Death as a Divine Blessing

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In his essay from The Inner Kingdom called “Go Joyfully: The Mystery of Death and Resurrection”, Kallistos Ware explains the contradicting or conflicting nature of death.

On the one hand, death is a tragedy, confounding the entire human race. It is the great enemy, the “last enemy” which is to be destroyed, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. It is the wretched “fruit” of Adam’s disobedience. Christ came for the sole purpose of destroying this death; he came to invade it from the inside out, thus rendering it powerless.

Death is the great enemy; and yet, as Ware argues, death is simultaneously a mysterious blessing which gives way to life anew. For instance: every new stage of life, Ware explains, involves a sort of metaphorical death to the self that opens up new beginnings:

Our earthly journey is an unceasing passover, a constant crossing over through death into new life. Between our initial birth and our eventual death, the whole course of our existence is made up of a series of lesser deaths and births… (p 27)

[A] death-life pattern is…apparent, in a somewhat different way, in the process of growing up. Repeatedly, something in us has to die so that we may pass on to the next stage of life. The transition from the baby to the child, from the child to the adolescent, from adolescent to the mature adult, involves at each juncture an inner death in order that something new may come alive…[I]f at any point we decline to accept the need for dying, we cannot develop into real persons. As George MacDonald says in his fantasy novel Lilith, “You will be dead so long as you refuse to die” (p 28)

Life in itself is a series of “deaths” and “resurrections”. This was Jesus’ point of course, when he told his disciples that one must “give up his life to save it”. Dying to the self strangely enough opens up new life and a new future.

But it is not simply “death to the self” that is a strange mercy. The even more fundamental reality of physical death is a divine blessing. But how so? Ware explains:

[Physical death], though not part of God’s original plan,…is nonetheless His gift, an expression of his mercy and compassion. For us humans to live unendingly in this fallen world, caught forever in the vicious cycle of boredom and sin, would have been a fate too terrible for us to endure; and so God has supplied us with a way of escape. He dissolves the union of soul and body, so that he may afterwards shape them anew, uniting them again at the bodily resurrection on the Last Day and so recreating them to fullness of life. He is like the potter whom Jeremiah watched: “So I went down tot he potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to Him” (18:4-5). The Divine Potter lays his hand on the vessel of our humanity, marred by sin, and he breaks it in pieces, so as to mold it again on his wheel and refashion it according to its first glory. Death serves in this way as the means of our restoration (p 31)

The human project, thus riddled with sin and marred, is subjected to death by God, not because he wants to destroy, but rather because he wants to recreate it anew. God “smashes” his pot, not in wrathful anger, but in view of a new hopeful reality.

This “new reality” is revealed through  the death and resurrection of Christ. God the Son takes upon himself the flesh of marred mankind, is swallowed up into death in the crucifixion, and is afterward raised to new principle life without the corruption of sin and death. The death of Christ is the death of the old man. And the resurrection of Christ is the recreation of the new man. And when a man is saved, he participates in the death and resurrection of Christ, thus dying and rising, being “de-created” and recreated in Christ anew.

And so death, while the greatest enemy, is used by God’s power as a great gift! A divine blessing. Glory!

Don’t be more spiritual than God

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In the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6, Christ gives his church 6 petitions to pray. The first 3 are rather lofty petitions: “Hallowed be your name”, “Your kingdom done”, “Your will be done” (Mt 6:9-10). They are, as we might expect, prayers exalting the name and kingdom of God. This is, after all the purpose of the Christian: to exalt God’s name, to spread his kingdom, to focus on God!

However, after these petitions are commanded, Jesus leaves the focus off of God, and gives three more petitions to  pray for ourselves: “Give us…”, “Forgive us…”, “Lead us not…”. This first petition especially is focused on one’s physical needs: “Give us this day our daily bread” (6:11). What a simple prayer: God, provide what I need! It’s focus almost seems selfish! 

However, in this simple prayer for bread, Jesus teaches us something rather important: namely, that God isn’t too spiritual to care about the physical, tangible, real things in our lives; God really cares about it all. He acknowledges and wants to provide your every need!

Frederick Bruner brings in further insight on this verse:

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that it is not selfish to pray about physical, social, and personal needs. It is in fact Jesus’ command that we pray for these things…

The prayer for bread in this petition should be allowed to remain, first of all, a prayer for bread. At times in the church’s exposition this bread has been turned into spiritual bread (cf…Augustine…and Jerome, who believe that here we are praying especially for him who says, “I am the living Bread”). It is possible to be more spiritual than God. Why would Jesus who fed the five thousand not want us to pray for the feeding of our six billion? And while Jesus says that man does not live by bread alone, he is too realistic to say that man does not live by bread at all. We may pray, certainly, for spiritual bread, but here…we pray first for physical bread for physical people. (Christbook 1, 305-306)

I have heard from other commentators as well, that this petition is primarily for the “super-substantial” bread (from the Latin Vulgate translation), the Lord’s Supper. And while the Lord’s Supper is important, Bruner is quite right to highlight the fact that our Lord cares about the physical bread, and the physical people! He doesn’t just care about the spiritual.

It is important that we not be so spiritual that we miss the emphasis here: God cares about your paycheck. He cares about your children. He cares about your house. He cares about your physical state. And he wants to provide for you, if only you ask!

Don’t be more spiritual than God!

Purpose of Discipleship

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What is the purpose of discipleship? What is the point behind the disciplines, the virtues, ethical reform, etc? Hans Urs von Balthasar has a decisive answer that I believe sums up the biblical paradigm.

In his Theo Drama IV (in section III, C, 3, c), Balthasar explains that the purpose of discipleship is to be united with Christ’s life, passion, and resurrection; and to, as it were, have it “reproduced” in one’s own life. This unity with Christ is accomplished by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who as Balthasar says, “recapitulates the entire economy of salvation” in the believer, “since he is the Spirit of the whole historical and pneumatic Christ, crucified and risen”.

I find this to be richly biblical, especially in light of Romans 6. Paul says in this chapter, that in baptism, by the Spirit, the believer is immersed “into [Christ’s] death” (v. 3), “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (v. 4). The purpose of salvation then is to become united with the sufferings and death of Christ such that they become one’s own.

Paul picks this motif back up again two chapters later in Romans 8, saying that this union or participation in Christ involves sharing “in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (v. 17). In salvation then, the believer is united to Christ’s passion, that by the Spirit, it might be born in his own life: death, suffering, resurrection, glory. This is the trajectory of the person united to Christ’s passion.

Paul, speaking of his own suffering, says in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body”. Paul saw suffering as a way of life, uniting this suffering to Christ’s own suffering by the Spirit, that he might rise with and in Christ’s own (eschatological) resurrection.

Balthasar himself explains,

[T]he gift of the Spirit of Christ, whereby the believer is initiated into the sphere of Christ, is portrayed as a dying-with, a suffering-with, a being-crucified-with, a being-buried-with; the believer shares Christ’s weakness so that he may rise with him, enjoy new life with him, reign with him, be glorified with him, ascend to heaven with him

So then, discipleship is unity with Christ’s passion; sharing in his sufferings; rising in his resurrection. Balthasar aptly calls this process the “paradox of Christian discipleship”, because it goes against grain of the normal human experience: it is only when one “dies to self”, “takes up his cross”, that he experiences the life of Christ. It is only when one suffers, and unites that suffering Christ’s, that he partakes more and more in his life by the Spirit.

Balthasar adds:

Thus the “sphere” in which the Christian lives, which is summed up by the term en Christoi (in Christ), embraces both the historical Jesus and equally the Risen Christ, the Christ of faith, who recapitulates in himself everything earthly. In the life of the Christian, naturally, resurrection in the full sense belongs to the world to come, as in the case of Christ himself. So a Christian’s historical path may well lead to the Cross, as did Christ’s…

The life in union with Christ involves suffering and rising with Christ!

Father Abraham, Mother Mary

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I’ve been studying the gospels as of late. And one thing that I’ve only recently noticed is the striking parallels between Abraham in the Old Testament, and Mary in the New Testament.

In Romans, Paul calls Abraham the “father of all who believe” (4:16). The reason he calls him that, is because Abraham is the prototypical believer. He is the man of faith. He assents to God’s call from his homeland to a land he doesn’t know. He believes the promise of God: that he will have a son in his old age, and that this son will bless the nations. He believes even in the face of Sarah’s disbelief. But perhaps most shocking is Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the promised son back to God. Not many years after God miraculously gave Abraham his son, God told Abraham to offer Isaac back as a sacrifice. In typological fashion, Abraham leads Isaac up the mount as he carries the wood of his own sacrifice. Hebrews tells us:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back (Heb 11:17-19)

Through and through, Abraham believed and obeyed. For this, he is our father in the faith. The “father of all who believe”. He is an example of life in Christ.

However, as one looks at the life of Mary, one finds incredible similarities that cannot be overlooked. Mary assents to the angel’s promise of a son, one through whom the nations will be blessed: “He will be great….and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). In fact, Luke contrasts her faithful assent to God with Zechariah’s doubt-filled question to the angel: “How shall I know this?” (Lk 1:18) Instead of doubting, Mary responds with: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Mary and Zechariah parallel Abraham and Sarah. And like Abraham, Mary was asked to give assent to her Son’s self-sacrifice; except, while Isaac was spared, Jesus was not. Mary, at the foot of the cross, watched her Son truly die! And watching her Son die, Mary certainly would have struggled to believe as Abraham did. How could her Son bless the world, if he was to die? She was forced to believe in a more dramatic and real way than Abraham “that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb 11:19).

Now, what is even more striking here, is that while Paul assigns Abraham our father in the faith, Christ himself assigns Mary our mother in the faith. As Jesus hung on the cross, he gave his mother to his disciples! John 19 tells us:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother,“Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home (John 19:26-27)

The beloved disciple is John. However, he leaves his name out to include all of Christ’s disciples. In this way, Jesus is giving his mother to the entire church as an example of the Christian life. She, like Abraham, believes and trusts. She, like Abraham, is a parental figure, an example of life in Christ. One may even say, a greater example, for she saw her Son truly die; and in the face of opposition, she believed God’s promise. In this way, then, Mary is the mother of all who believe.

Joseph Ratzinger now gives some insight:

The parallel between Mary and Abraham begins in the joy of the promised son but continues apace until the dark hour when she must ascend Mount Moriah, that is, until the Crucifixion of Christ. Yet it does not end there; it also extends to the miracle of Isaac’s rescue – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Abraham, father of faith – this title describes the unique position of the patriarch in the piety of Israel and in the faith of the Church. But is it not wonderful that – without any revocation of the special status of Abraham – a “mother of believers” now stands at the beginning of the new people and that our faith again and again receives from her pure and high image its measure and its path?

Lord’s Supper: Truly Seeing

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When Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord and ate of the fruit, it says in the Genesis account that their “eyes were opened”. Their eyes were opened to their own sin and shame. We know this, because they immediately tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. This of course did not resolve the problem, because what they had seen was a spiritual shame, a separation from God’s very life. 

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, sees a parallel between this “seeing” of sin and shame, and the episode of the Emmaus road in Luke 24. After his resurrection, Christ met with two of his disciples on the Emmaus road, and that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vs 16). They could not see Christ as he was; it was only after Christ ate with them that they could see. 

Luke goes on to say that Jesus “took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (vs 30-31). Ratzinger sees this, first, as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, and second, as a parallel to the “eating” and “seeing” in the Genesis account of the fall. 

Ratzinger explains:

[A]t the breaking of bread they experience in reverse fashion what happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: their eyes are opened. Now they no longer see just the externals but the reality that is not apparent to their senses yet shines through their senses: it is the Lord, now alive in a new way.

The Lord’s Supper then is a “reverse seeing” from shame and sin, to redemption and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is meant reverse the effect of the fall: to open our eyes and unite us to life itself, the risen Lord.

The Meaning of Sacrifice

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Sacrifice is a concept found quite literally everywhere in the scriptures. In fact, throughout every major story in the Bible, we find instances of sacrifices. While it is readily apparent that the concept of sacrifice finds its fulfillment, its telos, in Christ, it is not readily apparent what the meaning of sacrifice is.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, has an interesting discussion on its meaning. He begins by noticing that the “common view is that sacrifice has something to do with destruction. It means handing over to God a reality that is in some way precious” (Kindle version, loc. 250). Put another way, one way to view sacrifice is that destroying something is a means of “acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all things” (loc 250), as worshipping him as supreme over all things. 

Ratzinger however disagrees with the concept: “belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction”, he says (loc 250). Instead, he brings in Augustine’s definition of sacrifice. He says,

The true ‘sacrifice’ is the civitas Dei, that is, love-transformed mankind, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God: God all in all” (loc 258).

What Ratzinger means by this is that sacrifice, rather than being about destruction, is about the giving of oneself in totality to God. It is “losing oneself” in total surrender to God, and thereby finding life in God’s own life. It is giving oneself in love to God to the point of being completely eclipsed by the divine love, and becoming “divinized” with his life.

To clarify his meaning, Ratzinger references creation: he points out rightly that creation itself is a divine act of self-giving love. God, out of the sheer gift of his own self, gives in the act of creation: he gives mankind life and creaturely freedom. And man in his freedom has two choices: he can receive this sheer gift of grace and give himself wholly back to God; or, he can retreat into himself and collapse into selfishness.

Ratzinger says,

God’s free act of creation is indeed ordered toward [a return]…Sacrifice in its essence is simply returning to love and therefore divinization (loc 313, 321)

Man as created is meant to receive God’s love and in his own gift of freedom, give himself wholly back to God’s love and life. The more he gives, the more he participates in God’s own life. So then, Adam was given creaturely freedom in order that he might give himself totally back to God. Instead, he retreated from God and preserved himself. 

This is, Ratzinger says, sin at its essence: it is the retreat of oneself into the self, into self-preservation, into finitude, into death. Ratzinger says:

Original sin, so hard otherwise to understand, is identical with the fall into finitude, which explains why it clings to everything stuck in the vortex of finitude” (loc 305).

In his fallenness, rather than giving of himself to God, man clings to himself, and collapses into “the vortex” of finiteness. This condition of finitude, or turning in toward oneself, is what every man must thus be redeemed from. He is called to sacrifice, to give of himself, and yet, he cannot! He is utterly unable, tangled in the mess of his own selfishness. And thus he destroys himself.

Consequently, this is why Israel’s animal sacrifices were so insufficient, and called for a better sacrifice: Israel sacrificed bulls and goats. At best, these offerings were a part of the self, a gift of remorse and thanksgiving. However, at worst, they were a replacement of the self, a substitution of the self. Ratzinger explains:

Temple sacrifices was always accompanied by a vivid sense of its insufficiency… Already in 1 Samuel 15:22 we meet a primordial word of prophecy that, with some variations, runs through the Old Testament before being taken up anew by Christ: “More precious than sacrifices is obedience, submission better than the fat of rams!” In Hosea the prophecy appears in this form: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings (6:6) (loc 391-99)

The blood of goats and bulls was not only insufficient, but detestable by the completion of the Old Testament, precisely because it was Israel herself that God wanted. Israel at her worst gave the sacrifices in place of herself. Their hearts were far off from God, even when offering the sacrifices! This called for a true sacrifice, which could give mankind fully to God. 

Taken into the New Testament, this is precisely why Christ’s self-sacrifice is sufficient: it is in the cross that Christ offers himself — the perfect man —  fully and without reserve to God the Father. God the Son, in the incarnation, takes humanity to himself, and offers it to God to the point of death; he gives himself in totality to the divine love, and thereby becomes divinized; or, put biblically, he is raised imperishable. Finitude no longer has a say, for the divine love has illuminated mankind through the self-offering of Christ.

This is also why Christ is called the new Adam. He is the true man, who gives himself back in love to God. And it is through this self-sacrifice that humanity is thus welcomed into the life of the Godhead. Ratzinger explains:

The vicarious sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us to that likeness with God, that transformation into love, which is the only true adoration (loc 502)

Being united to his sacrifice through faith, we are brought into the life and love of God; and being united to the Godhead, we are then called to “take up our cross”, to “love ourselves not, even unto death”:

It is man, conforming himself to [Christ] and becoming [Christ] through faith, who is the true sacrifice, the true glory of God in the world” (loc 478)

1 Corinthians 13: A Still More Excellent Way (Sermon)

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This is a sermon I gave at Fellowship Bible Church, in Batesville AR.

Description: In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is trying to explain to the Corinthians church What Maturity isn’t, and What Maturity is. It falls in the middle of a discussion Paul was having over the issue of spiritual gifts, where the Corinthians had inadvertently made tongues the “end all” of Christianity. For Paul, to equate maturity with gifts was a misstep. And so he describes the “still more excellent way” of love

Listen here: