Saturday, November 28, 2015

Christmas is the purpose of the universe

Paul tells us about Jesus Christ, the incarnate Godman, that all things have been created through him and for him (Col 1.16). Therefore, the moment when Christ comes into the world is the culmination of the history of the created order. Now, the proper inheritor and owner of all things has arrived, the true King of kings, to receive what is rightly his.

At the scene of his birth, the ox and the ass look upon him. They recognize their master (Is 1.3). The angels sing, because God has declared peace on earth on the people whom he favors. The blessed virgin mother looks upon her only child with wonder and mystery, amazed that she should have been chosen by God for such an incomprehensible honor. Shepherds bring the message of the angels to Joseph and Mary, telling them the celestial announcement that their son was the Messiah. After some time, magicians from far away lands recognized the significance of the event and came bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

But he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (John 1.11). Although he could say, The whole earth is mine (Exod 19.5), yet the very persons for whom he came did not recognize him. And likewise for us, living in the 21st century: Christ comes to us in different forms and we don't recognize him.

How do we prepare ourselves for this moment? Everything, myself and yourself included, was created for this moment: the arrival of Christ on Earth. How will I present myself before him? Are my clothes sullied? Do I love him, or do I fear him? I have to offer myself regardless; let me at least be the sort of gift he would be glad to receive. Just as Gregory of Nazianzus saidChrist is born; glorify him. Christ is from heaven; go and meet him. Christ is on earth; be exalted. O All the earth, sing unto the Lord.

And Christ in turn is happy to receive us. He says: Here am I, and the children whom God has given me! (Heb 2.13). In his goodness and unsurpassed mercy, Christ receives all who believe in him, granting them the power to become children of God in spite of their prior sinfulness (John 1.12), and he will never turn away any who come to him (John 6.37). So in the light of all this: Christ is born; glorify him! Christ is from heaven; go and meet him!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Do not love the world: a meditation on Christian identity

John writes: Do not love the world (1 John 2.15). What could this mean?

It seems obvious enough to me that "world" in this context doesn't refer to all human persons, or all human persons outside of the Church. That's not what he means, because the command not to love those persons doesn't make any sense. Christ offered himself on behalf the whole world in that sense (1 John 2.2), and Paul and John both make clear that God doesn't wait for a person to become a Christian in order to love them; rather he loves them even as they are still sinners (Rom 5.8; 1 John 4.10). Insofar as Christian ethics means assuming and developing a character in likeness to God's (Eph 4.22-4; Col 3.9-10), John cannot be suggesting that we ought not love people who are not Christians.

Likewise, John tells us that the commandment of God is this: that we should believe in his Son Jesus, and that we should love each other (1 John 3.23). Now it is obvious that the command to believe is given to a person who doesn't already believe. This means that the command to love one another is aimed at the whole world, at all persons, and not just as Christians. Christians have the obligation to love other Christians but also all people.

On the contrary, it seems to me that "world" in this sense refers to the culture and lifestyles and society of persons who live in sin. It doesn't refer to the persons themselves, but rather to the way that they live and the system in which they live, which is informed by sin and not by the truth of Christ. All of this is not to be loved, but the persons themselves are to be loved.

This introduces an interesting problem: how do you love the person, but not the lifestyle that they live, and the culture with which they identify? This is brought up in discussions regarding sexual ethics and gay marriage. How can you claim to love a gay person, and yet not to approve of their gay marriage, which is a fundamental component of the way they identify themselves?

Of course, we have the obvious counterexample: God loves us while we were still sinners, but he did not approve of or appreciate the things we did in our sinfulness, even if we identified with it. God loved Paul, but God could hardly have appreciated or approved of Paul's murderous zeal against Christians. Rather, it seems to me that the Bible teaches a different conception of identity than we are used to. Our identity is not something we create entirely ex nihilo, as if we start out blank slates. It must be that I am something beyond and prior to the life I decide for myself, the way I determine to live and the things I like to do and identify with.

What might this prior identity be? The obvious answer is drawn from the creation narrative in Genesis: the image and likeness of God (Gen 1.26-7). This is the true identity of the human person; this is what it truly means to be me, or you, or anyone else. Of course, in light of human sin, this identity is lost and we are convinced that actually we are something else. We construct various identities for ourselves, but inasmuch as these are not the image and likeness of God, they are a false identity. Rather, the true identity of the human person is demonstrated in Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1.15). Christ shows us what humanity truly is, and who we truly are.

Being a Christian means being like Christ (1 John 2.6). In light of the discussion above, we can say that being a Christian means discovering your true identity in Jesus Christ: he shows you who you truly are, beneath the cluttered surface that you might have constructed over time. What a human person truly is, Christ demonstrates: son of God, loving, benevolent, kind, good, righteous, fair, just, and so on. Everything is a false self that suppresses the image of God implicit in everyone.

Seiichi Yagi, in The Bible in a World Context, ed. Walter Dietrich & Ulrich Luz (Eerdmans, 2002), discusses the Christian philosophy of Katsumi Takizawa:

His basic thesis was: No matter what one is or is not, and unaffected by whether one has a religion, and which religion, one has an underlying foundation as the basis of being oneself. This is the primordial fact of "Immanuel," that is, "God with us." This primordial fact states that humanity is in God. Takizawa also called this primordial fact "unity of God and humanity" or "Christ." Not every human being is aware of this primordial fact. Only when one is awakened to it does a conscious religious life come about. Takizawa called this primordial fact "God's primary contact with humanity," and the religious life evolved by awakening to it he called "God's secondary contact with humanity" ... What is it in humanity that is awakened to it? Technically one could say: It is the human "I" that is awakened (p. 36).

We might assimilate this into the present discussion. Becoming a Christian means realizing the truth about one's status in the world; one's relation to God, who grounds our existence and keeps us in being from every passing moment; and although Takizawa would demur at this point, we can say that Jesus of Nazareth, as Christ, presents to us what it means to live in full awareness of this fact, in full awareness of the true identity of a human person.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

You have overcome the evil one

John writes to his audience and tells them some very lofty things about their current state:

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.

I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.

I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one.

I write to you, children, because you know the Father.

I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.

I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one (1 John 2.12-4).

Of course, John tells us I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin (2.1), so he must think that telling his audience all these truths about themselves must contribute in some way to their holiness and obedience to Christ. In fact, these words fit nicely with the general paradigm of obedience that John develops, which is obedience as a result of knowledge.

John is clear on numerous occasions: those who know Christ will obey him, whereas those who do not know him will demonstrate this ignorance through their hatred (e.g., 1.5-10; 2.3-6, 9-11). Obedience stems from knowledge and experience of God and Christ, rather than mere volitional compliance with some set of commands. And so it must be a part of Christian life to know these things, too, and it must be that knowing these things contributes in some way to our holiness.

And it isn't difficult to see how! Being told that we are forgiven of our sins frees us from their burden. No longer do our sins and vices characterize our identities; once they are forgiven, we are now free to be different sorts of people than we previously thought. Think of the freedom of the sinful woman from Luke 7.36-50, after being told that her sins are forgiven! No one in the world can tell her that she is good for nothing or a sinner, because the Lord himself has forgiven her and set her free from that.

Likewise, John tells the young people that they have overcome the evil one, and that they are strong. John is very optimistic about the possibility of Christian holiness, and he doesn't betray any sense that the normal Christian life is one marked by moral mediocrity and consistent shortcoming and failure. No, on the contrary: Christian life is obedience to Christ's commands, and love for our brothers and sisters!

Now I don't know how many of us can say of our own lives that John's words adequately characterize them. I don't think "You have overcome the evil one!" is always the way I feel about my own life. And yet John insists to tell me that this is true, and he is convinced that my understanding this contributes to my own holiness and obedience to God. How to understand this?

I think many Christians are like children who have been told their whole life that they are stupid or good for nothing, even though quite the opposite is true. Such a person, no matter how much potential and value others will see in him, will forever be convinced that he's not smart or that he's not capable of anything. Or consider the case of a girl who is convinced she is ugly when she's not. A whole life can be ruined and paralyzed because a person doesn't know the truth about herself!

In the same way, I take it that we ought to encourage one another with these words (1 Thess 4.18). To convince a person who's sure he's stupid that he's actually quite intelligent takes commitment and friendship and kindness. In the same way, in the context of our churches, we ought to be committed to reminding one another all the time that our lives are to be characterized like this: you are strong! the word of God abides in you! you have overcome the evil one!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Meeting a Russian orphan

Last week was my birthday, so I went to a restaurant with some friends at night. On my way out, I made acquaintance with a Russian man, about a year younger than me. He told me a bit about his life and about the difficulties of his upbringing in a Russian orphanage after his parents had abandoned him.

He told me some rather horrific stories about the way things were in the orphanage. For example, after one of the other children (9 years old at the time) had been beaten up by a gang from the city, some forty or so of the orphans got together and exacted revenge for the beating. He said that was the only time in his life he had felt sorry for someone he was fighting, as the more numerous orphans took turns kicking and stomping on the gang who had hurt their brother. On another instance, before he had been abandoned by his parents, some kids offered his younger brother some sunflower seeds if he would abuse and victimize his pet cat. Being hungry and dirt poor, his brother agreed to “kick the shit out of the cat” for some sunflower seeds.

His life was more or less a series of unfortunate and shocking events such as these, though in recent times, having been adopted here in America and having recently combated alcoholism to take control of his life anew, things are nowhere near as bad. He told me he was not religious, and I asked him why. He said there may be a God, for all he knows, but he only knows one thing for sure: he doesn’t want God to take care of him, and he doesn’t want anything to do with God. He had experienced far more bad than good in life, and he was convinced that he always had to fight to earn the right to exist. He refused to accept that God had any part in his own survival. He told me that he prays every day like this: “God, don’t look after me. Look after someone else; just leave me alone.”

It was late at night as I was speaking to him. Part of his face was in the light, and part of it was in the shadows. I thought this was interesting: he was a tremendously nice guy, and a good soul from what I could tell of him, but he had this radical opposition to God; he wanted nothing to do with God whatsoever.

What to say to a person like that? How to understand a person with more soul and kindness in his heart than many Christians I know, yet who is so attached to making it in life on his own that he would (by his own admission) sooner accept damnation than to admit his need for God and to worship him? How to convince a person like this of the goodness of God, when he has experienced no reason discernible to him to think that God is good?

It was like a conversation out of a Dostoyevsky novel. It was fascinating to speak with him and listen to him tell me his story. I am sure I will see him around again, because I frequent that restaurant. Next time I think I will ask him what he thinks of Jesus.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

People are lovable

It is fascinating that God commands us to love him and to love our neighbor as ourselves. On the one hand, love can hardly be demanded or commanded: doesn't love arise spontaneously, and isn't love a matter of free choice? Yet God commands us to love our neighbors. As I've recently commented, this shows us that we wouldn't do so otherwise. The fact that God commands us to love our neighbors speaks to our prior disposition not to love.

Yet the command reveals a further truth: that people are lovable. This may news to many of us, especially when we think of the worst of the worst with which we are familiar: ISIS decapitators, or Hitler, or psychopaths, or just the more mundanely intolerable characters we run into in our daily lives. God commands us to love these people too. Now God doesn't command what is intrinsically impossible: he doesn't command us, for example, to draw a square circle. Therefore, these individuals, as evil and as despicable as they may be, must nevertheless be lovable. There must be some good in them which we can recognize and appreciate and value.

God certainly shows us that this is how he sees things. Paul told the Roman church that God showed his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for our sins (Rom 5.8). God loves the world, and demonstrates this love for it through the self-sacrifice of his sin on the world's behalf (1 John 4.8ff.). God consequently sees something lovable and worth valuing -- indeed, something of tremendous value -- in even the worst, the chief of sinners, as Paul calls himself.

Now, if God sees something lovable about all people, it must be that people are lovable. But we don't think all people are lovable. The obvious inference to make at this juncture is that there must be something about people we don't see. John says that people who obey Christ's commandments and who love are in the light and have knowledge of the truth; those who hate, however, are in the darkness and they can't see things clearly (1 John 2.11).

If we don't love people, if we don't see people as lovable, even the worst of them, it must be because there is darkness blinding us. We don't yet see things as God sees them. If we could see things as God sees them, we would see in every person an immense treasure, worth giving one's life for. But as it is, we are in the darkness and we still only see things that repulse us, without seeing the good that makes people lovable. If the veil were removed from our eyes, perhaps we would love just as naturally and as completely as God does. The most beautiful painting in the world will not move me if I cover my eyes or place it in the dark. The light has to turn on for me to see and to love!