15 April 2017

An Easter Sunday Meditation

We closed our Good Friday meditation (below) by noting the pervasive darkness throughout Mark, climaxing in the three-hour darkness from noon to 3:00 as Jesus is crucified. But even as darkness deepens as Mark's Gospel unfolds, a glimmer of hope gains strength that there will be a rising from death and darkness.

Why, after all, are there so many references to 'rising' (37), a higher proportion of references to 'rising' than all other three Gospels? Why use the language of 'rising' even when this language is unnecessary and even awkward? Why is the resurrection account so terse and cryptic in Mark? Because Mark has been preparing the reader for Jesus' rising by quietly sprinkling in 'rising' language throughout.

And as Jesus rises, the ever-deepening darkness throughout Mark suddenly melts away. Light bursts onto the scene. 'And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen . . .' The sun had set in Mark 1:32. The sun rises in 16:2. Evening has given way to light. The world's night has come to an end. Eden has dawned afresh.

And I ask myself: What was the resurrection? Beyond the apologetic significance of the resurrection, even beyond the soteriological significance of the resurrection (saving us, along with the cross) and the eschatological significance of it (launching the new creation)--what was the resurrection?

What is Easter, for those who are in Christ?

Easter is the promise of final in-breaking light to every pocket of darkness in our lives. Easter is the proven certainty of a sunrise on every self-inflicted sunset. Easter is the promise of reversal.

It is striking how closely the New Testament wishes to associate Christ's resurrection and that of the believer, such as throughout 1 Corinthians 15. The two--his and ours--stand or fall together. Resurrection out of death and horror is not something we merely admire in him. It is something we will ourselves will be clothed in. And not just the bodily part of rising--though that is worth its own series of meditations. I have in mind the rising out of despair and dismay. The opening up of every dead-end in this life. The restoring of every soured relationship. The granting of every closed desire, the unlocking of every locked door.

Out of disillusionment, enthrallment. Out of cynicism, belief. Out of boredom, wonder. Out of death, life. 'The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus . . .' (Isa. 35:1).

The doctrine of the resurrection is the promise that the universe will be rinsed clean and re-Edenized, from the farthest galaxy to my sad little life. And the cosmos itself knows that the most crucial part of final resurrection is not its own re-Edenizing but mine--the stars of heaven are on the edge of their seats to see the radiance of glorified sinners in whose resplendence their own dazzling light will be as darkness (Rom. 8:18-19).

But the resurrection says more. Not only that life will come out of death, calm out of pain. But, more deeply, that pain is somehow, strangely, generative of calm and life; descending now creates ascending then. For those united to a risen Christ, all our anguish now will double back over itself onto joy.

The doctrine of the resurrection is the shocking revelation that the deeper the darkness in my life now, the brighter the light in my life then. Sunset, sunrise.

We tend to think of the Christian life in three categories.
Category #1: things in our life that will finally prove to have spiritually advanced us (quiet times, witnessing, successfully resisting temptation, loving another, etc)

Category #2: things in our life that are ultimately spiritually neutral (eating breakfast, driving in your car, paying the bills, sleeping)

Category #3: things in our life that finally send us backwards (sinning, being sinned against, failing, hitting a dead-end, running out of energy, dashed hopes, aborted ambitions, rejection, being misunderstood)
The doctrine of the resurrection is: for those in Christ, there is no Category 2 or 3.

If Jesus was raised from the dead, then even the darkness in our lives is part of a mosaic that would finally be less beautiful without it. We are that invincible.

But of course I have been talking about this all the wrong way. I've been speaking of our future. And so it is. But the teaching of the New Testament says something more. This triumphant rising out of despair is not just for the future. It has washed into our present. The bodily resurrection is future. But the personal reality of our resurrection is present. We have been raised with Christ now (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). We didn't unite ourselves to Christ in the first place by our good. Therefore we can't divorce ourselves from Christ now by our bad. The reversal has already begun.

And this Life that has washed over us here and now will come to inevitable final expression in our concrete existence with Jesus on the new earth, when every sadness and darkness will be folded back over onto itself. The old burdens will not only melt away but become wings by which we are able to fly higher than we would had we never suffered the burdens in the first place, as Lewis put it in The Great Divorce. Our present sadness is itself seeding and ensuring and nurturing radiance then.

Every pain of a cross here will become the glory of an empty tomb there. Or in Pauline categories, suffering now creates glory then (Rom. 8:17). Because Jesus walked out of the tomb.

12 April 2017

A Good Friday Meditation

'. . . we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God . . .'  -Isaiah 53:4

In learning of Peter Singer's most recent round of unthinkable ways to treat other human beings I am brought to reflect afresh on the writhing rebellion of an impenitent heart, the black twistedness of sin. And my mind drifts back to my own heart.

After all, his wickedness is more a mirror than a window, since he and I come of the same human race. And I realize anew how domesticated sin is to me in terms of actual felt reality. Many days I hardly feel it. It is largely theory, not reality. Both around me but also within me. I can't feel my own sinfulness. Why? Because, as Lloyd-Jones said, of that very sinfulness. Like a disease one symptom of which is thinking you're okay. At times my sin deeply distresses me. But most of my life flows on oblivious to its quiet tentacles.

In reading Singer's argument, however, I am waked from the stupor of merely theoretical belief in sin. I ponder what it will be like for Peter to stand before God if he does not repent before he dies. Psalm 29 says that the voice of the Lord splits trees in half. Trees. Morally neutral trees, which glorify God just in being trees. Shattered at his very voice. Stricken. What will the voice of the Lord do to a wormy rebel who advocates for the legal rape of the disabled? The image of the sword coming out of Christ's mouth in Revelation 1 to judge suddenly seems non-exaggerated.

Peter Singer's sin cries out for judgment not only as guilt, but as horror.

So does mine. Of course, it would be evil to say we are all as culpable as Peter Singer. But it would also be evil to deny it.

On the one hand, each of us will give an account to the Lord. The Bible teaches individual accountability (2 Cor. 5:10). I am responsible for myself, not what Peter Singer has done.

But on the other hand the deep blackness of the human heart left to its own devices is so desperately and universally intransigent toward beauty and goodness and glory that the difference between the most upright sinner and the most vile sinner is so slight that it must hardly register on heaven's scale. What is a difference of a few inches on earth when viewed from outer space? As Handley Moule put it in his Romans commentary, you may be in the deepest valley and I on the highest mountain but we are equally unable to touch the stars. And I am sobered back into the reality that I am far more like Peter Singer than I am willing to believe. Which unwillingness is itself further indictment of this very truth.

But there is another salutary effect of reading Peter's rage-eliciting argument, beyond being reminded of who we all are. We taste, just for a moment, righteous, objective, indignation with sin. In our own fallen and finite way, we see things from God's perspective. Clarity comes. We feel a certain choking revulsion. We know wrath. Appropriate, measured, and just, but wrath all the same. Healthy wrath is not arbitrary, malicious, uncontrolled. True wrath simply insists on the right. On justice. On commensurate repayment. The horror that he is bringing on other humans, we know should be brought back on his own head. That's not a wrong response. Something is wrong with us if we don't feel horror and wrath toward such things.

And so we not only come out of our slumber with regard to ourselves. We also ponder Calvary afresh, where a choking revulsion erupted not from one human to another but within the very Trinity.

What happened at the cross, for those of us who claim to be its beneficiaries?

It is beyond calculating comprehension, of course. A three-year-old can't comprehend the pain of his parents' divorce; it's beyond him. How much less could we comprehend what it meant for the Father to reject the Son and tear asunder a love so rich, so divine. But reflecting on what we feel toward Peter Singer gives us a taste of what the Father felt toward the Son. The righteous human wrath we feel is a drop in the ocean of righteous divine wrath the Father unleashed.

After all, the Father did not punish Jesus for the sin of just one man but many. What must it mean when Isaiah says of the servant that 'the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all' (Isa 53:5)? What was it for Christ to swallow down the cumulative sickness, twistedness, self-enthronement, of the elect? What must it have been for the sum total of righteous divine wrath generated not just by one man's sin but 'the iniquity of us all' to come sweeping over a single soul?

It's speculation, but for myself I cannot believe it was physical extremity that killed Christ. What is physical torture compared to the full weight of centuries of cumulative wrath-absorption? That mountain of piled up horrors? How did Jesus even retain sanity psychologically in absorbing the sum total of, say, every lustful thought and deed coming from the hearts of God's people--and that is one sin among many? Perhaps it was sheer despair that broke him down into death. If he was sweating blood at the thought of God-abandonment, what was it like to go through with it? Would it not have been the withdrawal of the Father's love from his heart, not the withdrawal of oxygen from his lungs, that killed him? Who could hold up mental stability when drinking down what God's people's deserved? Richard Bauckham notes that while Psalm 22:1 ('My God, my God, why have you forsaken me') was originally written in Hebrew, Jesus spoke it in Aramaic and thus was personally appropriating it. Jesus wasn't simply repeating David's experience of a thousand years earlier as a convenient parallel expression. Rather, every anguished Psalm 22:1 cry across the millennia was being recapitulated and fulfilled and deepened in Jesus. His was the true Psalm 22:1 of which ours are the shadows. As the people of God all our feelings of forsakenness funneled through an actual single human heart in a single moment of anguished horror on Calvary, an actual forsakenness.

Who could possibly bear up beneath it? Who would not cry out and shut down?

When communion with the Father had been one's oxygen, one's meat and drink, from eternity past in the unceasing mutually flowing rivers of intra-Trinitarian delight and love? Who could survive that? To lose that communion was to die. The great love at the heart of the universe was being rent in two and cast into darkness.

The sun set at the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Mark 1:32) and we are told eight times throughout Mark that evening is present, reminding us that the world's evening had come. Almost all of Mark 14 takes place under cover of darkness. Then a noontime darkness descended as Jesus hung on the cross (Mark 15:33), the darkest moment of all of human history, anticipated in the ancient prophecies (Amos 8:9-10). The world's Light was going out.

And in venting that righteous wrath the Father was not smiting a morally neutral tree. He was splintering the Lovely One. Beauty and Goodness Himself was being uglified and vilified. 'Stricken, smitten by God . . .'

So that we ugly ones could be freely beautified, pardoned, calmed. Our heaven through his hell. Our entrance into Love through his loss of it.

What must it have been like?

What must he have felt?

In my place?

07 April 2017

What if Death Were Optional?

C. S. Lewis, to Warfield Firor, an American surgeon, 1949:
Have you ever thought what it would be like if (all other things remaining as they are) old age and death had been made optional? All other things remaining: i.e. it would still be true that our real destiny was elsewhere, that we have no abiding city here and no true happiness, but the un-hitching from this life was left to be accomplished by our own will as an act of obedience and faith. I suppose the percentage of di-ers would be about the same as the percentage of Trappists is now.

I am therefore (with some help from the weather and rheumatism!) trying to profit by this new realisation of my mortality. To begin to die, to loosen a few of the tentacles which the octopus-world has fastened on one. But of course it is continuings, not beginnings, that are the point. A good night's sleep, a sunny morning, a success with my next book--any of these will, I know, alter the whole thing. Which alteration, by the bye, being in reality a relapse from partial waking into the old stupor, would nevertheless be regarded by most people as a return to health from a 'morbid' mood!

Well, it's certainly not that. But it is a very partial waking. One ought not to need the gloomy moments of life for beginning detachment, nor be re-entangled by the bright ones. One ought to be able to enjoy the bright ones to the full and at that very same moment have the perfect readiness to leave them, confident that what calls one away is better.
--The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2 (HarperCollins, 2004), 986-87; emphases original