Saturday, January 31, 2015

What is the point of it all?

Somewhere in an African jungle, a fruit falls from the branch on which it grew. It took an entire year for it to grow, but it won't be enjoyed by anyone since a rhinoceros stomped on it on his way to a watering hole. At that watering hole, a crocodile strikes and pierces the belly of a zebra, whose viscera pour out of the open wound all at once as it attempts to escape. The crocodile enjoys his meal as on the horizon, a rebel group enters into a village. They kill the adults, rape the women and girls, and take the children off--either to sex slavery or else to live as child soldiers.

The history of the world we live in is composed of seemingly directionless, purposeless -- and worse, tragic -- stories such as this one. There is suffering, pain, moral and natural evil. People are evil to one another and to themselves. What is the point of it all? Is anyone in charge? Is there any resolution to it all? Can there be any hope for a brighter future when in many places the horrific is banal and commonplace?

The apostles and disciples of Jesus of Nazareth offer an answer to this question: it's all about Jesus Christ. We find some elements of their answer to this question in the Christ hymn found at Col 1.15-20, which may have been a part of the liturgy of the early church.

This Christ hymn has two major sections or themes. We might call them "Christ the Creator" and "Christ the Redeemer."

The first point made is that Christ is the creator of the world we live in. Paul writes that Christ is before all things, and that all things were created through him and for him (vv. 17, 16). This man who walked about, got hungry, got thirsty, and suffered in his body is one and the same God who brought the entire universe into existence for his good purpose. He is not a mere man, he is not a mere emanation from the divine, but is the God of Israel, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The world comes from his creative activity, and further, it exists for him. It finds its goal in him. This world, chaotic and purposeless as it seems, is actually the product of an infinite intelligence and has a purpose and goal which is given it by its creator.

This has a few consequences for us who are Christians. In the first place, if all things were created for Christ, then the purpose for our existence is realized when we come together as a body and worship this Christ, bring our prayers and petitions to him, call upon him to have mercy -- in short, when our lives are oriented toward him -- the purpose for our existence is being realized. In this small corner of the world where we are gathered, things are as they should be. Things are as God wants them to be and wanted them to be from eternity.

Beyond that, it has consequences for the way we treat each other. In a world where nothing seems certain and might makes right, it may be extremely tempting to try to take advantage of others for our own profit. We treat them as worth less than we are, because we have to look out for Number One. We treat them as means to be used for our own ends, with no regard for their own dignity and rights. But if everyone has been created for Christ, then we cannot treat them as if they are our own property. They belong to Christ, the king of all, and we will have to answer for the way we treat them!

But how are we supposed to treat others? We have to look to Christ. The Christ hymn calls him the image of the invisible God and the firstborn of all creation (v. 15). What this means is that Christ is the perfected human; he is a human person whose nature has been perfected and completed. He does what humankind was intended to do from the start, when God made them in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-7). Humans were supposed to be moving, living icons of God on the earth, representing his love and goodness to one another and to the creation. They failed, but God saw fit to restore humanity to its intended state. As Athanasius says, just as a person whose portrait was marred would sit down once more and act as model so it could be restored, the Logos of God -- the model for humanity -- takes on a human nature and recreates his image and likeness within human nature by himself. He treats his human nature as a statue to be sculpted in his own likeness as God.

There is yet another consequence of this truth that all things are created for Christ. Oftentimes at Christmas I would hear the pastor say that Christ is God's Christmas gift to the world. But if all things are created for Christ, then we could say that all things -- including me, including you -- are the Father's gift to the Son. We were created for Christ, we are the Father's gifts to the Son, and the Son is glad to receive us! In Hebrews Christ says: Here am I and the children whom God has given me (Heb 3.8). As our children are a blessing from God, so also we are the blessing and gift which the Father gives the Son. So we ought to think of ourselves accordingly! Think of yourself as eminently worthy, eminently valuable, so valuable that the Son of God, when he saw you erring and wandering, went after you and secured your life through his death on the cross. We are the Father's gift to the Son; let us think of ourselves in this way, and present ourselves to Christ daily as gifts worthy of our recipient.

Now as Athanasius says, it would be beneath God, as good creator, to allow his creation to be destroyed and come undone. It would be unworthy of his goodness. So when he sees that the world has gone to hell, he decides not to leave it there but acts decisively in Jesus Christ to save it.

God's benevolence for the world is demonstrated in a number of ways. In the first place, we see that all things hold together in him (v. 17). Apart from Christ's conserving activity, the world would go out of existence -- poof! -- in an instant. If God were weary of us, if he tired of us and all of our sins and evil, he could have been rid of us very long ago. Yet he doesn't do this, but instead preserves us and preserves the regularity and order of this world so that we can continue to live in it. This is a sign, a very important one, that God intends better things for us than the world as we currently experience it.

But more plainly, God has acted in Christ to work peace and reconciliation. Through the blood shed on the cross, the lofty and exalted Christ who created the world now suffers the death and doom to which it had been condemned. He suffers this death in our place, so that it doesn't fall upon us. He allowed that his head be beaten with reeds, reeds which grew because of his sustaining activity; he allowed his hands to be pierced with nails, nails forged because he sustained the laws of physics by which they could be melted and formed. He allowed his world to turn against him and undo him, so that he could take upon himself the death to which it had been condemned.

And more than that, Christ is the firstborn from the dead. He is the first to rise from the dead, and as Calvin says, he represents a kind of guarantee of the new world. The resurrection of Christ is the beginning of the renewal of God's creation. After crucifixion comes resurrection; after destruction comes restoration; after what seemed to be a perpetual night comes the light of a new and lasting day.

These are the two lenses through which we ought to see the world. Where we see pain, suffering, pointless violence, meaningless toil and travail, we are witnessing a recreation of the crucifixion scene; we see God's judgment upon a world gone awry. But we know something that the original witnesses of the crucifixion did not know: we know that after crucifixion comes resurrection. Because of this, we can live in the world in hope and faith in a perfect future. We know that the Christ who made the world cared enough for its well-being that he was willing to die for us, that we might live for him. We can face the future with trust and hope, because as St. Isaac the Syrian has said, the same Christ who bled for us takes care to see that our salvation is perfected. We know the end to the story -- we know where everything is headed.