One of my interests over the last few years is discovering alternative conceptions of what it is God has done among us in bringing salvation. Unfortunately for many this is a zero sum conversation. Emphasize one bit and they think you are denying the other bits. And deny those other bits you’re labeled a heretic.
The reality of God’s work among us is that God is really, really, really more than any of us can conceive. His work is not fully grasped in the collected statements of old dusty books. His work is approachable only by the collection of generations of work. He does a work then gives folks a millennium or three to ponder what it was he did. They finally get to figuring it out and he does something new. Three seconds isn’t very long after all. Along with this he’s always doing smaller things, which could be huge things, only we don’t know because we lack perspective, and so something always may or may not be actually extremely important and may or may not have to be factored into our various lists, categories, subjects and sermons.
What really was the big deal about yet another baby being born in a Jerusalem suburb? Who cares if the carpenter’s son feels like preaching by the lake? We’ve work to do!
That makes the whole business of theology a bit exhausting. Which is why people like to have lists that can’t be changed except by massive committees and only after 500 years of conversation by which time God has moved on and is about yet different things. Other people throw up their hands and become agnostics, either practically or publicly.
I, however, being an intrepid explorer of the theological realms, going everywhere by going nowhere, feel a curious interest in discovering that which is beyond the lists, outside the categories, written up in volumes not imagined in our local Christian book store, and compiled by people with ludicrous accents and/or worship practices. Yet since we all point the same direction– from Spirit, to Christ, to the Father upwards into heaven — I figure it’s a good thing to see God from alternative views.
For I think we are moving past the time in which guilt is the primary motivation for conversion. It gets difficult when one first has to convince a person they should feel guilty, then get mad at them they don’t feel guilty, and accuse them of grievous sins in their lack of feeling guilt. The Gospel message becomes telling people how bad they are and what they are doing is really foolish, hoping by these hooks to get folks into church so they can learn more.
Some people really like this, of course, which is why churches have become such havens for psychological analysis, filled with touchy-feely sorts of men and the women who almost love them.
Guilt and incompleteness can certainly be great motivators to discover the fullness of Christ. Only when that’s all there is, and a lack of feeling guilt and incompleteness become actual barriers to participation, then there’s a distorted work going on.
Why am I a Christian? Two reasons. The first is that I genuinely believe Jesus was who he said he was and thus is who he says he is. That’s the essential question all are faced with, and just as in his very own era there’s no amount of learning or knowledge or training which can give someone anything other than the choice. He revealed himself so as to leave the choice for us to make.
The second reason is that I want something more from my reality. Having agreed Jesus is who he says he is I want to press on in understanding, not so that I can get over the traumas of some supposed early childhood slight, but so that I can embrace the fullness of God’s original creation, discovering if only in part the likeness of the divine in my own existence.
I have been forgiven. Fine. Dwelling on that fact is drinking only milk. There’s something more to this life than constant angst-filled “am I saved?” forgiveness quests.
There’s also angst-filled “is this all there is?” quests. The underlying factor, I think, for much of obsession over forgiveness is the quite unacceptable expectation that God does nothing else other than forgive. If his business is the forgiveness business then the way to stay in contact with him is to be constantly guilty or soul sick. That way the divine doctor can always swoop in for a new dose of eternal boosters. Which is why our churches are filled with many spiritual hypochondriacs, and why many preachers never really get beyond always refilling the same prescriptions.
But, as the writer to the Hebrews notes, this isn’t a good thing, even it’s the regular thing. “Let’s go onto perfection,” he writes. This is a journey for those past the basic things, and the assumption is that this is indeed a journey all Christians should make, if they are mature.
Only the quest for perfection is fraught with all manner of problems, which makes the discussions about constant forgiveness safer and more comforting. Because even if we don’t obsess over our guilt we are not yet perfect beings. We falter, and we fail, and we stumble and we lose heart. We see the world around us and the world in us and the world upon us all of which gets us discouraged.
We are forgiven, that is the basics of the faith. But we are not yet perfect. That is the call of the faith and it is a call we are not capable of achieving. In our discouragement we falter and stop. We stand in one place, unable to go forward, unwilling to go backwards, staying with Jesus like the disciples not because they are excited about the hard teaching but because, as they say it, “Where else will we go Lord?”
Onwards and upwards, of course, is the answer, only this answer is troublesome by those of us who feel we’ve gotten to the top of one hill and can’t quite see the path forward.
“Follow me,” Jesus says. “Follow him,” Paul reminds us. “They’re both right,” preachers from the last 20 centuries encourage us.
“I can’t,” I sometimes say. “I can’t and unless I can Jesus is done with me.”
This is the same sort of response as one makes back at the forgiveness station, only there’s not a lot on how to progress once along the more distant trails of Christian maturity, so we look around for guidance and feel very alone, feeling in fact that even though we’ve gotten this far, well, this time Jesus really is done with us and since we’re forgiven it’s not all that bad right here. There are birds, and little trees, and a thick chaparral bush I can climb under when it gets to be night or if it rains.
However, our being stuck is not a good testimony. What do we say to people in such a place?
“I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago. I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Ps. 77:1-9)
That’s not very evangelical really. Come, be a Christian. Get stuck.
Only that’s the reality for so many who have progressed a certain way along the road to perfection. We get stuck. We make decisions that seem to be for God, only at the point we realize there’s no return we look around and God seems more distant than ever. We pursue God and while at first he pursues us too, there’s a certain point he seems to be running away. We’re left in the lurch. So it seems at least. The problem with seeming such is such a seeming can be extremely deep and real. We look around at our lives and see palpable disasters, or problems which came because, not in spite of, our choosing the Godward direction.
“Why have you rejected us forever, O God?” the psalmist asks. “Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?”
Maybe it is the end of this Psalm that gets my mind moving when I read this passage from theologian Jürgen Moltmann about Christ and Spirit:
“How does the Spirit experience Jesus’ living and dying? This question is seldom asked. But if we remember Israel’s concept of the Shekinah, we can say that if the Spirit ‘leads’ Jesus, then the Spirit accompanies him as well. And if the Spirit accompanies him, then it is drawn into his sufferings, and becomes his companion in suffering. The path the Son takes in his passion is then at the same time the path taken by the Spirit, whose strength will be proved in Jesus’ weakness. The Spirit is the transcendent side of Jesus’ immanent way of suffering. So the ‘condescendence‘ of the Spirit leads to the progressive kenosis of the Spirit, together with Jesus.
“Although the Spirit fills Jesus with the divine, living energies through which the sick are healed, it does not turn him into a superman. It participates in his human suffering to the point of his death on the cross. According to Matt. 8:17, Jesus does not heal the sick through his supreme power. He heals them through his atoning representation. ‘He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isa. 53:4). Through the Shekinah, the Spirit binds itself to Jesus’ fate, though without becoming identical with him. In this way the Spirit of God becomes definitively the Spirit of Christ, so that from that point onwards it can be called by and involked in Christ’s name.”
He continues a little bit later by saying:
“The value of the sacrifice does not depend solely on the one surrendered. It has to do with the mode of the surrender too. And in this happening Christ is determined through the eternal Spirit. The Spirit is not something he possesses. It is the power that makes him ready to surrender his life, and which itself sustains this surrender. According to Heb. 7:16 it is ‘the power of indestructible life’.
“It is not the Romans who are the real controlling agents in Christ’s passion and death, and not even death itself. It is Christ himself who is the truly active one, through the operation of the divine Spirit who acts in him. In ‘the theology of surrender’, Christ is made the determining subject of his suffering and death through the Spirit of God.”
There is a lot to this, to be sure, but what sticks out to me comes from the idea that on Pentecost the Spirit, this same Spirit as discussed above, has filled all those in the Church. All those who confess Christ confess the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit of God. In this confession the Spirit of God fills us even as the Spirit filled Christ, with the same cause and work.
So, does this mean that even as the Spirit bound itself to Jesus’ fate, the Spirit now is bound to our fate? Our confession of Christ as Lord suggests this is the case, for our fate is not only our fate now, but reflects upon the God who we call. Our fate reflects on the God who can save and does save, and reflects on his ability to save. Our sins, our failings, our enemies and distractions seek our chaotic destruction. Who do we cry to? Who is bound to us telling us we have been filled with that which has conquered even death?
With the Spirit’s indwelling our fate is not our fate alone. We have been raised with Christ and our life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, appears, we also will appear with him in glory. Our fates are bound with Christ’s fate, our lives are bound with God’s life, our hope is entirely reflective of God’s promise.
When we leap into the river of God’s divine guidance we leap into raging rapids. We leap in knowing there is uncertainty but knowing it is the progress which is uncertain, not the destination. We know this because this water, this raging wild water, is the Spirit who leads us and rescues us and delivers us not only for our sake but because it is the Spirit’s mission to bring all things into community with the Triune God, forsaking none, leaving behind none, searching after those who lose their way.
We are bound to the Spirit, and our fate is the Spirit’s fate. We know the Spirit only has one fate, which is to be in full relationship with Son and Father. Our present circumstances, dire as they may be, do not overwhelm the Spirit’s mission. For we can say with the psalmist (Ps. 74), “How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Rise up O God, and defend your cause.”
The Spirit has made us the cause of God. Our fate is bound to the fate of the Spirit, who lifts us higher, even and especially from those points that seem to have no way forward. For it is here that we realize our fates are not advanced by our own efforts but by our identification with Christ. It is here we come to the end of our roads and the beginning of the royal road.
Since then, as Paul writes to the Colossians, we have been raised with Christ, let’s set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. For our victory is not in what we have been saved from, but what we are being brought into. That is the fate of the Spirit, that is our fate now that we have been bound with the Spirit. Our present circumstances may speak differently, but our present is not our fate, or the end.
We rise, bound with the Spirit, and the Spirit rises always to God, even if sometimes the rising pulls us through brambles and branches, lightning or rain. Our end is always and will always be God because that’s just how the Spirit does things. It is in and through all of these things that we are determined.