Monday, October 25, 2010

The Perfect Penitent

In C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, he speaks of what he calls “a frightening alternative.” Either this man Jesus was and is God, come in the flesh…or else he was a lunatic, or something worse…an egomaniacal, manipulative liar. Jesus didn’t seem to fit the description of a madman nor a fiendish liar; and it is hard to believe his own followers would have willingly died to claim that a liar and a fake was the Author of Life and risen from the dead (Acts 3:15).  So Lewis came to this conclusion: “However strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.” But why, and for what purpose? His first followers are unanimous in telling us that Christ came to reclaim this world from the grip of evil, that we are Enemy-occupied territory as Lewis puts it; and that he came to restore our relationship with God (Rom. 5:1) through his incredible life…and, most surprising of all, his terrible death.

(i) How has Christ’s death helped us? It’s a fair question: How could the death of one man 2000 years ago be in any way relevant to us here and now?  What Paul says, very simply, is that “God proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In other words, that somehow God himself was working in and through Christ’s death on our behalf.  Put another way…Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Our relationship with God has been fragmented by pride and stubbornness, by our willful desire to set off on our own, and to turn from the God who made us. Now the only way that relationship can be healed is if we turn back in repentance.

But here is the problem…to turn back to God means a kind of death, the death of our selfish agendas, the death of our sinful nature, the death of our old life, so that we might begin a new life. But that kind of death is not something we can do very easily. In fact, the more hardened we are by sin, the more we need to turn back and the more difficult it is to do it! As it turns out, it really takes a good man to repent, but it’s the bad man who needs it. As Lewis says, “The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person, and he would not need it.”

At this point, some may complain: Why does God need me to grovel at his feet and say “I’m sorry!” before he’ll take me back. Why doesn’t he just do it?” Remember that repentance is not something God requires to take us back…it is simply what turning back to God looks like. To say that we want to turn back to God without repentance is like saying that we want God to take us back without going back; that we want to be free of our sins without being free of them; that we want to love God without really loving him.

The point is, there is no getting around this turning back, this repentance, this death of ourselves. We need to do it…but because of our sin, because of our hardened hearts, we can’t do it. As Paul says, “I can will what is right but I cannot do it” (Romans 7: 18). We need God’s help…but is there help from God? We should be encouraged by the fact that God is helping us all the time. We can think…only because God has put a little of his reason into us. We can love (John says) only because he first loved us, and puts some of his love in us. But now we need God to help us die to ourselves, and turn back to him! How can God help us do that? God doesn’t need to repent (his goodness is perfect) and God can’t die (God is eternal)! But what if God entered our human nature and did for us what we had no desire to do…what if God went to the lowest place, the darkest place and gave himself for us even when we did not know him or love him?

Father Maximilian Kolbe
On July 31st 1941 the Auschwitz sirens announced an escaped prisoner. As a punishment, ten of his fellow prisoners would die in the starvation bunker. As the ten were randomly selected they pointed to one man, Francis Gajowniczek, who cried out, “My poor wife and children.” At that moment, one man stepped forward. “What does this Polish pig want?” asked the commandant. “I am a Catholic priest, I want to die for that man. I am old, he has a wife and children…I have no one” said Father Maximilian Kolbe. “Accepted,” retorted the commandant. That night, Kolbe was put into a starvation bunker…He survived for two weeks as he and the others prayed and sang hymns together, and was eventually put to death by lethal injection. An Auschwitz survivor said about this mighty act of love “It was an enormous shock to the whole camp….Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured and bereft of social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him….Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. To say that Father Kolbe died for us or for that person’s family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands…We were stunned by his act, which became for us a mighty explosion of light in the dark camp.”  Paul says, God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…a mighty explosion of light in a darkened world.

(ii) How is Christ’s life spread to us? The way physical life was given to us can be explained physiologically but the end product is no less awe-inspiring to anyone who has held a newborn baby. Each of us is made of 100 trillion cells (more cells than stars in our galaxy) 23 chromosome pairs in every cell, and 20-25,000 genes in each chromosome. But even the Director of the Human Genome Project (Francis Collins), doesn’t think that genes fully explain the human being; he says it is Jesus, not just genes, that define him. The Bible says there are three ways that the life of Christ is spread to us, and though we can describe them, it makes them no less mysterious or miraculous.

The first is simply Believing in Christ.  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Believing… which is a topic we will discuss more in the future…is not about what we can achieve for God, but a trusting in what God has achieved for us through Christ. When as a child you flung yourself down from a tree into your father or mother’s arms, or ate the food that they placed before you at the table, you were believing and trusting in your parent’s love for you. When we say that we believe in Christ…we are coming to God like children, simply trusting that in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection…the Father has expressed his will and his love for us. But even that belief is a miracle…for Jesus said, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” Even our belief is a gift from God.

The second way his life is spread to us is through Copying Christ.  "No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness…but present your members to God as instruments of righteousness,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 5: 3-5; 6:13). If we want to play basketball like Michael Jordan, we have to do more than wear his jersey and his brand of shoes, we have to present our members, our eyes and ears, legs and arms, our entire bodies to physical conditioning, daily drills, passing, shooting, learning defensive and offensive strategies and, in general, copy the things that he does. Copying Christ, or the imitation of Christ (read the famous book by Thomas a' Kempis) is no different. To grow in Christ-likeness, we must practice. We must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the development of new habits, directing our bodies toward the things that Jesus himself would do if he were us: things like worship, prayer, knowing and living God’s word, helping others, working for what is just and good. But again, even the power to do this…is a gift, a miracle of his grace. Therefore, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” says Paul, “for God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2: 12-13).

The third way that his life is spread to us is by Uniting with Christ in Baptism and Holy Communion. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). The Sacraments remind us and in a special way communicate the Spiritual presence of Christ. They are important because we can’t do them for ourselves, they are done to us. Just as a baby cannot wash or feed herself, so we do not baptize ourselves or prepare the meal at the Lord’s Table. It’s a sign of the cleansing power of God that only he can do. Lewis has a beautiful illustration of this cleansing work…but before I share it with you, I need to address one final question.

(iii) How will you respond to Christ? Some will no doubt object to the idea of having to respond to Christ at all…by virtue of the fact that it is so narrow and exclusive an idea of truth. After all, isn’t it arrogant to say as Jesus does in John 14:6 that, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? Or consider the words of Peter who declares of Jesus, that“there is no other name under heaven by which people must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Lewis was annoyed by this before he became a Christian as well, and says this: “Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”  I think Lewis' point is that, though Scripture tells us that "the wages of sin is death" (Roman 6:23) you and I do not possess perfect knowledge about the final destiny of any human being.  God alone sits in the judgment seat (Matthew 7:1).  When it comes to those who have died without knowledge of Christ...we can be confident that God is infinitely more righteous and just than we could ever be. In the mean time, “the most unreasonable thing for us to do,” as Lewis points out, would be to stay outside ourselves. For Christians not only receive Christ’s Body spiritually by believing in him, copying him, and uniting with him in the Sacraments…we are Christ's Body, and as we begin to follow him, we add another cell to that ever-expanding Body through which Christ is transforming the world. For “Every addition to that body enables Him to do more…”

We've been talking about the meaning of Christ’s death and how he spreads his life into us, beginning the process of our healing. Lewis has a beautiful and powerful way of illustrating the beginning of that healing process in his book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader... 

Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a precocious and obnoxious nine year old who has boarded the Dawn Treader with Prince Caspian, and the other four Pevensie children on a quest that will take them to Aslan’s far country, at the end of the world.  At one point, they are marooned on Dragon Island, where they must make repairs to the damaged ship. Eustace wanders off, trying to avoid the hard work ahead…and stumbles upon a dragon’s cave, where he finds a pile of golden treasure. Falling asleep on the pile of gold, with a gold bracelet on his arm, and thinking all kinds of greedy dragonish thoughts, Eustace turns into a dragon himself….which is probably the best thing that could have happened to him, because now he is forced to look at himself, in all his dragonish ugliness. When he returns to his friends as a dragon, they are able to figure out that it is Eustace, but they are powerless to help.
Six days later, in the morning, a lone figure approaches the camp. It is Eustace, but transformed again into a boy. How did it happen? Eustace tells the story of how a huge lion appears to him, leading him to a well of pure water where he is invited to undress and bathe himself.  Eustace  assumes that the lion wants him to peel off his dragon scales. ..but is unable to do so after three attempts.  Each time he tries to scratch the scales off, another skin appears beneath.  Finally, the lion says to Eustace, "You will have to let me undress you."  Eustace meekly obeys, laying flat down on his back as the lion make a tear so deep...that it feels as if it goes straight into his heart.  The pain of the skin coming off is fierce, but nothing compared to the joy of having it removed.  Eustace is un-draggoned, and in human form once again!  The lion grabs hold of him and throws him into the well where the water stings at first, but then wonderfully soothes and heals him.  "It would be nice and fairly nearly true to say that 'from that time forth Eustace was a different boy.'  To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy.  He had relapses.  There were still many days when he could be very tiresome.  But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, chapter 7, "How the Adventure Ended"). 

Christ is our High Priest whose atoning death has inspired unbelievable acts of sacrificial love...like that of Father Kolbe.  He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, who comes to bring life and joy to those who are deadened by sin; and his promise is that as you trust in his matchless life and atoning death...the cure can begin and continue in you as well. 

For further reading:
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book II, Chapters, 4-5
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 7
Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines


1 comment:

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Excellent, thoughtful, informative post.