Sunday, March 27, 2016

Resurrection means righteousness is worth it

Conditions in this world are not favorable for righteous living. To many people, it is obvious that survival means survival of the fittest: if you're going to make it, you have to be the most adaptable, the strongest, the most willing to sacrifice principle and morality in order to get ahead. Others won't go so far as that, at least not until circumstances really constrain them to choose between survival and "the right thing to do," but lots of people will just the same consider the costs of righteousness too high. For example, Jesus tells us that righteousness means turning the other cheek, rather than retaliating. That, for so many persons, is just too high a price to pay: after all, my dignity, respect, esteem, and public standing are at stake! How can I let someone just walk all over me?

I want us to consider this one lesson which we learn from the resurrection of Christ: resurrection proves that righteousness is worth it; it's worth living in keeping with God's commandments, because the righteous are resurrected to life. Consider what Paul wrote to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
who, though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with Gd
  as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a  slave,
  being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
  he humbled himself 
  and became obedient to the point of death --
  even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted
  and gave him the name
  that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
  every knee should bend,
  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
  that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:5-11).

Notice the order: first came the lowliness and humility of Jesus, obedience all the way to the point of death on a cross; then came the resurrection to glory, and the exaltation of Christ above everyone and everything else. If per impossibile Christ had attempted to exalt himself, he would have been brought low, because that is the order that God has established: the first will be last, and the last will be first. Yet no one can look at what happened to Christ, his crucifixion notwithstanding, and judge that righteousness is not worth it! Indeed, to suppose that righteousness is not worth it is to malign the goodness and justice of God, because he demands righteousness and promises to repay everyone according to their deeds.

Now what is the righteousness of Christ? We might say that it is his emptiness: as Paul says, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Christ was utterly empty of any self-will and any concern for himself which competed with the Father's will for him, namely his mission into the world to save sinners, and with his love for sinners, out of which love he is willing to welcome any who come to him: All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37). 

Joseph Ratzinger describes the understanding of Christ as "Son" in the gospel of John as follows:

The Son as Son, and insofar as he is Son, does not proceed in any way from himself and so is completely one with the Father; since he is nothing beside him, claims no special position of his own, confronts the Father with nothing belonging only to him, makes no reservations for what is specifically his own, therefore he is completely equal to the Father. The logic is compelling: If there is nothing in which he is just he, no kind of fenced-off private ground, then he coincides with the Father, is "one" with him. It is precisely this totality of interplay that the word "Son" aims at expressing. To John, "Son" means being from another; thus, with this word he defines the being of this man as being from another and for others, as a being that is completely open on both sides, knows no reserved area of the mere "I". When it thus becomes clear that the being of Jesus as Christ is a completely open being, a being "from" and "toward", which nowhere clings to itself and nowhere stands on its own, then it is also clear at the same time that this being is pure relation (not substantiality) and, as pure relation, pure unity. This fundamental statement about Christ becomes, as we have seen, at the same time the explanation of Christian experience. To John, being a Christian means being like the Son, becoming a son; that is, not standing on one's own and in oneself, but living completely open in the "from" and "toward". Insofar as the Christian is a "Christian", this is true of him. And certainly such utterances will make him realize to how small an extent he is a Christian (Introduction to Christianity, pp. 186-7).

Christ's existence, therefore, is defined as this two-way openness. On the side of God, Christ is utterly open in perfect obedience to whatever the Father sends him to do. He came to earth in order to do the will of his Father, and repeatedly throughout John's gospel, for example, we find statements such as these: The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works (John 14:10). And elsewhere he says that My food is to do the will of him him who sent me and to complete his work (4:34). Paul says to the Philippians that Christ became a slave, and became utterly obedient in everything, even to the point of death.

But Christ's life is open on the side of humanity, too, for Christ underwent death not for its own sake but rather for our sake: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15:3). Christ's emptiness consists likewise in his utter openness to every human person, his willingness to go to extreme limits in order to bring salvation to a wayward creation. Indeed, on the week of his death, Christ said: Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say -- 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour (John 12:27). Christ's concern for the salvation of the world so utterly characterized his whole life, that his disciples began to speak of him like this: he is the atoning sacrifices for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Not Christ's death in isolation from his life, but Christ himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. This is the identity and life and definition and essence of Christ: making atonement for sinners, working to reconcile them to God.

This dual emptiness and openness, an openness towards the Father in perfect obedience and towards other persons in total love, is summarized succinctly by Ratzinger as follows: Christ is the man who can embrace all men because he has lost himself and them to God (Introduction to Christianity, pp. 242-3). And importantly, in this manner, Christ is offering us an example of what it means to be truly human. When Paul says that Christ became a slave, he also says that he was born in human likeness and found in human form. The suggestion is an obvious one: the proper form of the human being is one of slavery to God, that is, utter obedience and love for God and for all other human persons. Paul says that we should have the same mind which was in Christ, because Christ's mind and understanding was truly human; it exemplified perfectly what it means to be a human in the image and likeness of God.

Now this seems so far beyond all of us. How can any of us hope to accomplish this kind of perfection in obedience and love? Like Ratzinger said, if we consider these things, we will see how truly far off we are from embodying that to which a Christian is called. It may seem nigh impossible for us. But Christ gives us his Holy Spirit precisely to make this possible, to empower us to live in this way, if only we put forth the effort to learn from him and to imitate his example. 

But it's also possible that we might find the sacrifice too great. Christ, according to Paul and Ratzinger, emptied himself utterly; he did not have any closed-off "I" in his heart, a space occupied by him alone and which placed a border on the claims that obedience to God and love for others could put on him. No, no such thing existed in Christ. But we love ourselves too much, and we are too much characterized by selfish will to look upon such a thing lightly. Can it be worth it utterly to abandon any concern for myself as an atomic individual and to live solely in obedience to God and love for others? Can I find my life by losing it? 

Christ's resurrection teaches us that it is worth it; it is not throwing yourself headlong into the void. To empty yourself utterly means profound sacrifice and willingness to die. But God does not abandon any such persons as obey his will, but rather is there with them. They are always with God, and so their life continues forever. He raises them from the dead to glory, and they will be with him forever and ever. Christians look upon Christ's resurrection and see that death poses no obstacle for them; as Athanasius said, they trample  upon death as something dead. Death poses no obstacle because righteousness has the final word in God's world.

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