Thursday, April 12, 2012

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)
Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, John 20:1-18

On Good Friday I offered a meditation on one of the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' in which I shared the horrific story of Christian Choate who was kept in a dog cage and eventually beaten to death by his father. I decided to repeat the story on Easter morning to explore what hope the resurrection might shine on such a story (in retrospect the story might have been a bit harsh for Easter Sunday).

Such stories are the test of anything we say about God and faith. I agree with Karl Barth that God earns the right to be God in this world on the cross. And it does matter to me that, as Paul Claudel wrote, Jesus fills suffering with his presence. Similarly, William Temple:
The revelation of God’s dealing with human sin shows God enduring every depth of anguish for the sake of His Children. . . All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience. . . .He does not leave this world to suffer while He remains at ease apart; all suffering of the world is His. . . Only such a God can be God of the world we know.
- Christus Veritas
The Christian story of Incarnation and cross includes the promise of God’s solidarity with his creatures caught in the web of sin, brokenness, and death.

What more can we say about the good news of Jesus Christ in light of the tragic story of Christian Choate?

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.

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 and no deed – including Christian Choate's dad – that is beyond forgiveness if we are willing to turn toward God’s outstretched arms and receive it.

I suppose, in ways we do not know, 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 heard anything about Jesus, let alone enough to respond? And if he didn’t? Were those horrific thirteen years just a brief prelude to an eternity in hell?

I believe 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. So maybe more of us have 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. Good Friday and Easter Sunday 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 was 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 that it is the latter of these, it 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.

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. It is not just the memory of the Killing Fields and all the trauma, torture, and terror of human history that will be redeemed. The very reality of it will be caught up and transfigured – scars and all.

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 exist 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 him at the tomb. There she found the grave empty. Assuming 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. When the gardener speaks her name she recognizes that he is in fact Jesus who had been dead, but is now risen.

But, 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 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. 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 – 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).

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 and broken out with the promise of forgiveness, healing, and new creation. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

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Robert F said...

I think it is true that there is healing as well as forgiveness in Christ's work of atonement. But however sinned against and wounded we may be, and within God's mysterious providence, there is the necessity for repentance for salvation to be effective. It may be that we need to be healed before we can come to a place of repentance. One can also say that we may need to be wounded before we can come to a place of repentance. And repentance is not a matter of reciting a verbal formula before we die, but of turning our entire being over to Christ as our Lord and Savior. Such a work of comprehensive repentance only God can do, whether in this world or the next. May light perpetual shine upon Christian Choate.

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Robert.

I agree with you as to the importance of repentance. As I said, "There is no one and no deed - including Christian Choate's dad - that is beyond forgiveness if we are willing to turn toward God’s outstretched arms and receive it." The last part of that line is about repentance.

I am convinced that what God is about in Christ is ultimately restoration. To be sure, repentance is how we enter into that restoration.

Still, I wonder about someone like Christian Choate. What opportunity did he have to repent? What knowledge of God or the mercy of Jesus did he have?

What about people so broken that they are unable to respond to good news?

Relatedly, I wonder about people who are profoundly mentally (and/or emotionally?) disabled.
Might the restoration God is about be about more than individuals and their particular sins - and also about the healing of the whole web of human sin in which we are all caught and some profoundly damaged?

To be honest, I do not know where specific repentance comes into that. But, I am hopeful that through Christ God's mercy extends to such as those.