Monday, 25 February 2013

Idolatry and Heavenly Escape

The Orthodox Christian lives in a strange tension. While the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ makes all things right and under his authoritative kingdom, the creation still longs for this final consummation.[1] The prolepsis within the Christian tradition has often made it difficult for the Church to know how to understand, share, and live out the Gospel. How do we declare that the world is being made new when all around us we see endless violence, sadness, and death? What does the fully sufficient and complete work of the Cross have to do with us living lives of peace and justice? 

We know from scripture that all the work of salvation has been completed by Christ on the Cross; what is our calling as those who live within this promise?[2] Is our declaration of salvation one of escape from this evil world?[3] Or is it a call to bring the kingdom of God to our world, to build it up, and to establish the New Jerusalem here on earth?
           Christ’s promise of salvation for all people and creatures is neither an escape from this sinful world, nor is it a call for the church to build his kingdom; rather as God’s image bearers and vice-regents of this earth we are called to reflect a creation that is being redeemed, made right, and will ultimately be consummated radically different and new in Christ alone.
                The first foundational principle within this understanding of salvation is that creation was formed in order for God to share his goodness and for us to represent that goodness.[4] This is the purpose of creation being originally designed as good, and humanity being created in God’s image.[5] The point of the fall is not that man has become so estranged from their original blue-print that we are no longer in any way connected to that original design, but that “evil is a deficiency” from that original good.[6] We were created good and therefore despite our sinful distortion of that good everything we do comes from that original place, no matter how it is perverted or altered into sin. This perspective on sin is important for me as I have been raised within a particular Lutheran worldview which often wants to say that our nature has been so altered by sin that it is in no way connected to that original design. Salvation then is in one sense a restoration of that original goodness.
            Through Christ we are being brought back into that original communion, and we know from Romans 8 that all creation gets to be a part of and longs for this restoration as they have been “groaning in labor pains” for this future “freedom of glory.”[7] Yet it is also important that we temper this understanding with the final consummation as an apocalyptic reality where the very nature of things will be altered in the ultimate peace-making of all things.[8] Isaiah 11 uses imagery of a wolf living with a lamb, a calf and a lion eating together, and young children playing near the home of deadly snakes.[9] While this imagery seems to speak in contrast to the very nature of creation, the continuity within these types of eschatological images says that unity in Christ declares that no longer will we “hurt or destroy” and that every tear will be wiped from our eyes.[10] Another continuity within this imagery is that earth matters and is our home, even as God enters into it and alters it. Isaiah 11 declares that it is the earth where the “knowledge of the Lord” resides, while revelation 21 further affirms that earth is where God makes his home “among mortals.”[11] A limited automobile metaphor could be used here in the sense that while salvation is rebuilding the car from the original blue-print, it is also altering the original design of the car from a fuel-efficient and powerful diesel engine to an improved electric engine, even while much of the original blue-print remains the same. Further biblical support for the continuity and discontinuity of our current and future selves could be made in the sense that when Jesus is raised from the dead his form is so altered that he is hardly recognizable, yet the scars from his previous life still remain.[12] Balancing creation’s continuity and discontinuity between this life and the next is foundational in correcting our modern fallacies of soteriological escapism and Kingdom ideology. Salvation is not escaping from this horrible earth to heaven, nor is salvation a matter of us bringing the Kingdom of God to world. All the work needed for bringing heaven to earth was completed on the cross; this is entirely the responsibility of God.
            Our role then as restored image bearers of God is both to emphasize how we are distinct from the wholly other creator, while remaining accountable to the earth as his reflection and the earth’s vice-regents. God desires his wise, creative, and loving power to be reflected through his creatures. Through the work of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we are equipped for this task, not as builders of the Kingdom, but as signposts for the now but not yet future world; even as its future radical differentiation remains a mystery to us. This task is as diverse as creation itself. If Christ’s signature is on all things as scripture suggests, than the task of imaging God can enter into almost anything. The sacramental nature of creation enters into the music we create, the sports we play, and the building we design. As Christ’s disciples, musicians, athletes, and architects are all called to question and examine their duties and work in light of the Kingdom of God. Paul tells us that what we do in Christ is “not in vain” and this is how we should look at every act of love and mercy.[13] When microloans and community gardens take us further away from economic and ecological injustice, this is not simply something good for us to do on top of centrally declaring soteriological escapism, but is a mysterious and incomplete reflection of the future world God is bringing us into; it is a declaration of the Gospel. While Jesus is so transformed at the resurrection that Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener, there is also an implicit reaffirmation that his resurrection renews the goodness of creation declared in the first garden.  The original declaration of creation being created good and humanity “very good” means that the redemption of this good creation is all encompassing and is not to be thrown away as the Lutheran community I was raised in would want to declare.[14] We must not go so far with the fall of man that the theology of our original design is negated, but we can declare along with the prophet Jeremiah that in light of the fall the “heart is deceitful above all else.”[15]
            This is most centrally the warning of the prophets and the warning behind thinking that we can build God’s kingdom. It would seem that throughout scripture and the rest of human history humanity there is a tendency toward the idolatry of self and wanting to declare that we will be the God of ourselves, or more implicitly that we can control God’s very will. The tower of Babel, the insistent desire to establish an earthly Kingdom in 1 Samuel 8, the great fall of David, and the greed of Solomon all seem to speak to the danger that comes with blurring the line of God’s kingdom and our own. Jesus’ own disciples fall into this very trap of being preoccupied with who will be on his left and who will be on his right hand in glory.[16] Paul seems to want to continually insist this way of thinking is the thinking of Rome’s Lord, and our existence as citizens of heaven lives in stark contrast to the empire.[17]
            The power of Christ’s death and resurrection then does not lie in the promise of escape to heaven or threat of eternal damnation, nor does lie in building God’s kingdom which will inevitably lead to our own idolatry. However insufficiently, we are called to reflect and show our hope in the newness of life given to us through the death and resurrection of Christ. In a world that is filled with suffering it is sometimes hard to live into our declaration that Christ has defeated death, is Lord of all, and God’s new world has begun. But through the gift of faith we are called to seek out God’s love, justice, and mercy both globally and on a local level. Where goodness is found we are called to celebrate it and continue to examine where God’s rescue plan is taking form. New creation is happening all around us and it is our calling to announce and bring to light the healing of our broken now but not yet world.

[1] 1 Colossians 15:20; Romans 8:18-21
[2] Romans 3-5; Ephesians 2
[3] John 18:36
[4] Yeago Chapter 9 p. 10
[5] Genesis 1:9-28
[6] Yeago Chapter 9 p. 31
[7] Romans 8:21-22
[8] Isaiah 11:9
[9] Isaiah 11:6-8
[10] Isaiah 11:9; Revelation 21:4
[11] Isaiah 11:9; Revelation 21:3
[12] John 20:15-27
[13] 1 Corinthians 15:58
[14] Genesis 1:31
[15] Jeremiah 17:9
[16] Mark 10:35-37
[17] Philippians 3:17-21

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