Thursday, June 23, 2005

I thought we lived in Eastertide...

Here's something I wrote during one of the morning worship sessions at my conference. I hope it makes sense. I was typing on my lap in a pew. Still, pretty heady stuff for 8 am, if I do say so myself.

This morning the choir sang an anthem then we sang "In Christ Alone". Both songs heavily emphasized the death of Christ, especially his blood (that covers me). And I began to wonder if it was still Holy Week and I'd missed something. I was thinking about when my church would sing these songs, and I think it would primarily be on Good Friday. Maybe once in a while other times (though certainly not during feast seasons), but there would probably not be two songs in a row that would be entirely about the death of Christ.

I've read that the Protestant church is stuck in Good Friday and rarely makes it to Easter. Or at least, Easter is acknowledged but the life after Easter, the eternal life, is not really enjoyed or celebrated.

I believe that Christ's death is important to the Christian faith - but is it absolutely the central event? Or is Christ's life? Or is the incarnation itself - the death of God is certainly impressive, but the fact of God becoming human may have been even more a "crisis in the life of God", as Jack Miles puts it.

I don't know. I am receding from a sotierology that is so focused on death and pain. Somehow I find that not fitting to the character of God - particularly this idea that God somehow demanded the death of God's son. Or at least, that the death had to be so violent and painful. Could Jesus have died of old age and accomplished the same? Or better yet, could Jesus simply never have died, accomplishing the defeat of death?

Yet Jesus changed upon his resurrection into whatever this new form he is in now is. A form that some believe we will one day take on. Or will we remain in our normal bodies? As a child, I simply wanted to be able to fly, or play on clouds, or walk through walls. I thought the new body sounded fun. But I didn't think much about any deeper implications.

Do we stand at the foot of the cross perpetually? Must we forever proclaim the death of Christ? Or should we proclaim the life, or resurrection, of Christ? Or, should we be proclaiming the life we live now - the union with God,the communion with the Divine, which we are offered through apprenticeship to Christ?

What is salvation? My husband said once that it is the opportunity to live a life infused with the life of God. To join God's plan - already going on fine without you, mind. To quote a very popular, mostly incoherent book, "it's not about you." So salvation may not be about Jesus dying just for my sins or your sins. That might be just a mite too focused on us.

I don't know why I retract, and even feel angry, when the focus is so strongly on the death and suffering of Christ. I guess that just feels like an ugly religion. A religion focused on someone's death! And not just anyone, but the person we worship! Sounds a little nuts.

The focus is, yes, on the resurrection...but it's also on the incarnation. And the miraculous plan and actions of God throughout the First Testament. And the final victory proclaimed in Revelation. And the working out of Christian faith in everyday life as in the epistles. And dare I suggest the ongoing work of God for the last 2000 years - the continuing evolution of God's plan, of the Christian faith. There is so much more to our story than Jesus' death.

The death songs led to a song about being called. The death is supposed to be what makes us want to be called, to follow. I've never personally found death all that inspiring. I think it's a bad thing. I've had a lot of death in my life - particularly young people, and many members of my family - and it's really just not usually very pretty.

The death. Then the guilt. Then the call and perhaps the life. One song even said that "no guilt" was part of God's life in us. I believe with all my heart that is true. Yet in so many of our churches we behave as if the guilt is so necessary! For salvation (must recognize we are sinners and repent), for coming to the Lord's table (don't come unless you've made peace with your brother!), for keeping us "straight" in every day life (the guilt associated with any minor infraction).

I am so surprised and dismayed by the many Christians I know - some that I am very close to and love dearly - who are completely focused on their sinfulness. They cannot see themselves living as saints. And I would say they are not living the full life of God. Are they even living, truly, as Christians?

Christianity is a funny business. I think it is a lot more positive than we give it credit for. I think it's focused on very different things than we think. Let us enter the life of God - with fear, of course, but also not. Let us experience our life in God as a blessing. With thankfulness, of course - but also with confidence. It is God's good pleasure to love us and live with us forever. We need only accept.


kate said...

Let me begin by saying that I've been listening to my itunes on "shuffle" and, coincidentally, it played Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" while I read your post, and it make for quite an aesthetic experience.

I share your frustration with protestantism's focus on the death of Christ...though I have found it to be not just that but more self-centered, as in, "Christ died for ME ME ME" (as in many popular praise songs, as you well know). I sometimes wonder of the focus is on ME even more than the suffering of Christ, which is even worse I think!

Thank you, as always, for your thoughts-

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Interesting points. As a Protestant (Presbyterian, in fact), I hold some (but not all) of the view attributed to Protestants here. We do rather emphasize Christ's death, although I personally feel that we give more focus on the resurrection that is attributed here. Maybe I'm not all that representative, though.

A couple of comments:
You ask "Or better yet, could Jesus simply never have died, accomplishing the defeat of death?" I wonder if, as we affirm Jesus's full humanity, if we do not require that Jesus must die at some time. Perhaps at old age, as you suggest in this same paragraph. But it seems to me that if Jesus does not die at some point, he is not fully sharing with us what it means to be human.

Oddly enough, I also think some of our praise songs sound a bit too "happy" about death. Even if we emphasize the necessity of Christ's death (as many Protestants, including myself, do), death is not "happy." Death is bad. If we go further to assume Christ's death as substitutionary atonement (the position of many Protestants), it is the very fact that death is bad that makes it up to the task of being atonement for the sins of humanity. We may rejoice that Christ might die for us, but death is still not a good thing.

You rightly criticize songs which emphasize the first person. Protestant churches (perhaps others, but I can't speak for them so well) tend to emphasize the personal far too much, and often ignore the corporate (the "body of Christ" if you will) altogether. This is something we would do well to change. I've often heard it said that "if I was the only person in the world that needed Christ to die for my sins, he'd have done it anyway." This certainly makes Christ noble, but I can't help but wonder if that's really the case, if only for the reason that, if I was the only person that needed Christ to die for me, it's clear that everyone else was able to be saved by some other means. So why should I not be saved by that means instead?

Thanks for thinking about these issues. Definitely food for my own thought.

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog--you've stimulated me to write my first blog response ever! I agree substantially with what you've said. Let me add a thought on why death is so central to following Christ as I understand it.

In one sense the crucifixion was not a unique, one-time event. Historically, it certainly was. But at the heart of the crucifixion is God's self-sacrificing character. The Father giving up his only begotten son, and Jesus laying down his own life willingly, were acts of the greatest love possible. This love characterizes every action of God--to the degree that (it seems to me) the three persons of the Trinity are constantly pouring themselves out for one another as well as for the world.

In that regard I'll never get away from death, at least in this world. I hate death. I hate the cross, just like I hate the electric chair, and like I hate cleaning toilets and changing dirty diapers. But to walk as Jesus walked requires letting the Spirit transform me into the kind of person who is self-sacrificing. Or, as Lewis points out, it's better to focus on the positive and say "who is loving."

In this sense the crucifixion is the eternal reality of God and everyone in Kingdom of God. And therefore the resurrection can also be our eternal reality. For whoever would lose their life will gain it.

Stasi said...

Thank you very much, these are all such great posts!

Stasi said...

Thank you very much, these are all such great posts!