Tuesday, December 12, 2006

What It Means to be a Christian

In the Studio 215 Bible studies on Monday nights we've been going through Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Last night we focused on chapter 2, and one thing that struck me in the passage (and the surrounding ones) was how Paul used the phrase "in Christ." He most certainly does not use "in Christ" as some vague, "spiritual" feel-goodism. He is talking about nothing less than the power of the Incarnation (in which Jesus became "in man") accessible to us in the great inheritance grace-granted by God to us; we are -- concretely, realistically, personally -- in the person of Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is in us. This is why Paul uses the phrase in specific contexts:
We are created for good works "in Christ" (Eph. 2:10).
Being "in Christ" does something for us, as it brings us near to God (2:13).
We are all joined together into a living picture of the temple (which is where God lives) when we are "in Him" (2:21-22).

This is what it means to be a Christian. It means to be "in Christ." It means to be connected in a lifeblood way to the redemption and resurrection Christ gives to the faithful.
It is not about admiring Jesus, liking Jesus, having Jesus as your MySpace hero.

Robert Short, in The Parables of Peanuts, his book on spirituality in the Charles Schultz comic strip, writes:
The nominal Christian, then, will see Jesus as a name, a representative, a symbol, a personification, a prototype, a figure, a model, an exemplar for something else. The nominal Christian pays homage to something about Jesus, rather than worshiping the man himself. For this reason, nominal Christians will extol the moral teachings of Jesus, the faith of Jesus, the personality of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus, the world view of Jesus, the self-understanding of Jesus, etc. None of these worships Jesus as the Christ, but only something about him, something peripheral to the actual flesh-and-blood man. This is why when the almighty God came into the world in Jesus, he came as the lowest of the low, as weakness itself, as a complete and utter nothing, in order that men would be forced into the crucial decision about him alone and would not be able to worship anything about him.

So you have Jesus saying things like "If you want to save your life, you gotta lose it" and "The first will be last" and "You must deny yourself." This is no call to some generic optimistic aspirations, no matter how "Christian" they are packaged. This is a call to cease being one's old self. To stop being dead, actually. To die to death and live . . . "in Christ."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that when Christ bids a man come, he bids him to come and die. That's not something you hear from America's pulpits too often these days. We are more accustomed to learning about how to let Jesus make us successful at whatever it is we are trying to do. But when Jesus said "Take up your cross and follow me," the flesh and blood people who heard him 2000 years ago thought only of death. We have the luxury of thinking of "taking up our cross" metaphorically, like it is some ordinary life burden to bear. A difficult spouse or boss. A nagging doubt. A problem with our self esteem. Financial debt. Whatever. But the disciples of Jesus had seen hundreds of literal bodies decaying on literal crosses. "Take up your cross" did not mean "put up with something irritating."

So over and over the New Testament, from Jesus in the Gospels to the apostles in the epistles, tells us -- urges us, commands us -- to be "in Christ." That is where real life is found.
Back in Ephesians 2, verse 14, Paul says that Jesus himself is our peace. Paul will not let us believe for any second there is any virtue or value worth having outside the person of Jesus Christ. Peace is not a general feeling or a universal moral virtue. Jesus Christ himself is peace. Just as love is not niceties or altruistic kindness. God Himself is love. The Bible does this to us over and over again -- it continually points to the triune Creator as the epitome of, the manifestation of, the giver and the gift of all the things we think of as good and right and necessary.

Jesus is not a pop song, snuggly sweater, affectionate boyfriend, poster on your wall, self-help book, motivational speech, warm cup of coffee, ultimate fighting champion, knight in shining armor, Robin to your Batman. He is blood. And without blood, you die.


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