Wednesday, May 18, 2011

God the Creator, God the Resurrector - Part Two (Easter, Day 25)

Earlier this week I noted that I've been thinking about creation and its relationship to resurrection. My claim is that, according to the New Testament witness, faith in God the Creator is bound up with faith in God the Resurrector. I already discussed this claim with reference to Romans 4:17. I'd like to continue to reflect on it with reference to Colossians 1:15-20:

“He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation
He is also the head of the body, the church;
the beginning and firstborn from among the dead…” (Colossians 1:15, 18a)

The parallelism of this passage is so striking to me. There are two ways of thinking of Jesus as the Son of God. The first is that he is the first of all God's children in general, i.e., his creatures. Prior to creating all that he creates, God first had his Son. And so he is the firstborn (prototokos) of all creation, the elder brother to all creation. Now Col. 1:15 on its own won't get one beyond the Son as highest creature. But even if we need to say more than this, we must not cease saying this too. Jesus Christ is the prototokos of all creation, and as such is its prototype.

The second is that he is the first of all God's children in particular, i.e., his church. Prior to constituting the church, God first raised his Son Jesus from the dead. And so Christ is the firstborn (prototokos) from among the dead, the elder brother to all those who will be raised at the end of time. Now Col. 1:18 doesn't tie up all the loose ends. And it certainly doesn't conceptualize the relationship between these parallel appellations. But it seems appropriate to suggest that Jesus Christ, the double prototokos, is the prototype of both the first creation and the final creation. Therefore, to know what it means to be truly human, we may and must look to the risen Christ. That's the implication of the claim that faith in God the Creator is bound up with faith in God the Resurrector.

Any thoughts?

Monday, May 16, 2011

God the Creator, God the Resurrector (Easter, Day 23)

I've been thinking about creation lately. I just posted why that's so over at the seminary's blog. Check it out. But there's also a connection with the theme of my current series commemorating the Forty Days after Easter.

According to the New Testament witness, faith in God as Creator is bound up with faith in God as Resurrector.

There are two passages that stand out in this regard: Romans 4:17 and Colossians 1:15-20. I'll discuss Romans today and Colossians tomorrow.

Romans 4:17 speaks of Abraham's faith in "the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not." Now, in the near context, this is speaking of God's capacity to fulfill his promise of a son even through a barren woman. But in it's wider context it points to God as the one who raises the dead, i.e., "gives life to the dead." The resurrection of Jesus comes up later in the passage, so we're not just filling gaps here. Then, in an even wider context, it points to God as the one who creates out of nothing, i.e., "calling into being things that were not." Here we are filling in gaps, but the witness of Scripture as a whole points in this direction. What is so striking is that, once we put it all together, we have a picture of God who doesn't just happen to create and happen to resurrect, but that the one God is the Creator and the Resurrector for one and the same reason, i.e., to keep his promises!

Any thoughts?

[To be continued...]

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Forgiven Sins, Restored Fellowship (Easter, Day 17)

It is a commonplace to point out the contrast between Peter's triple denial and Jesus's triple restoration in the form of the question, Do you love me? What I'm thinking about today is the cosmic context in which this very personal event takes place: i.e., that Peter denies Jesus during his passion, and that Jesus restores Peter during the forty days. It seems to me that this suggestions something about the meaning of the cross-and-resurrection as the one twofold event of God's reconciliation of the world to himself.

It seems to me that both the words of Jesus ("forgive them for they know not what they do" etc.) and the teachings of the apostles ("he died for our sins" etc.) confirms the notion that forgiveness was actualized in the cross of Christ. As a fan of the resurrection, I understand the temptation of those who might recoil from this cross-centered "atonement" theory. But it seems to make sense to me, so I'm not going to give up on it just yet.

Hence the sin of Peter, his denial, is in a certain sense already forgiven on the cross. But he doesn't know it yet, and so it does not yet make a difference in his life.

For what we do not yet have in the cross of Christ is a restored fellowship with God. The barrier to fellowship, i.e., our sin, has been removed. Hence the cross is the decisive event, the turning point in the story of God. But the aim or purpose of removing our iniquities is to welcome us into fellowship with God.

And this restoration takes place in Christ's resurrection.

Objectively, Jesus is our elder brother, the firstborn from the dead, whom the Father has welcomed into eternal living fellowship by raising him from the dead. Subjectively, Jesus comes to his own, breaks bread with them, and welcomes them into his fellowship so and also into fellowship with his eternal Father. He comes to Peter, puts the question of love to him, and commissions him for his missionary task. He restores fellowship with Peter, and sends him to the ends of the earth as an ambassador of the reconciliation achieved in the cross-and-resurrection of Jesus.

So, in a word, God forgives our sins in the cross of Christ and restores us to fellowship in the resurrection of Christ.

Perhaps too clean and simple. But I think that gets at least some of what needs to be said about the good news of the forty days!

Any thoughts?

Monday, May 09, 2011

Strength for Today, Hope for Tomorrow (Easter, Day 16)

Easter is an event about Jesus. But it is also an event about us. This twofold refrain has rung out throughout this series, and is repeatedly attested in the words and deeds of Christians. Easter includes both faith in Jesus and hope for us and our world.

I want to keep reflecting on the connection between Easter faith and Easter hope. I pointed out earlier that Easter faith in Jesus's resurrection points not only to a past event but has present and future dimensions. Jesus not only was raised but is risen and lives eternally. In the same way, Easter hope in our resurrection is not just directed to a future event but also a present reality. Yes, the resurrection will happen to us at the End, just as it happened to Jesus at Easter. But we already live in the presence of the risen, living Jesus. He is with us.

The power by which the risen Jesus is present is the Holy Spirit. As Romans 8:11 puts it, not only will God the Father raise us by the same Spirit by whom he rose Jesus, but already that same Spirit dwells within us now!

So, it is not just a sentimentality to say "Strength for today, bright hope for tomorrow." The two go together in the New Testament. They must properly distinguished, ordered, and unified. And they must be grounded in the Easter event that is prior to, above, and beyond our own personal needs and desires. But, with all that said, Easter hope really does speak to the power of the Spirit in and among us now. That should give us not only hope that endures but hope that strengthens.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, May 05, 2011

We too shall be raised (Easter, Day 12)

It is standard Easter fare to point out that our hope for resurrection is tied up with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If that is so, then it seems to me that more sustained reflection on the original Easter event might have something to say about us and our destiny too.

For example, I said earlier that, in the first instance, the Son only receives new life from his Father. Jesus Christ was raised by God the Father. If our resurrection hope is tied up with his resurrection, then it seems that, in the first instance, we will receive our new life from God. In other words, our final resurrection will be an act of God upon us, an act of sheer grace.

At a minimum, this qualifies our talk of human persons as in some sense naturally immortal. We tend to think of life-after-death as a foregone conclusion, with the only question being where each of us will end up. But the grammar of grace indicates that immortal life is itself a gift to be received rather than a possession to be taken for granted.

It seems to me that this adjustment in our conversation about human personhood and human destiny would have some significant impact on how we live our lives, especially with reference to how we face death. I'd love to explore those with you in the comments, or perhaps in further posts. For now I will just leave you with the thought: if even Jesus was the one who received his resurrection life, then who are we to think that our resurrection is an inevitability or personal possession. It is a gift. Our hope for it is secure in Jesus. But it is nevertheless hope, and so is the openness to receive rather than the certainty of possession.

Any thoughts?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Raised for our Justification (Easter, Day 10)

The resurrection happened. It was an event concerning Jesus. I've been exploring this lately by reflecting on the language of the Easter gospel and what it implies about the subject of the Easter event.

But Easter is not a spectator sport. The resurrection of Jesus Christ took place for us! So let's take a moment and reflect on what the resurrection means for us.

When reflecting on Easter's significance, there are two tendencies of which we must beware.

The first tendency is to say that, since our reconciliation was accomplished on the cross, the resurrection has no saving significance. It is perhaps the revelation of Christ's identity, an inevitability on account of his deity, the transition to the Spirit's work of applying salvation to us, etc. But it cannot be a saving event because that was completed on Good Friday.

The second tendency, at least in our time, emerges primarily as a reaction to the first tendency, which has been so dominant in the Western Christian tradition. This second tendency is to divide up the work of salvation so that the cross accomplishes one thing and the resurrection another. In order to emphasize the saving significance of Easter, this approach downplays the finished character of Christ's death.

I have deep sympathy with both of these approaches.

The first rightly emphasizes that in some sense our reconciliation with God was accomplished in the life of the incarnate Son, which was fulfilled in his death on the cross. As we have already discussed, in the first instance the resurrection is not a work performed by the incarnate Son, but a work performed on him by God the Father. So Easter is not just one more miracle, the last in a series of saving works. It is the sequel to his finished life.

The second rightly emphasizes that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a saving event. The New Testament is emphatic about this from beginning to end. To empty the resurrection of its saving significance in order to "protect" the finished work of the cross is a fundamental error, and wreaks havoc on our biblical interpretation. If we can end the story on Good Friday and be perfectly satisfied, then something is terribly wrong. Something must be done to articulate the saving significance of Easter.

I have no quick fix to this dilemma. But I do have a brief thought that may speak to it. And it comes from a striking little verse at the end of Romans 4: "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (Rom 4:25).

Here the death and resurrection of Jesus seem to be placed together as one saving event with two sides. And the two sides are not two "halves," so that each does 50% of the work of salvation, accomplishing two different things that together make up a composite work. No! The two together accomplish one thing, i.e., the justification of sinners.

How are the two sides related? It seems to be that there is a "negative" side and a "positive" side to the justification of sinners accomplished in Jesus Christ. The negative side is Christ's death: "He was delivered over to death for our sins..." The positive side is Christ's resurrection: "...and was raised to life for our justification." These are not two different works, but the negative and positive sides of one powerful work of salvation.

The analogy that comes to mind is a battery. A battery has positive and negative poles, both of which are necessary to conduct electricity. It's not that you get half the power if you touch one. You got to have both. They each perform different functions within one act of conducting electricity. The analogy breaks down quickly, but you get the idea.

These 40 days I commend you to rob neither the cross nor the resurrection of their saving significance, but see both as two sides of the one event of God's justification of sinners!

Any thoughts?

The "Livingness" of Jesus (Easter, Day 9)

As I suggested last week, there seem to be three different ways of bringing to speech what happened at Easter: (1) Jesus was raised, (2) Jesus has/is risen, and (3) Jesus is alive.

Let's treat that third one today, but without leaving behind the previous two. In fact, we'll see that this third way helps to fill out and clarify the meaning and purpose of the raising and rising of Jesus.

(3) Jesus is alive.

If find it intriguing that the New Testament does not only use cognates of "resurrection" (i.e., raised, risen) to express the Easter gospel. From time to time it also says that Jesus is alive. Whereas the other ways of speaking are verbs, this one is a noun. It is the result of being raised from the dead, i.e., to be alive again. It is the direction of his rising, i.e., he arose unto new life.

Hence it fills out the content of the Easter event.

As we saw, the raising of Jesus by God the Father and Jesus own rising were two ways of speaking of the same event. God raised Jesus; Jesus arose. The first speaks to the initiating act of Easter, whereas the second speaks to an ongoing reality. But the resurrection also has a future: the eternal life of Jesus Christ. The trajectory, telos and goal of the Easter event is that Jesus would be alive forevermore. So, whereas raising and rising point back to his death (i.e., raised/arose from the dead), being alive points forward to his future (i.e., eternal life). On account of his resurrection, the future of Jesus Christ is life.

This not only fills out the content of the Easter event, but also fills out our understanding of the subject of the Easter event.

Who acts in Christ's resurrection?

Our first answer was that God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. The initiating act of Easter, i.e., the raising of Jesus, is appropriately attributed to God the Father.

Our second answer was that Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus is not only the object of resurrection, but also its subject. As the Father raises him, the Son also rises.

Now a third answer must be added: Jesus was, is and will be alive in the Spirit. The Spirit gives life to the Son, and the Son gives his Spirit of life to us!

In the New Testament, the Spirit is consistently associated with the concept of life (John 6, Rom 8, 1 Cor 15, 2 Cor 3, Gal 6). The Church has enshrined this association in her creeds: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life." Christian piety takes this language for granted: we talk of life in the Spirit, etc. And there's just a commonsensical connection, i.e., that which is spirited is lively, and that which is dead lacks spirit. So the Easter livingness of Jesus is aptly attributed to the Spirit.

But this third answer requires that we restate our first two answers. For just as the livingness of Jesus fills out the content of his raising/rising, so the life-giving Spirit fills out the subject of this act.

So, again, who acts in Christ's resurrection?

First of all, God the Father raised Jesus by the Spirit. "The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is in you" (Rom 8:11a). The initiating act of Easter, i.e., the raising of Jesus, is enacted by God the Father through the Holy Spirit. The life-giving Spirit is not only the result but also the means of the Father's act of raising. The Spirit is the one by whom the Father raised the Son.

Secondly, Jesus rose from the dead by the Spirit. "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor 3:17). The Spirit is the freedom, power, and authority of the Son to arise. (Note: this is how I would interpret John 10:18.) The Spirit is the very livingness in which Jesus arose from the dead.

Now we have come full circle. We have discussed the three ways of speaking the Easter gospel: Jesus was raised, Jesus has risen, and Jesus is alive. And we have seen how these three ways correlate with a threefold way of speaking of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In a word, the God of Easter is the triune God.

Any thoughts?