For most humans, death is a problem. Death destroys beauty and joy. It breaks our heart to lose a loved one. The process of dying can be horrible as well. The fear of death is widespread. While the Stoics advocate courage in the face of all suffering and the acceptance of our mortal state, many long for more. World religions are divided on the afterlife.
When Dr. Moody's book, "Life After Life" came out in 1975, many were delighted to read about the hundred people who had been clinically dead, were resuscitated and came back with amazing stories about their experiences. Since then, many others have added their own amazing stories and research, lending credence to the belief that the soul lives on after death. Whether true or not, the possibility of our souls continued existence does not solve all our problems, especially if we remain lonely, wounded and sinful. There really are things worse than death.
Resurrection is not a spiritual event. The resurrection stories about Jesus emphasize His physicality. Jesus is not a ghost. If His body was new and improved, it was still the same body, scars and all. He was not a disembodied spirit. Many of us think that the ancient people were ignorant and full of superstition. Even if this were true, it is simply not true that they believed dead people would be expected to show up alive again a few days later. Those Jews who did believe in resurrection looked for it to happen at the end of time. Just like us. We never expect someone we bury to walk through the wall and talk to us. They did not say they saw His ghost. They said they saw Him.
In the fourth century the church battled the Arian heresy. This heresy taught that Jesus was just a man. One over-reaction ended up becoming another kind of heresy called Apollinarianism. They taught that Jesus had a human body and soul, but a divine mind. The word mind encompasses what we mean by the Personality (think, feel, perceive, understand and judge). It meant that the Incarnation was incomplete. Many Christians today probably agree with this, not knowing it was rejected by the church as false. They also denigrate our physical bodies and the world, preferring to be "spiritual." This is why the resurrection of Jesus does not resonate, they to think that at death our soul is set free to fly off to God. The world is something to be left behind and heaven is a place where we become angels, free to leave our human existence behind.
The orthodox teaching of the Church--following the Bible--tells us that Jesus does not leave this all behind. He returns to the disciples with a new kind of physical body, but the incarnation continues. Jesus will also return again, to raise us all and judge us. We too will undergo a transformation--our suffering ended and our tears wiped away--sin and death finally defeated, we will live, not as disembodied spirits, but as human beings in human bodies. This transformation is called theosis. This is why it matters if orthodox Christianity is true. If Jesus had both a human and divine mind, then we, too, can remain our human self even as we are united with God and transformed. Eternal souls would be stuck forever in suffering and sin without redemption. Human bodies without their own 'minds' would be perfected, but our personal self would be obliterated so that God would just be living in the empty shell that was once our human frame.
The good news is God created us to be in relationship with Him. The incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ provides us with a real example of how that can take place. Human life is precious to God and His intent is to raise us up, infilled with the Holy Spirit, making us one in Christ with Him. Death is real darkness, but beyond death there is a more radiant light. We will pass from death to life. Jesus is a trustworthy Witness. He is the One who has already done it. He calls us to die a death like His so that we can live our life in Him.
As we live here each day, we do not have to say "this is all there is,'' nor need we escape by claiming to be "spiritual." Resurrection means that this life is the raw material that God redeems and raises up. Remember "Death is temporary, Life is eternal." We are not destined for eternal darkness or a bodiless existence in the spirit realm. So we must consecrate each moment and every place to God, as eternally significant. Resurrection faith means our body and life matter, as make our Easter cry, "Alleluia! Alleluia!"
Friday, April 19, 2019
Scripture scholars have long debated the identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah. There are many possibilities. Isaiah uses the term my servant for the whole Jewish nation, as well as a faithful remnant within it. It may well refer to an unknown contemporary, maybe even the prophet himself. Others think it a reflection on a Biblical hero like Moses or Jeremiah. Or it could be looking ahead to a Messianic figure in the future.
I think that they are all correct. I believe that in every age God saves and in every age the work of salvation includes great suffering. Those whom God chooses to be His instruments, be they individuals or nations, will share more deeply in the nature of God. God is love, and to love is to be willing to suffer. The Lord fashioned creation with this truth at its heart--redemption is painful and suffering love saves. If we would love another then we will suffer. Let us be clear, it is Jesus who does this perfectly.
Why? True Love is self emptying. We humans are not capable of complete love, but even in our imperfect loving we know that if you open your heart to love, it can and will be hurt. Love makes us vulnerable and weak because love does not rule or control the other. Love is self gift in the power of weakness. The cost of love is suffering. True love is constantly forgiving the debt that is owed. To forgive the debt is to absorb its consequences. Forgiveness is suffering for another to save them from heir sin. This is why God suffers with us and for us in Jesus Christ. God Incarnate joins us because love forgives the one who walks away and love seeks out the one who is lost.
The world uses power to oppress. The demonic is self-seeking. The flesh would compel us to match violence with violence, hatred with hatred, strength with strength. The world, the flesh and the devil bid us to embrace what is evil in the name of defeating the other. God teaches that evil can only be defeated by goodness, goodness poured out in suffering love. God constantly saves us in and through those who will pay the price of suffering love. The Son is always among us taking upon Himself our sins, our suffering and our dying.
Jesus suffers and dies with us because our union with God (theosis) is a two way street--He abides in us and we in Him. God becomes one of us in Jesus, so Jesus embraces even the most wretched aspects of our existence. This is the revelation of the cross: the Messiah God who negates Himself to find those He loves and invite them out of the darkness into His light.
God gave us the freedom to choose sin and death, and we did. The gift of freedom rendered God powerless to prevent our fall. But our God heard the cries of His foolish children and out of love He emptied Himself into our fallen state. He refused to let suffering and death be the end of our story. Jesus, God Incarnate joined us. His suffering redeemed human suffering and His death redeemed from death. It is what love does--it suffers so to save. There is more to this story but it waits for Sunday....
Sunday, April 14, 2019
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Doug was a young father when I left for seminary in 1977. After many years I ran into him at Costco. He told me that he had had his own business selling farm machinery, but was going bankrupt. I asked if it was because sales were low. He responded, "No, sales were great. We sold lots of stuff. They just wouldn’t make the payments." It was an Epiphany.
Doug had written off a lot of debt, but forgiving a debt didn't make it magically disappear. It was still there, it is just that someone else had to eat it. In this case, it was Doug. Doug forgave one debt after another and it killed his business. This is what God does for us.
The Gospel is that God has forgiven our debt. This doesn't mean it just disappeared, that He acted like nothing happened. He has 'eaten' it. The Lord takes on our sickness and sin. He accepts the consequences of sin which is death. You see, Sin and death are not arbitrarily tied together. In the legal system, laws and punishment are determined by human beings. Not all laws make sense to us. Punishments don’t always fit the crime. We do our best, but the legal system is always somewhat arbitrary. But sin and death are not simply a legal matter! They are connected naturally.
Natural Laws is never arbitrary. It is just how things work. We can pass laws which make it legal to sell products which kill people, but that does not save them from the consequences of consuming those products. The law of gravity isn’t interested in what you want or need. Natural Laws are the rules which cannot control or ignore. We must discover them through inquiry and observation, discern them through reason or accept them in revelation.
Spiritual natural laws govern the life of the human soul in relationship with God and others. Spiritual laws and their consequences are never arbitrary. Sin separates us from God. God is life. Once you walk away from God you have chosen death. Death is what happens to those who reject Life. Death is not capital punishment imposed by a judge. Death is not God’s revenge. Death is the only possible outcome of sin. Therefore, death is not what God does to us--it is what we choose for ourselves. The cost of Sin is "a debt" which is paid by our Death. You make your choice and you pay the price.
We are separated from God and only He can bridge that gap, so God chose to eat that debt. Philippians describes the process. He began in the form of God, He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant. [remember Moses, David, the prophets—they are all called the servant of God] A servant is completely subservient and obedient to the will of another. The Man Jesus is completely obedient to the Father because Jesus is God Incarnate and He is the debt eater. He enters the human condition, which is governed by sin and death. That is the cost to God: incarnation, emptying of self, becoming nothing to join us, being subject to evil and death. God must empty Himself every time He interacts with us, crushing His perfection and eternity to fit into our imperfect and temporal world.
We didn’t read it today, but the next verse in Luke's Gospel says Jesus weeps when He enters the city. He is heartbroken that the people rejected the chance to be delivered. Sad enough to cry. He said peace had been possible, that God could save if they returned. They didn’t and Roman armies destroyed the city, as Jesus warned. Things could have been different. Instead, Jesus will suffer and die. Death will have its way with Jesus. The powers of the Fallen World will be on full display. The world, the flesh and the devil will have victory over the Lord's Messiah, His self-emptying Servant.This is the added tragedy of God's Self-emptying. His love and mercy rejected, He loves us all the more and forgives even that...
So today we watch Him ride into town, it is rather exciting and festive. By Thursday we eat the Passover and He blows our minds with His reinterpretation of that dinner. The on Friday the unthinkable horror, we see Him crucified, our debt to the power of Death consumed before our eyes. And next Sunday, the deliverance is assured. Let us not, however, rush to that happy ending, lest we forget that we, too, must walk with Him in dying in order to rise with Him in Living. For the Mystery is that He does it for us, but also with us and in us.