Thursday, July 24, 2008

Druchesis V: Crucified and Risen

As we mentioned last week, Christian faith is centered on a person, the person of Jesus. And persons can be identified by two interconnected ways: by their relations and by their narrative. Last week we focused primarily on identifying Jesus within the context of his relations: he is Israel's Christ, God's only Son, and our Lord. We also considered the first episode in Jesus' narrative and the corresponding claim that he is fully God and fully human. This week we turn our attention fully to Jesus' narrative. In so doing, we are both filling out our understanding of his identity begun last week and bringing into focus a new topic: his saving significance. In many traditional discussions of Jesus, these two topics are variously divided under the headings "person" and "work" of Christ or "Christology" and "Soteriology." Such a distinction has a measure of heuristic value, but it is ultimately misleading because it so easily separates the identity and significance of Jesus. But these cannot be separated, for Jesus' significance for us consists precisely in his identification with us in the depths of our suffering and sin. Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us. Such a statement is an indication of both his identity and his saving significance. So, as we attend to the plot of his story and its significance for us, let's not leave behind reflection on his identity as though it were a finished task.

The story of Jesus can be organized in a number of different ways. Obviously, one could try to reassemble all the details of his narrative. We have already noted that such comprehensiveness is not the goal of the creed. Instead, the creed highlights the key turning point in the story: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Now if such a selection were merely arbitrary, we would have a problem. But the creed is in fact following the lead of the New Testament: not only do the Acts and the epistles contain brief statements of faith that highlight the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. I Cor 15:3-4; Acts 4:10), but the Gospels themselves present Jesus' life story as resolutely oriented toward its climax in his death and resurrection (cf. Mark 8:31 & parr; Luke 9:51). So the Creed is in good company when it highlights the death and resurrection of Jesus as the central episode in his story. Following this creedal pattern, we will organize our reflections into four headings, speaking first of his suffering and death, then of his resurrection and ascension. All along the way we will meditate on the saving significance of the one who is identified by this narrative.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

As already noted, the historical antecedents to the Apostles' Creed were decidedly anti-gnostic in orientation. The gnostic movement within the early Christian church downplayed the genuine historical suffering of Christ. Such an approach is a function of a wider docetic Christology in which the Son or Logos only appears to be human (dokeo means "to seem"). With such ideas on the radar, it should be no surprise that the suffering of Christ makes it onto the creed's short list of things to affirm.

However, such an affirmation has never been easy for Christians. Christians have consistently stumbled over the notion of God experiencing suffering in Christ. This probably has to do with the Greek philosophical inheritance and its presumption of divine impassibility (the notion that God transcends suffering). But whatever the source, the discomfort with divine suffering is a long-standing habit of Christian thinking. Reconciling this discomfort with an affirmation of the incarnation has motivated the creation of many careful distinctions that contributed significantly to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. Many of these theological moves were made to protect either the Father or Christ's divine nature from the suffering Jesus undergoes according to the New Testament. Appropriating these doctrines today does not require that we share all their philosophical motivations or assumptions, but we ought to at least understand them so that we can grasp the complexity of this heritage.

Christian discomfort with suffering is not merely a by-gone habit from another time. It continues today. The belief that true faith guarantees immediate relief from suffering is widespread. Such a belief tends to treat the suffering of Jesus as a temporary ordeal, a bad weekend in Jerusalem that he quickly overcame by the power of his faith. Even Christians who valorize and idealize suffering, often with reference to the suffering of Jesus, have a tendency to undermine its seriousness precisely by valorizing and idealizing it--turning suffering into some kind of instrumental good or pleasure in itself. But the Christian story neither despises nor valorizes suffering. The story of Jesus shows that God in his mercy has compassion on the suffering of his people and yet overcomes it precisely by entering into it. That is the good news of the gospel: God did not stand aloof over our suffering, but participated in it. In Jesus Christ, God suffers with us.

Was Crucified, Dead and Buried
He Descended into Hell

But Jesus not only suffered with us, he also suffered for us. That little prepositional phrase "for us" brings us to our second heading: the death of Christ. As Christian Scripture and Christian piety repeatedly attest: Christ died for us. Jesus' obedience to the will of his Father led not only to his suffering and death in solidarity with us, but also to his suffering and death on our behalf, in our place, for our sakes. His was not just a death like any other. His was not even a death like any other horrible criminal's or political prisoner's. Jesus died as our representative, as our head, as the one true human who stands in for all the rest. Christ died for us.

How can we speak this way? What is it about the death of Jesus as narrated by the Gospels and highlighted by the Creed that indicates his death was for us? The clue in this direction is the manner of Christ's death. Jesus Christ died the death of a criminal. He was crucified. Crucifixion was the Roman punishment for political criminals. But what was his crime? The Gospels consistently present the trial(s) of Jesus as a sham, and the New Testament as a whole witnesses to his innocence and even sinlessness. So if Jesus' death was a punishment for a crime, yet Jesus committed no crime, why did he die?

This is where the notion of exchange or substitution comes in. Jesus the innocent died for us the guilty. Jesus the righteous died for us sinners. Jesus died so that we may live. Now such a substitution or exchange is not usually permitted in the legal world. Of course, one could appeal to God as the supreme judge who can do whatever he wants. But the Christian tradition at this point has usually shifted gears into the language of sacrifice, which already contains the logic of substitution (e.g., scapegoat, passover lamb, etc.). Whether mixing judicial and cultic metaphors is all that helpful can be debated. But the basic model shines through: Christ died instead of us so that we may be reconciled to God. Christ died for us.

Christ died for us. In order to hammer this point home, the Creed rattles off three verbs: "crucified, dead, and buried." Not only was he crucified, but he really died, and they put him in the ground. Then the creed takes it up a notch. The Creed highlights a muted but very real theme in Scripture: Christ "descended into hell." Upon his death, Christ went down (not up), to join the dead who are separated from God on account of their sins. If there was any question that the crucifixion itself functions as a punishment, the fact that Christ suffers the ultimate fate of dead sinners in his descent should seal the deal. Now there is some debate as to whether this descent should be understood as a continuation of his substitutionary suffering or as a victorious invasion of the realm of the dead. I personally am attracted to the former option, but that does not necessarily require a rejection of the latter. What is most important at this juncture is to acknowledge that this obscure episode manages to make it into the creed and to hear this inclusion as an invitation to intentionally reflect on the saving significance of the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

On the third day he rose again from the dead

If Jesus' death saves us, if by dying in our place he reconciled us to God, then why is that not the end of the story? Why not just end the story of Jesus with the climactic episode of his death? Unfortunately, too much Christian preaching does in fact end there. So many sermons reduce the story of salvation to the death of Christ. That is not to say that these Christians don't believe in Christ's resurrection. But it does betray that Christ's rising from the dead has no theological function -- no place in the plot -- in Christian faith and practice. What purpose does the resurrection have? What is its place in the plot of the gospel story? Why did Jesus rise again from the dead?

No one can see nor come to the Father except through the Son. If the Son is dead, the Father is inaccessible. What good is our reconciliation with God if we cannot see or hear or taste it? Jesus was dead. The disciples scattered. His death may have saved them, but he was unavailable to them. But that was not the end of the story. In fact, it was only the beginning. Jesus came to them. Jesus appeared in their midst. He showed himself to be risen from the dead. The angels and women bore witness to his now empty tomb. On the third day he rose again from the dead. Jesus who died for us and for our salvation now comes to us as our savior.

There are many theological implications that follow from the resurrection of Christ. I will mention just three. First, God confirmed his work of creation. By raising his son Jesus from the dead, God confirms his intention not to give up on his creation but to redeem it. He will not save us by annihilating us or by tearing us out of his created order. He will save us by transforming his creation from within. This means that the hope of resurrection, far from being pie-in-the-sky escapism, teaches us to value God's good creation and hope for its redemption.

Second, God rendered the incarnation permanent. The eternal Son of God did not just become human for a little while. The incarnation was not a vacation, but the fulfillment of God's master plan. Jesus is and remains human unto eternity. This means that seeing God face to face will always involve the face of Jesus. This is why the name of Jesus is so crucial in the meantime. He is not just a way to God that can be discarded once we reach the goal. By his resurrection, Jesus is now the goal, the end, the purpose of all human life. It is worthy of note that the permanence of the incarnation is the theological reason why resurrection must be bodily resurrection. Perhaps you have heard a preacher harp on the bodily character of Jesus' resurrected body, or perhaps you have heard someone dismiss this claim as being too "literal." The issue at stake here is deeper than questions of Biblical literalism and historical verifiability. The issue cuts to the heart of the identity of Jesus and therefore the very identity of God. Is God truly revealed in Jesus Christ? Is God forever the God who takes up the cause and need of humanity? Is God really for us? Incarnation rendered permanent by resurrection ensures that the answer to all these questions is a resounding "Yes!"

Third, God saves by giving life. By raising his Jesus from the dead, God shows that his ultimate intention for humanity is not death but life. God wants us to live! This means that salvation cannot be reduced solely to forgiveness. Now the power of forgiveness should not be dismissed. Forgiveness releases us from our past and thereby opens up our future. But our future is not merely a timeless state of being forgiven. The future opened by Christ's forgiveness is the eternal dynamism of life. Salvation is a matter of life and death. "I come that you might have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). This eternal life breaks into to our lives in the present. "The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is in you" (Rom 8:11). The resurrection of Jesus reminds us that salvation includes the life-giving power of the Spirit at work among us.

He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
from whence he come to judge the living and the dead.

A final word must be added to all the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The crucified and risen Lord ascended into heaven. The second article of the creed concludes with Jesus sitting down at the right hand of the God mentioned in the first article: God the Father Almighty. The Creator and Lord of the universe has at his side his very own Son who is one of us, a human being, our brother. So we need not fear his coming at the end to judge, for he has shown himself to be on our side. This observation does not dismiss the seriousness with which we all must take the final judgment. But shaking knees are not called for. Hope and expectation are the proper attitude of those of who live in the time between the ascension of Jesus and his last descent.

But why ascend? Why not just wrap things up on Easter morning? Why is the resurrection of Jesus only a first-fruits, and not the harvest? Ascension is in fact good news, for it means that Jesus is giving us time to reap, to join along side him in his mission to the world. In the New Testament, the ascension of Jesus is consistently linked with the sending out of the disciples on their mission to the ends of the earth. In Acts 1 the connection is explicit: after forty days with his disciples, Jesus sends them out right before being taken up into a cloud. In Matthew 28 there is no explicit mention of an ascension, but in Jesus' last appearance to the disciples (which is equivalent to ascension) his final word is a word of commission: go and make disciples of all nations. In the gospel of John, resurrection and ascension and pentecost are all scrunched together chronologically in such a way that upon his first appearance to the disciples, Jesus breathes his spirit on them while saying, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21). In all these cases, the gift of the ascension is that Jesus gives us time to join him in his mission. The ascension means time for us, time for the church, time for the world, time for action, time for teaching, time for the Spirit. Ascension means the gift of time. May we use this time faithfully and joyfully as we join him on his mission.

Any thoughts?
  • How do you think of the place of suffering in the life of Christ and God's relationship to it?
  • Can Christ's death be thought of as saving? Should this salvation be thought of in substitutionary terms? What problems come with this model? Can they be overcome?
  • Why do we so easily forget the soteriological significance of Christ's resurrection? Is the general line I took on the matter (that in his resurrection Christ reveals himself as savior) helpful? What of the implications I noted?
  • Do you see the connection between ascension and mission? What other significance can be assigned to the ascension?

1 comment:

Keith Drury said...

I am loving reading this series while on vacation--thanks!