08 July 2018

The Goal of the Christian Life

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Luke 4:14-21 & 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

I was recently asked by a church member, "What is the goal of the Christian life?"  This is an enormous question, of course. I could have tried to summarize the teaching of the Church over the ages and talk in generalities. Instead, I decided to speak from the heart.  This is my answer, offered in the hope that it might resonate with the stirrings of your heart, and be helpful in your journey.

Around the time of my freshmen year in college I found myself in an existential crisis.  I was depressed, confused, anxious, troubled.  I found myself having a lot of questions: about myself, my family, my community, my church, my faith, my life, my place in the wider world.  I was in a season of discernment as I tried to figure out the meaning and purpose of my life.  I wasn’t conscious of it then, but I was essentially trying to answer the question the poet Mary Oliver asks in her poem “The Summer Day. “Tell me,” she asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

While all of this was happening, I taught the senior high Sunday School class at my home church, the First Presbyterian Church in North Arlington, NJ.  It was up to me to choose the curriculum.  Around that time, I stumbled upon a book sitting on the shelves in the Christian educator’s office with a curious title, The Worry and Wonder of Being Human.[1] It was written by pastor-theologian Albert Curry Winn, former president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminar.  The discovery of this book was a gift to me.  I devoured the opening chapters of the text.  Winn quoted the most fascinating thinkers, writers, poets who led me deeper into the question of what it means to be human and what it means to live the Christian life.  It was built around Psalm 8 (one of my favorite psalms): “Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:1, 3-5).  The worry and the wonder of being human is experienced in the tension of this paradox.

Before the immensity of the heavens, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) encountered a similar kind of existential shock.  “When I consider the short duration of my life,” he said, “swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”[2]

Winn introduced me to the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)—I came to love the word existential (still do).  It gave expression to my own struggle and questions around what does it mean to exist: what is the meaning of my existence? Who am I? What is this world?  Why am I here?  Who lured me into this life? Why was I not consulted? Now that I’m here, what do I do?  What is this world?  What does it mean to be human, alive, now, at this time, to be given this life?  As my mentor James Loder (1931-2001) would often ask, “What is a life and what is it for?”[3] These soulful questions, together, are like a strong, steady current flowing through the river of my life from an early age. They shaped my studies at Rutgers College, and later at Princeton Seminary, as I delved into the connection between psychology and theology.  As I look back now, they informed my doctoral work, and are the motivations behind my current interest in Jungian psychology.  These questions have shaped my understanding of what it means to be a Christian, what is the goal of the Christian life.  They have informed my ministry and my preaching.  To put it a different way, I am a Christian—and remain a Christian—because the gospel addresses, speaks to, and helps me to answer these ultimate questions. 

The goal of the Christian life is, for me, directly related to the goal of human life. The goal of human life is that we live out a meaningful, fulfilling, generous life.  As I’ve shared many times over the years, there are two Greek words that translate into the English word “life.”  There’s bios, as in biology.  This is ordinary life, life functioning at the lowest level.  And there’s zoe, which is fulfilled life, meaningful life, intense life.  When Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it in all its fullness (John 10:10), he’s talking about zoe.  When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, the life,” the Greek is zoe (John 14:6).  The goal of the Christian life is that we enter more deeply and profoundly into the zoe-giving life of Christ.  In other words, the goal of the Christian life is that we come alive, fully alive, that we share in Christ’s life who calls us to life—to resurrection. 

Based upon my experience and my reading of scripture, and in light of the transforming power that the gospel has had on my life, this is how I would respond to the question.  The Bible doesn’t speak to this question with one voice.  Theologians across the ages have offered a variety of responses to this question.  There are many ways to answer it.  One other succinct answer might be: grace and gratitude.  In response to God’s grace, we willingly, joyfully offer gratitude through praise and service, through worship and work in the world. When the Westminster Divines met in 1648 to write the Westminster Shorter Catechism, they came up with a good summary statement.  “What is the chief end of man?" the Catechism asks us.  And the answer, “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”[4] 

In this light, there are some understandings of the Christian life that I don’t espouse.  First, Christian life is about more than being nice or good in the eyes of society.  Jesus was more than a teacher of morality.  Being a Christian is not merely a synonym for being a good person. I grow impatient when I see Christianity reduced to ethics, when the Christian life is reduced to a moral code, moralisms, do-gooderism engaging in works of charity.  There is a moral, ethical dimension to the Christian life, to be sure.  But you don’t have to be Christian to do good things.  I know plenty of atheists who are quite good at doing good work, I would even say, doing God’s work. The Christian life should be ethical—we live out a biblical ethnic, which often means being at odds with the prevailing moral views of society.

Second, I don’t think the Christian life is about saving souls for heaven.  It’s not our job to save anyone.  That’s God’s job.  We are called to bear witness to the truth of the gospel with our lives.  We are called to tell people about Jesus.  To follow where Jesus leads us.  And while I believe in life everlasting, the Christian life shouldn’t obsess about whether or not one is going to heaven.  Until we get there, it’s this life that matters. That it might be “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

And, third, I don’t think the Christian life should be spent fighting over theological ideas or being anxious about getting our beliefs right or worrying about doubt.  Yes, theology matters.  Good theology is a healing balm for the church and for our lives and the world. But the call to follow Jesus is more than ideas or defending ideas or beliefs against heresy.  Theology should help us participate more fully in the zoe-giving life of Christ.

Let’s return to zoe, to life.  The early theologian Irenaeus (130-202) wrote, “The glory of God is each and every one of us fully alive.”  This sentence, this theological claim has meant a lot to me for many years now.  It’s one of the best summaries, I think, of the Christian life.  In Christ, God’s glory is revealed through a fully human life. This means for the one in Christ, the more we come alive—in all its dimensions, mind, body, soul—when a human life is living abundantly, generatively with meaning, purpose, with grace, the glory of God shines through us.  This is the mystery of the Incarnation. Through Jesus’ humanity we see God’s glory.  And if we are “in Christ,” if we share in Christ’s humanity, if we are participating in his life, then, it could be said, we are on the way to becoming more human.  Theologically-speaking, Jesus was fully human.  By God’s grace, we’re on the way to becoming fully human.[5]  The Christian life is essentially humanization. And evil, therefore, can be understood as everything that hampers or hinders human flourishing, everything that dehumanizes.  Humanization is the work of the Holy Spirit, whose task it is to make sure nothing hinders and or hampers the full flourishing of God’s children. Theologians also call this sanctification.

For me, this is beautifully illustrated with Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth.  This scene marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel.  This is extremely significant, and sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel.  The Spirit of the Lord, Jesus tells us, is now at work upon him, upon Jesus, “because he has anointed me to bring news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,” to proclaim the year of God’s Jubilee.  Release.  Recovery.  Liberty or redemption.   Release, recovery, redemption of human beings who are held captive and oppressed.  That’s what the Spirit is doing through Jesus. That’s what Jesus came to do.  That’s what the Spirit is still doing through us.  This is what the Christian life should be about and is about when the Spirit is at work in us.  It’s about coming alive and helping others come alive.  Releasing the captives, entering into human suffering, sharing in it, and working to alleviate suffering, offering compassion, offering a new future, offering hope, offering Jubilee. This means we engage the powers that be, speak truth in love to the powers, the powers that oppress God’s children, that separate God’s children from their parents, the powers that dehumanize God’s children, keeping them stuck in grinding poverty.  The Spirit seeks the transformation of the world, the redemption, the healing of the powers that oppress and harm and sicken God’s children.

This vision was beautifully captured and embodied by Fred Rogers.  He was all about the saving of children.  In caring for the child, he was also caring for the inner-child who always remains a part of us. As a Presbyterian minister, this was his ministry.  The recent release of the movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor? gives witness to the power of Rogers’ ministry. Writing in The New York Times this past week, David Brooks commented on the number of adults coming out of the theatre in tears.  People are being moved to tears by the power of goodness.  Hearts are being touched and transformed.

And the Spirit seeks the ongoing transformation of the human heart.  This, too, is how we become fully human.  Paul’s letter to the Corinthians beautifully captures this when he says, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord, there is freedom.  And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17-18).  This is a sublime text.  It shows us that the follower of Christ essentially participates in the mystery of God.  When we encounter the Spirit, most profoundly through the intimacy of prayer, we participate in the liberty of God, the God who offers freedom and liberty, who wants us to thrive and come to life.  In the intimacy of that relationship we are free to look into the eyes of Christ, in whose eyes we see reflected back to us a clearer image of who we really are.  Our false faces and personas—the masks we hide behind, the false self we would rather preserve than live from an authentic, true self, the self-images distorted by sin and shame—are unveiled in the presence of the One who is freedom. They are slowly, bit by bit over time, pulled away by his graceful gaze. “The Spirit…peel[s] off the layers of illusion and defensiveness, so we can see things as they really are.”[6]  Face-to-face with the Lord the Spirit, the Spirit of freedom, the masks and false personas melt away, and we are changed—our faces, our self-images are transfigured. We discover our true face and are finally prepared to receive the gaze of the One who will never turn away from us, the face that won’t go away, who loves us through and through, who has loved us from the beginning of time.  From one degree of glory to another, over time. It’s through this face-to-face encounter we become human.  As we become more human, more authentically ourselves, as Jesus was authentically himself, our lives glorify God, we share in God’s glory, and people may even see reflected in us something of God’s glory.  The Spirit seeks our transformation.

The Spirit is at work in us.  The Spirit is at work in the world.  What is the goal of the Christian life?  Transformation.  The Spirit seeks transformation.  The healing of the human heart, our own personal growth and development as Christians has a direct bearing upon the reformation and transformation of the world. When we are changed, the world is changed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said, “To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way…but to be a human being—not a type of human, but the human Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular world.” [7] As Christians, we get to join in the work of the Spirit, the same Spirit at work in Jesus, when we, like Jesus, share in the suffering of God in the world, and then work to bring release to the captives, when we offer liberty, when we help people come alive and thrive as human beings.

I pulled out my copy of The Worry and Wonder of Being Human this week.  I haven’t looked at it in a long time.  I was struck by my notes and comments and markings.  These sentences, which I had underlined, leapt off the page at me: “The Christian is meant to be lived, not just discussed.”  Winn says, “The Christian life man or woman is a pilgrim…en route, in transit, on the road.”  We are “on the way from what [we] have been to what [we] will be.”  “For the Christian, the worry of being human is very small compared with the wonder of it….  The wonder of our destiny beckons us on. What shall we be when God finishes what [God] has begun in us?  It exceeds all our dreaming and imagining.”[8]  What shall we be when God finished what God has begun in us?  What shall we be?

[1] Albert Curry Winn, The Worry and Wonder of Being Human (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1966).
[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (“Thoughts”) from 1669. Cited in William Barrett, Death of the Soul:  From Descartes to the Computer (New York:  Anchor/Doubleday, 1986), 8. 
[3] The core theological question posed by James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1998).
[4] Question 1 and Answer, Westminster Shorter Catechism (1648), Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
[5] This insight was inspired by Colin E. Gunton in Christ and Creation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).
[6] Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2016), 56.
[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), 361.
[8] Winn, 5, 26, 31.