Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Embrace

You never know which moments, words or events will be important to people. A man buys flowers for his wife, for which she is thankful, but she remembers the smile on his face, and the fact that his shoes were untied. A child on a vacation to the Grand Canyon remembers the laughter of the family at 3 am on the way back. History is even more unpredictable. What moments, what events, what words matter in the long run? Who can know? Only time will tell. While our beloved media tries with all of its cunning to make certain moments weighty, there is something real that is larger than all of us, and somehow we know it when we hear or see it, and when we don’t.

While I would not claim to be a prophet, I would hazard a guess as to one of the great moments in our time—at least for the Western world. I have heard recordings of President Roosevelt’s address after Pearl Harbor, and President Kennedy’s famous speech as well. And I have listened to Martin Luther King’s freedom address, and watched in serious respect when Barak Obama spoke in the aftermath of Rev. Wright’s publicized diatribes, and recently I watched Sarah Palin’s amazing speech at the Republican convention, yet for my money the most important moment in the West in the last one hundred years was when a fictitious broken-hearted, angry, and cynical white man named Mackenzie met God face to face. And God—appearing as large black woman— ran to embrace him, lifting him in an eternal hug (See William P. Young’s, The Shack). That moment spoke and speaks volumes, and it speaks to places in our souls that we would rather pretend do not even exists. It is way to scary to let ourselves believe that God could be so good. So we settle. We just don’t have a theology to go with our heart’s knowledge.

Mackenzie’s daughter had been kidnapped and brutally murdered, and he had grieved his heart out. Blaming himself—and God—he lost life. Then he got a note from God to meet at the shack where his daughter had been killed. At length, and with not a little hesitation, he set out for the shack. With doubts whirling, he opened the door. The shack was a bleak as his absent god. The years of hurt proved their point. Mack left convinced that his absent, judgmental god was real. But something happened on his way back to his truck. To his shock, life blossomed. Amazed, he walked back to the shack and stood on the porch. Not knowing what to do…

Mack decided to bang loudly and see what happened, but just as he raised his fist to do so, the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman.

Instinctively he jumped back, but he was too slow. With speed that belied her size, she crossed the distance between them and engulfed him in her arms, lifting him clear off his feet and spinning him around like a child. And all the while she was shouting his name—“Mackenzie Allen Phillips”—with the ardor of someone seeing a long-lost and deeply-loved relative. She finally put him back on earth, and with her hands on his shoulders, pushed him back as if to get a good look at him.

“Mack, look at you!” she fairly exploded. “Here you are, and so grown up. I have really been looking forward to seeing you face to face. It is so wonderful to have you here with us. My, my, my how I do love you!” And with that she wrapped herself around him again (William P. Young, The Shack, pp. 82-83).

“My, my, my how I do love you!” Who doesn’t want God to be this way? Who doesn’t want to be so loved and embraced, so cared for and cherished? Yet who dares risk hoping in such in such a God, and in such love? So we settle, believing in the god of our broken imaginations, the faceless, nameless, judgmental, omni-being watching us from a distance. For the one thing we all know for sure is that we are unworthy.

Yet, nevertheless, somehow we know that the God Mackenzie met is the utter truth.

The one who bore our bitter scorn—suffering our abuse to meet us and to embrace us as we are—is the revelation of the Father confronting the god’s of our broken imaginations. Jesus says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

“And with that she wrapped herself around him again.”

It is okay to believe in Jesus' Papa.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Wonderful Exchange

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2Corinthians 8:9).

This short verse from the apostle Paul takes us out a merely forensic or legal view of Jesus’ coming and gives us a much richer and far more profound vision. Here, as throughout the early Church, the coming of Jesus is not merely about the taking away of our sin, but about the staggering life that he brings to us, the very life that he himself enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Cleansing is certainly critical, but the taking away of our sin is unto a greater purpose, the sharing of his life. Jesus is, as the Baptist said, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And he is also the one “who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” The saving work of Jesus, in the New Testament’s vision, always involves both dimensions. As John McLeod Campbell argued, there is both a retrospective and a prospective dimension to salvation in Christ. There is the removal, the cleansing, the taking away of sin, and there is the giving or sharing of life.

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons”(Galatians 4:4).

In the West we have been so thoroughly preoccupied with the retrospective dimension of Christ’s work (redeeming us from the law, taking away our sin, justification) that we have almost forgotten the prospective dimension (baptism in the Spirit, adoption, union, the sharing of life). Hence there are thousands of books on justification and only a handful on adoption, even though our adoption stands as the driving reason, indeed as the eternal reason, for Jesus’ coming (See Ephesians 1:5).

My point is not to denigrate the work of our Lord in taking away our sin—such a work is fundamental—but to bring us back to the early Church’s vision that Jesus both takes away our sin and shares himself and his own life with us. The great early Church father, St. Irenaeus, put it this way, “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Against Heresies, V, preface).

Note John Calvin here as well:

This is the wonderful exchange (mirifica commutatio) which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness (Institutes, IV.17.2).

And James B. Torrance:

The prime purpose of the incarnation, in the love of God, is to lift us up into a life of communion, of participation in the very triune life of God (Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, p. 21).

In Paul and Irenaeus from the early Church, Calvin and Torrance from more modern times, we see that salvation in Christ is about a wonderful exchange involving not merely legal standing, but life itself. For Paul, the One who was rich before all worlds became poor in order to take away our poverty and give us his own wealth. For Irenaeus, the Son of God became what we are to bring us to be what he is in himself. For Calvin, the Son of God became one with us to make us sons and daughters with himself, and to share with us his own immortality, strength, wealth and righteousness. For Torrance, the Father's Son became incarnate to give us a share in the very triune life of God.

For all four, not to mention the apostle John, Karl Barth and many others, the incarnation was not a mere prerequisite for a spotless sacrifice on the cross, but the way of union between all that God is as Father, Son and Spirit, and all that we are in broken human existence. Without the cross and Christ’s death on it there could be no such union, and talk of the incarnation would be a farce, but the death of Christ serves the larger purpose of the wonderful exchange of Christ taking all that is ours and giving us a real share in all that is his.

In a variation on Paul’s great statement, “For you know the stunning grace of the Father’s Son that though he was rich in the shared life of the blessed Trinity, yet for our sake he became poor, suffering our wrath to meet us, and now through his suffering we who were so poor have been included in Jesus’ own rich relationship with his Father and Spirit.”

As Professor Torrance insisted, the Christian life is about participation, about our personal participation or sharing in the very life of Jesus himself, and thus in his life and relationship with his Father, and in his relationship with the Holy Spirit, and indeed in his relationship with all creation.

May the Holy Spirit quicken us with hope that such a vision could be true, and may the Spirit of adoption give us the faith that yearns to know and experience Christ’s life within us, until the life of the blessed Trinity—shared with us all in Jesus—comes to full and abiding and personal expression in all the earth.