contributed in ways large or small to the mess of the world.

And yet, in spite of that, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). William Temple wrote,
In the most true sense [God] loves me even while I sin; but it cannot be said too strongly that there is a wrath in God against my sinning; God's Will is set one way and mine is set against it. There is a collision of wills; and God's Will is not passive in that collision.

At the cross is the collision of those wills in which God’s love overcomes all our unlove – all of our envy and enmity, all of our indifference. God poured out his love on the hard wood of the cross and thereby entered into the worst humans can do and made a way for us to enter into his forgiveness. There is no one – including Christian Choate's dad – that is beyond the reach of his saving embrace where there is forgiveness.

I suppose, in ways we do not know or comprehend, we have to accept that Christian Choate, as part of the human web of sin, needed that forgiveness as well. But that is where I think an exclusive focus on the cross and our need for forgiveness starts to fall short. Is it really satisfactory if all we can say about Christian Choate is we hope he had an opportunity to say the ‘Jesus Prayer’ and receive God’s forgiveness before his dad beat him to death? Especially given that we have no evidence that he had ever even heard anything about Jesus? And if he didn’t? Were those horrific thirteen years just a brief prelude to an eternity of torture in hell? Is it satisfactory to say, as some might, that, if he didn’t repent, it was due to his being predestined not to do so? That his brief life of suffering was just a small part of the larger story of human sin and he only received in this life a foretaste of the penalty of sin to be exacted by God on all the reprobate? That hardly seems worthy of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

But, neither is it satisfactory to say, as an any honest atheist must, that what happened to Christian Choate is just one example of the kinds of things that are coded into the world into which we have been born. It is what it is. Any moral outrage about it is just a matter of inherited taste.

The Christian hope is more than that. In Christ, God has addressed more than our guilt. In Christ, God has addressed the deep wound of humanity, and of human history and, indeed, all of creation.

Few of us have suffered anything as terrible as Christian Choate – though my wife, who is a therapist, told me recently that as many as one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually molested. Physical and emotional abuse are also more common than we like to think. So, maybe more of us have such stories of suffering and sorrow than we usually let on. But even if we have avoided abuse of that nature, each of us bears the wounds and brokenness endemic to humanity. We don’t just need forgiveness. We need healing.

It is important to note that healing was as significant a part Jesus’ ministry as was his call to repent and offer of forgiveness. His mercy included both. So did his dying and rising.

He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
Handing on to the Corinthians that which he considered of first importance, Paul referred to the resurrection using the exact language he used for the death of Christ suggesting that the two go together as two aspects of one salvific intervention. The Cross and Easter the Resurrection are two sides of the one coin of the world’s redemption.

In some theologies and popular pieties Jesus’ resurrection is treated as an addendum to what is considered the really important thing which is Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. The resurrection is sometimes reduced to little more than proof of Jesus’ divinity or the assurance that there might be life after death. At most it is God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and message. Though I emphatically affirm all of these, the resurrection is also much more.

The crucifixion and resurrection include the promise of healing, transformation, restoration, and new creation. I am persuaded that that is true for the past as well as the present or the future. As Wolfhart Pannenberg has written,

The kingdom of God embraces the earlier generations of mankind as well as the coming ones, and hope for the coming of the rule of God does not only expect salvation for the last generation; it is directed towards the transfiguration of all epochs of human history through the fire of divine judgment, which is one with the light of the glory of God.  

Similarly, Michael Ramsey wrote of Jesus’ Transfiguration as a foreshadowing of the Transfiguration of all things in the General Resurrection that is the world’s destiny in Christ,
Confronted with a universe more terrible than ever in the blindness and the destructiveness of its potentialities, men and women must be led to Christian faith, not as a panacea of progress or as an otherworldly solution unrelated to history, but as a gospel of Transfiguration. Such a gospel transcends the world and yet speaks directly to the immediate here-and-now. He who is transfigured is the Son of Man; and as he discloses on the holy mountain another world, he reveals that no part of created things, and no moment of created time lies outside the power of the Spirit, who is Lord, to change it from glory to glory.

Our hope of the resurrection of the body is not just a hope for individual escape from death. It is that. But, it is also the expectation that the body of humanity, stretched out and tortured on the rack of history will be restored. In the final resurrection and restoration of all things (Acts 3:21), it is not just the memory of Christian Choate’s agony that will be redeemed. The trauma, torture, and terror of human history twill not just be forgotten, but redeemed. The very reality of it will be caught up and transfigured–scars and all–in a way we can barely fathom.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has broken open the cage of sin and death and decay that holds us all. The resurrection of Jesus is a ray of light piercing the cloud of Death that is cast over all people (Isaiah 25:6-9) guaranteeing that the world's story ends in resurrection and transformation. Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:20). As Paul insists in Romans 8, that is a promise for all of creation as well. All of creation will be renewed.

In the meantime, creation continues to groan under the reality of death and decay. And not just the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23).

The Gardener come to repair and restore the garden
Mary Magdalene, who the scriptures point out followed Jesus because he healed her (Mark 16:9), not because she had any unusual need of forgiveness (despite later tradition to the contrary), came to honor his tortured dead body at the tomb. There she found the grave empty. She assumed someone had taken the body. What else would she suspect? She asks one she takes to be a gardener where they have taken the body of the one she had hoped would redeem Israel and the world. When the gardener speaks her name, she recognizes that he is in fact Jesus who had been dead, but is now risen and more alive than before.

But, in fact, Mary had rightly identified him the first time. Jesus is the Gardener, come to restore the Garden of creation and history that has been infected with the thorns and thistles of sin and death that have made it a curse for so many to be born (Genesis 3). According to the ancient story, the curse began with a tree in a garden. And the healing and restoration begins with a tree (the cross) and a garden.

The fullness of the restoration of all things remains a hope of the future. We do not pretend that all is already well. In Christ we have received the first fruits. We live in expectation. But, if we allow the Gardener to work in our lives, forgiveness and healing can begin now. New creation can begin now. Transformation can begin now. And as his Spirit moves in and through us we can participate with him in the healing of the land and live now in the shade of another tree in another garden at the heart of the City of the New Creation– the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).

The tragic life and death of Christian Choate reminds us that we still walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Sin, with all its violence and greed, is still present. But the shadow of death has been transformed into the shadow of the cross, backlit with the hope of resurrection. Christ has died for our sins and was raised on the third day. In that two-fold event, God' mercy has entered into the deepest, darkest human reality of sin and suffering, like that of Christian Choate. And he has broken out of that hell with the promise of forgiveness, healing, and new creation. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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