Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Birth of a New Age

I watched a clip recently of a debate between a Christian philosopher and a well-known atheist thinker. They were asked a question about the purpose of life. Does this life have any meaning? Do our lives in any way matter?

The two gentlemen answered in predictable fashion. The Christian argued that we were made to, as the Westminster Catechism claims, "Glorify God and enjoy him forever." That knowing God and being joined to him in eternal friendship is the reason we exist. The atheist responded that, since this life is the only one we are ever going to have, one had to come up with one's own personal reason for living, and that his was to be free and to help others become increasingly more free.

And then he went down a path that surprised me. He argued that if there is an eternal afterlife, why should this world matter? In essence, he claimed that if life after death lasts forever and this one is temporary, then this life becomes meaningless in light of what is to come.

I think his point reveals how the New Testament vision of eternity is broadly misunderstood and misrepresented. For many, believers and nonbelievers, the idea is that we struggle through this temporary physical existence only to leave our bodies and world behind and go to some sort of ethereal timeless existence. That the point of the story is heaven, and that heaven is some cloudy reality that has little to do with this one.

This view is the predominant western view of the afterlife, held by both many committed Christians and nominal ones whose ideas are nonetheless shaped passively by the surrounding culture. It is, however, not the view that the Bible teaches, or that the early apostles proclaimed.

Think of what is fundamental to our current lives. We eat and we drink, we celebrate and we connect. We work and we dream and we create. These essentially good things, things that are pillars of life as we know them in this world, are things we should expect to be a part of the eternal life God has planned for his people. If he created us to love those things now, why do we expect he then wants us to discard them upon death?

On the contrary, the apostolic proclamation is clear that Christ rose in the body, firstborn of many brothers and sisters who would one day rise and join him. Revelation tells us the story is heading not to a heavenly life in the clouds, but to a renewed earth. The picture scripture paints is not the end of a physical life ushering us into a spiritual one, but rather a renewed and perfected human life beginning not when we die, but when we believe. In other words, when a person is baptized into Jesus and goes under the water and back up to symbolize death and resurrection, it is because in Christ our old life is over and the new everlasting one has begun.

Jesus conveys this perspective when he talks to the woman at the well in John 4. "If you knew the gift of God who is standing before you, you would have asked, and he would give you living water...that water becomes a spring inside you, welling up to eternal life." In other words, the moment God's spirit fills a person, they begin the very life that will only grow and increase in them for all eternity.

In this light, we understand what Paul meant when he says Christ saves us from this present evil age. We have, with the resurrection of the crucified Christ, the breaking forth of the eternal, restored age in the middle of the old one that is passing away. Everyone who steps into Jesus steps into the new, eternal age, and begins living out the story they will continue to write with God forever and ever!

If that is how we understand eternity, then we can return to the original challenge raised by the atheist with new eyes. Does belief in eternity make our current lives inconsequential? Quite the contrary! Rather we consider ourselves rescued from the current age that is doomed to death and decay and held in chains by the banality of evil. We are like new-born children, sons and daughters of a new creation, now free from fear because we are born of God's Spirit. We surrender our lives to Jesus as King, and we follow his sacrificial leadership, because we now belong to him and not to this world. We love our neighbors and our enemies, even lay down our lives for them, because they too are invited to this forever Kingdom that is breaking forth in the earth, and because it is the example our Christ has given us.

Christ, then, invites us into a life bursting with meaning, a great deal more so, in fact, than we are able to imagine. When we respond to his call and enter his Kingdom we begin a new life, one redefined by the love of God and increasing in glory for countless ages to come. If one is looking for a meaningful cause to give one's life to, I say look no further. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

On Dying...

Jesus came to die. The cross was there, on the horizon, for his entire life. He knew that each day of his earthly ministry was bringing him one day closer to Golgotha, to the place where he would leave the friendship of his disciples and step under the shadow of human violence.

The disciples never accepted that this was where the story was heading. Their Christ was too mighty, too clearly favored by God and filled by his Spirit. This was a happy story, they concluded, and a happy story was one in which the hero doesn't die.

But die he did, and it turned out that his death, rather than some unfortunate twist in the plot, was the entire point of the narrative. As he drew nearer to Jerusalem, he knew a stage was being set. When the crowds cheered upon his entry, he knew the seats were being filled. When the accusations and betrayals and abandonments began unfolding, he knew the curtain was being pulled back.

But what happened on that stage? What was being revealed to mankind in one bold, breathtaking stroke? Only days before the cataclysmic event occured, Jesus admitted to his disciples in a moment of shocking vulnerability:

"Now my soul is disturbed. But what shall I do-shall I say 'Father spare me from this hour?' I cannot! It was for this very hour that I have come! Instead I will pray this: 'Father, glorify your name!'"

Here we see it. This is what the cross was all about. It was the moment where God once and for all set the record straight. In the cross, in the self-sacrificing love of the Word of God made flesh, we see what God is like. This is the moment of the play when our mouths drop open, when our hearts beat faster, and we say, "Ah ha! So that is what this is all about!"

But the cross does something else as well. Yes, it reveals God. But it also reveals us, as we are meant to be. Jesus was Son of God, and also Son of Man. We see, in the loving obedience of the crucified Messiah, what mankind was always meant to be. We see Adam restored. We see humanity as the image of God.

Now we look back at Jesus's words like a film viewer who, after being shocked by a twist ending, rewatches the film with new eyes. When Jesus told his disciples, "You too must take up your own cross and follow after me," he was issuing a mysterious command that would only take shape once the story had come to fulfillment.

Paul echoes this command to come and die with Jesus repeatedly in his writings. He describes himself as bearing "on [his] body the scars of Jesus." He claims that he died daily, long before Nero quite literally finished the job once and for all by commanding Paul's beheading. And perhaps most famously, he declared: "I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!" Paul clearly took Jesus at his word-the cross was not merely the source of the apostle's forgiveness, but the inspirational focal point of his very lifestyle.

But what is this cross we are supposed to bear? How do we even begin to die a death like Christ's? What lies at the heart of Paul's claim that he died daily? I used to take such sayings to be referring to some sort of self-denial. I would take up my cross by sinning less, by controlling myself more, my being more disciplined and mature, etc. I still believe that fits in there somewhere, but the more I stare at the cross, the more I realize that increased self-discipline is only a small part of the picture.

The cross, after all, is about love. It is about love for the world. It is about love for one's enemies. It is about a willingness to be compelled by love into the brokeness of humanity. It is about emptying oneself, not in pursuit of some form of personal piety, but in pursuit of expressing a love that transforms others. The cross says that the problems of my neighborhood, my city, my nation, are actually my problems, and I must be willing to "die" (in this case to my right to hold on to my time, my energy, my resources, my preference to be with the type of people I naturally enjoy or who make me feel good) in order to meaningfully engage those problems.

Just when we would like to build our own little fortresses around our lives, our families, our communities, where we can engage in those tasks that we enjoy, and leave the rest of the world to deal with its own problems, the cross shouts to us, "Come! Come to the broken and the needy. Come to the messy and the annoying. Come, and care, and spend yourself."

And then, of course, we have our choice to make. Shall we say "Lord, spare me from this hour?" Or shall we say "No-this hour is my purpose! Father, glorify your name!"

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

More than Meets the Eye

Humanity has always wondered what lies beyond the boundaries of our natural world. Is existence bound to what we can taste, see, smell, touch and hear? Even now, in our increasingly secular and scientifically conscious society, spirituality is exploding. Something inside us wants to break out of the natural realm, to touch and experience and know the transcedence of the spiritual. 

But what lies out there, in the spiritual realm? Jesus and the early apostles were insistent that a spiritual world does exist, and that it does in fact overlap and interact and in many ways shape our natural one. We humans, having a God-given spirit that connects us to that other world, and a body that anchors us soundly in the natural world, find ourselves torn. We are deeply spiritual, and deeply natural, and find ourselves in the midst of a supernatural conflict being played out in our material universe. Look how Paul tries to describe it to the early Ephesian believers:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (‭Ephesians‬ ‭6‬:‭12‬ ESV)

We are in a struggle, one in which we often mistake humans for our enemies. But humans are never truly the enemy-they are the image-bearers of God, meant to be redeemed and freed and brought into his eternal kingdom. The evil so evident in our world today is the overflow of a spiritual conflict that we cannot see and certainly don't understand. And yet, somehow, our faith and love play a part in facilitating God's inevitable victory. 

And so we recognize that just as spiritual powers conspired against Jesus, they will conspire against us. Just as they incited ignorant and deceived people to reject him and accuse him, so shall it be for his disciples. And like him, we do not return in kind, we do not carry anger or offense or judgement, but we love in faith that God can redeem all. We pray "Father forgive them, they don't understand what they are doing," even as they mistreat us. We recognize that God's ultimate answer to the evil that has warped his creation is not the destruction of the flood, but the redemption of the cross. 

Such love is painful, and so we must remember that there is another side to the spiritual realm, one that should leave us mouth-opened in wonder and broken-hearted with longing: 

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭4‬:‭16-18‬ ESV)

Oh that we could live in light of such a promise! How different life might look, if in the midst of the muddle and monotony of tasks and duties we held in rememberance that our love, our faith, our little offerings of trust and affection given to God, were being stored like seeds in the spiritual realm, only to be rediscovered as full-grown orchards when we pass beyond the veil of this present life? How freely might we sow, how gracious and forgiving might we be, how courageous and risk taking might we become, if we truly believed that to be our destiny?

This is exactly how Christ invites us to live. This is the promise of the forever Kingdom.