Sunday, February 27, 2011

Self-Destructive Behavior and the Way of Life

Two tabloid regulars made the news again this week: Charlie Sheen for addictive behavior and unmitigated arrogance and Lindsay Lohan for theft and probation violations. The actor Martin Sheen, Charlie’s father and a Catholic Christian, has requested the public to pray for his son; it is, of course, the appropriate response of a father and the appropriate response of the Christian public: Lord, have mercy on Charlie, Lindsay, and on me, a sinner.

Sheen and Lohan point to a great Christian truth, ignored at our peril: Humans do not engage sufficiently in self-destructive behavior. Please read the last sentence again carefully; it is no mistake. The mistake lies in describing Sheen’s and Lohan’s behavior as self-destructive. It is not; it is self-indulgent, and the difference between self-indulgent behavior and self-destructive behavior is salvation itself.

“When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship. In this he echoes Jesus’ won self-destructive invitation:

If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it (Mt 16:24-25, NKJV).

Self-destruction is the cost of discipleship.

The sacrament of baptism – the initiatory rite of Christian discipleship[1] – should alert us to the self-destructive nature and demands of the faith. Baptism is preceded by renunciation: of Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, of the evil powers of the world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, of all sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God. If we do not understand these renunciations as acts of self-destruction, we have been inadequately instructed. Then, the thanksgiving over the water reminds us that the baptismal font holds death – life too, but not before self-destruction: “We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death.” Finally, the baptism itself, if administered by immersion, vividly portrays death and burial. We enter life only through self-destruction. St. Paul writes:

1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? 3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin (Rom 6:1-6, NKJV).

Even after baptism – especially after baptism – we must continue and escalate our self-destructive behavior. Though the power of sin has been broken, its effects remain; these are rooted out bit by bit, throughout a lifetime, by diligent and continual metanoia (repentance), a synonym for self-destruction.

1 If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.5 Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, 7 in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. 8 But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, 10 and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col 3:1-10, NKJV).

And, if this putting off is self-destructive, so, too, is the putting on that discipleship requires.

12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. 14 But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection (Col 3:12-14, NKJV).

These words do not describe the self-indulgent public persona of Sheen and Lohan; too little do they describe my private persona. And so, I thank God that the season of Lent is rapidly approaching. In it the church invites us to embrace self-destructive behavior: to renounce all that separates us from God, to live the death of our baptism, to put off self and put on Christ – to die again and again, bit by bit, in the sure hope of Pascha and resurrection. For the way of self-destruction – the way of the cross – is ultimately the way, and the only way, to life.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but
first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he
was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way
of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and
peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

[1] As found in the service of Holy Baptism, BCP 1979, pp. 298-314.
[2] A Collect for Fridays, BCP 1979, p. 27.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Kingdom and Cross

In a January 2011 speech at Bristol School of Christian Studies (Putting the Gospels Back Together: How We’ve All Misread Our Central Story) Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright makes a compelling case that modern hermeneutics often sacrifices either the kingdom (Gospels) for the cross (Epistles) or else the atonement (Epistles) for social engagement (Gospels). He maintains that these two – kingdom and cross – must never be divorced nor even held in tension, but rather seen as necessary complements: What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The kingdom of God, which is nothing less than the reign of Christ over all creation, was inaugurated in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and reached its climax in the cross (and its aftermath of resurrection and ascension). Bishop Wright notes, in paraphrase, that the cross is the cutting edge of the sword of the kingdom. It is perhaps apt to consider the cross the means of accomplishing the goal of making present the kingdom. Redemption, while personal, is never private; it always has a corporate, kingdom dimension.

I suspect that, with this hermeneutic in place, we will catch glimpses – and more than glimpses – of the kingdom-cross union throughout scripture. As one small case in point, I offer the account of the healing of the paralytic in Luke 5:17-26.

17 Now it happened on a certain day, as He was teaching, that there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come out of every town of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was present to heal them. 18 Then behold, men brought on a bed a man who was paralyzed, whom they sought to bring in and lay before Him. 19 And when they could not find how they might bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the housetop and let him down with his bed through the tiling into the midst before Jesus. 20 When He saw their faith, He said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” 25 Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. 26 And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today” (Lk 5:17-26, NKJV)!

The healing ministry of Jesus is an in-breaking of the kingdom; of this there is ample witness in scripture, not least in Mt 11. Thus, any healing must be seen in a kingdom context. But, the narrative structure of this healing account links it strongly with cross, as well. The visual imagery is perhaps the first key. There is, at the center of the story, a paralytic – confined to bed or pallet, unable to come to Jesus on his own. He is carried by friends, who metaphorically – and perhaps literally – dig through a roof to lower the man and pallet into Jesus’ presence. Can we see here a dead man, carried on a bier, and lowered into a tomb – not without hope – but dead nonetheless? And the cause of the man’s “death”? Sin, the condition which Jesus first addresses: “’Man, your sins are forgiven you.’” And with the forgiveness of sins comes resurrection and new life: “Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God.” It is not a stretch to see this account as a textual icon of the harrowing of hell: Jesus in the midst of sin-bound and dead humanity – by his own death – reaching out to take Adam by the hand, lifting him up to life again. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Thus, what begins as a kingdom story of healing becomes a cruciform story of forgiveness and resurrection. The kingdom comes, this story proclaims, precisely through death, burial, and resurrection and precisely for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the cosmos. Kingdom and cross belong together.

The purpose of this is not just to promote a more faithful and integrated reading of scripture – though that is no small thing – but a more faithful and integrated life in Christ. Some among us evangelize to save the soul but leave the body poor and hungry and naked and homeless; these must embrace Jesus’ kingdom vision – a kingdom that is already (Christ has begun his reign) but not yet (Christ’s reign in not yet universally acknowledged). Some among us pour out our lives in social ministry in the name of compassion and human dignity but not in the name of Christ crucified; these must embrace Jesus’ cross – a cross that is the very essence of compassion and human dignity.

Wright is right: kingdom and cross belong together – in our hermeneutics, in our proclamation, in our lives.