Light and Life Has Come

Thirty years ago, Hurricane Hugo unexpectedly roared into Charlotte, and with it a number of things we assumed were true were turned on their ears. We thought that a hurricane could never strike a major American city 200 miles inland. Even if it did, it would not be strong enough to damage our power, water, and transportation. Those of us who lived in and around Charlotte thought we were essentially safe from the tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes that ravaged other parts of the country, and outside of the occasional nuisance from a line of thunderstorms, we would be fine.

When Charlotteans woke up that following morning, our lives had been seriously disrupted. Personally, what was supposed to be a normal work day in a normal week turned into several days with no power and no gas in the tank. Combined with fifteen trees down in the backyard, it became rather grim. But, I was much better off that many of my neighbors who had homes and cars smashed by falling trees.  This was no mere thunderstorm. Recovery would take weeks and months.

We woke up to the reality that what we had assumed would never happen, happened! A hurricane had just hit a city 200 miles inland, and it was us. We had no power. Many of us had no water. The streets were blocked with falling tree limbs.  We had to figure out how to do essential things like eat, clean our clothes and ourselves, and care for our children.

Even more unsettling, we woke up and discovered that we were not as safe as we originally thought. There is a provisional nature to our lives, and we live amidst a world with far less ability to control our circumstances than we would like to admit. Our illusions of security and safety are just that–illusions! We’re reminded of that every once in awhile–events like 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008-9, the Japanese earthquake and subsequent meltdown of nuclear reactors, and the myriad of school and workplace shootings of the past several years.

Disruption and uncertainty become personal

Times of disruption and uncertainty often lead us toward deeper questions about our lives–questions that we normally do not ponder but that are always there. We can hold those at bay when the tragedy happens to someone else or happens in another part of the country or world. But, when it affects us (and none of us goes through life immune to personal and societal tragedy), the questions about who we are and why do we find ourselves here in this place and at this time can easily come front and center in our thinking and our feelings.

Those of you who have lived in and around Charlotte for many years may remember the life of Sandy Ford. Sandy, the son of evangelist Leighton Ford, died at age 21 after heart surgery at Duke Medical Center in 1981 (the year before my wife, Renee, and I moved to Charlotte). He graduated from Myers Park High School, was a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a leader among the many Christian students on that campus.

In his just released memoir A Life of Listening: Discerning God’s Voice and Discovering Our Own (InterVarsity, 2019), Leighton remembers the long night drive home with his wife Jean to Charlotte from Duke. And he remembers what went through his mind the following morning: “When we woke up the next morning to the realization that our lives had changed forever, we were at first numb, unbelieving. And then grief’s nuclear reactor set in. He is gone. He will not be back. Why had the doctors failed to get Sandy’s heart started again?” (114, italics mine).

It may not be the death of a child, but every person, every human being, you and I included will face things that stop us cold in our tracks. You’ve been there. I’ve been there. More than once, I’m sure. And when those times come, we struggle with emotions, feelings, and questions beyond our ability to name, let alone struggle with.  The questions look something like these:

Who am I, especially in light of this deep tragedy or loss?

Why has this happened?

Where have I come from and where am I going in light of this?

To whom do I belong?

Where can I go to be safe?

Light out of darkness

Advent and Christmas are seasons where Christians focus on what we call the “Incarnation”–that specific moment in human history when God became a human being in Jesus Christ. At the beginning of the fourth gospel in the New Testament, the gospel of John, we read that Jesus, the very Word of God, has come to earth to live among us. I think that our responses to those questions just posed begin to find their shape in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see in Jesus someone who can care for us in the midst of tragedy, suffering, and pain. We see how in the midst of uncertainty, death, fear, and hopelessness, he offers light and life.

The opening section of John’s gospel describes the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in several vital ways. First, John tells us that Jesus was with God at the very beginning of creation and that with his Father, he participated in the very creation of the heavens and the earth. Compare the first five verses of John’s Gospel with the first five verses of Genesis in the Old Testament and you will see how John uses the Incarnation of Jesus Christ to explain God’s creative activity in all of the heavens and on earth.

We then read in verses six through nine that God is light, and that he sends his Son Jesus Christ to be the light of the world. In an uncertain, at times brutal and cold existence characterized by darkness–God is light and that light is most clearly seen in His Son.

This past Friday, we had our annual Gordon-Conwell Christmas gathering and worship. It is a joyous time when staff and faculty, along with a number of students and alums gather to celebrate Advent and Christmas. The campus is decorated with festive trees and wreaths, and this year we added a beautiful Advent wreath to our chapel display. When I walked in, I immediately knew that we are at this special time in the Christian calendar.

One of our alums, Melanie Spinks, is an artist by profession who also teaches art at Wingate University. Melanie showed us a copy of a beautiful painting by the renown Dutch painter Rembrandt. His Christian faith was integral to his work, and Melanie showed us a key to understanding this particular Rembrandt painting. “Look for the light, and notice the contrast between light and darkness.” Sure enough, there it was for all to see if you knew what to look for.

In the same way, Jesus Christ shines light on our darkness, wherever we find ourselves in our journey on earth. What does that mean? We live in a tragic world–a world fraught with struggle, difficulty, and complexity; where our responses to the questions posed above are not necessarily apparent. But, over time if we follow Jesus Christ our responses begin to be shaped by him and by the reality that the Triune God is unchanging in the midst of lives and a world that never stops changing. All of life is temporal. The Triune God alone is permanent.

Note verse nine of the first chapter of John’s gospel–“The true light that gives light and life to everyone in the world was coming into the world.”

Our oneness with the Triune God

In taking on human form, John tells us that Jesus makes his dwelling among us. I like how Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of the New Testament titled The Message translates this. The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. That says it so well. Through Jesus, we see what God is like as he lives among us. Jesus is the fullness of God lived out in the world through his life, death, and resurrection–visible for all of us to see.

One more important thing that John tells us about the incarnation is this: Even though none of us has actually seen God the Father, Jesus has, because he “is himself God and in the closest relationship with the Father” (1:18). One of the primary themes found here and throughout John gospel is the oneness of Jesus with his Father. This is an essential building block for Christian teaching concerning the Trinity. And, I want to suggest one idea that I think grows out of this theme, an idea important for following Jesus today.

Paul teaches in the sixth chapter of Romans that the goal of the Christian life is that we learn to live “in Christ.” When we follow Jesus, we become united with Christ. Union with Christ then works it way out in our everyday lives. Then, John takes us a further step on this pilgrimage of faith. As we are united with Christ, and as Jesus is one with this Father, so we as his adopted sons and daughters learn to actually participate in the very Triune life of God. Living “in Christ” means that as we travel the journey of faith, we learn to to live in fellowship with and dependence upon the Triune God.

It is easy to think of Christian faith is completely transactional. Many times, our evangelical language communicates exactly that. But, if Christian faith is primarily relational (which I think it is), then conversion is a declaration of allegiance–a time when we declare our loyalty to Jesus Christ, when we trust him not only for salvation but our very lives. Conversion is not a mere transaction, but entry into ongoing relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

My Gordon-Conwell colleague, Don Fairbairn, has helped me see that not only is this idea of our participation in the Triune life of God a deeply biblical theme but that it also is found in the writings of patristic Christian writers–folks like St. Athanasius and St. Augustine. Moreover, if conversion is a declaration of allegiance, then the Christian life means a journey of faith where we are drawn into deeper relationship with our creator. As I suggested above, our responses to the questions about our own existence and human existence become shaped by Jesus Christ.

I don’t have to tell you that American evangelicalism has become impotent. We’re bound by so many temporal loyalties that our allegiance to Christ has become questionable. We’re in danger of becoming like the Deutschechristen, the so-called “German Christians” who surrendered their identity as the people of God for Hitler’s satanic dream of a world driven by his dictatorial madness. A half-century ago, the 20th century prophets Francis Schaeffer and Jacques Ellul warned us of what would happen if we abandoned our Lord and Savior for a technological society of personal peace and affluence.

So, where is your allegiance? Where is my allegiance? To declare allegiance to the Triune God, the one God who alone is eternal, is to reject unfettered allegiance to  temporal loyalties. Lord, may we be truly converted. May we walk the journey of faith in allegiance to God participating in his very Triune life as we travel to the celestial city.

This post is based on a talk that I shared with folks in the Faith-builders adult life group at Calvary Church on Saturday, December 7, 2019 as we gathered for our annual Christmas party at the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I’m grateful to the class for the opportunity to share these words with them.

 

A Third Theological Revolution

Two times in my adult life, I have experienced dramatic change in how I understood and practiced Christian faith. The first occurred in my early twenties with a transition away from a more emotionally based faith (that even included some association with classic Pentecostalism) that could not address the intellectual questions I was wrestling with in college. The catalyst was a little book by John Stott titled Your Mind Matters and the heft was delivered by Os Guinness’s powerful tome titled The Dust of Death published by InterVarsity in 1972. Guinness not only help me to grasp the significance of the 1960s but offered an evangelical faith that spoke to the hard questions sparked by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the various social revolutions that had emerged in the United States.

Finding a faith that spoke to the modern world

So, I found a biblically-based understanding of faith that served as an anchor for a season of deep emotional pain and stress that I experienced in the mid-1970s. If you are like me, you know that the stresses of our early young adult years can play all kinds of havoc on our persons, especially when we need to struggle with how our faith relates to the modern world. And, my introduction to the modern world of working in a Christian school for a couple of years was not a very happy one. In fact it was bad enough to drive me into therapy.

But Stott and Guinness were good guides, especially as I went off to Fuller Seminary to finish my first advanced degree and serve the Advent Christian Church with my vocation. Eventually, I wound up in Charlotte and found a whole set of new challenges–especially adjusting to how Christianity was practiced in the American South. I remember seeing my first public Ku Klux Klan demonstration in broad daylight at the corner of Independence Blvd. and Idlewild Road five months after we had moved. “You’re not in Kansas (or California) anymore,” I thought to myself.

Moving away from rationalist faith

Seeing the Klan do their thing was only part of it. I witnessed some pretty tough church fights and struggled to come to terms with how Christians could be so cruel to each other. I had seen the same thing in California, but this time it touched off the start of another important transition in how I looked at the faith. But the challenge reached a crescendo in 1989 at a theological conference I attended outside of Chicago. Here I saw the dark side of American Evangelicalism. The evangelical elite was attempting to draw doctrinal boundaries and a few presentations got pretty ugly, especially when one of the views I held was denounced as heresy by a TV evangelist. (No, it was not Jim Bakker.)

I didn’t react very well and looking back, I should have simply folded my tent and walked away. Driving home, I realized that I had pretty much bought into the standard Evangelical way of thinking. Believing the Bible, but analyzing it using the canons of logic and human reason. I was a Carl Henry evangelical, and all of a sudden I realized that would no longer work, and that I had become what the UNC Chapel Hill historian Molly Worthen would later describe as an “Apostle of Reason.” Richard Foster had opened my eyes to the affective dimension of faith, and now it was time to jump in. And, out of that, my faith came to a point where the cognitive and affective could be integrated in a way that would draw me toward what the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 6 as “union with Christ.”

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Western Christianity began defining faith as a transaction, as an enterprise, as something that can be manufactured by technology. We spend inordinate amounts of time patrolling our theological borders looking for the “undocumented” among us.

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And there I have lived for the past 25 years,  learning to read Scripture through a different lens and devouring works by Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and especially  Henri Nouwen, Dallas Willard, and a number of writers on the spiritual life. So I reached my sixties thinking that all was well–that is until 2016. It was a rough year–another back surgery,  the demands of a busy academic schedule, the death of my 95-year-old mother whom we had moved from New Mexico in early 2012, and a season when it seemed like the United States and American evangelicalism were coming unglued. I wasn’t looking for it, but I should have known. It was time for another major transition in the way I understand the Christian faith. This one has been sparked with my dissatisfaction with the sad state of American evangelicalism in America 2019.

Life in the Trinity

Anyway, I’m still working this one out, but I want to communicate its broad strokes. It has to do with a fresh reading of the early creeds and confessions, especially the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, and my growing conviction that much of American Christianity has cut itself off from the historic Christian faith especially in terms of how we grasp the Triune existence and work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Western Christianity seems to have reduced Christian faith to a transaction–a decision that somehow makes one right with God without the ongoing work of the Spirit. But the more one reads Holy Scripture, the clearer it becomes that the essence of Christian faith is relational–relationship with God and as a result learning practices that deepen that relationship and enable us to express it among the people of God and among people outside of the faith.

First the best way to read Scripture is through the the bifocal lens of the early Christian fathers and the creeds and confessions.  Scripture grounds the gospel in human history– in concrete events surrounding our Lord’s death and resurrection. Moreover, Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God frames the Christian faith in the biblical symphony of creation, fall, redemption, and consumnation (what N.T. Wright calls “new creation”).

The early Church Fathers (and mothers) understood this far better than we do. I do not claim that these early Christian writers spoke with one voice on all matters. But I am saying that if we read early Christian writers like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine we discover an understanding of faith far more biblical than our modern encrustations allow us to see, especially because how we understand things is clogged by our addictions to technology and American individualism.

Even more, the sixteenth-century reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, understood this and their work reflects a love for the early Christian creeds and the value of the early Church fathers. They were in touch with the early Christian writers in ways that we are not. The Catholic scholar, Robert Louis Wilkin, argues that what emerged from early Christian writing was much more than mere teaching and writing. They crafted an intellectual and affective understanding of life and worship in all of its dimensions that was grounded in what the church taught about Jesus Christ.

Second,  adoption is the key metaphor in understanding the essence of Christian salvation. What happens when we commit to following Jesus? We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. In John’s gospel, over and over Jesus reflects on his oneness with his Father. It is the essence of his identity. Then, in Romans 6 Paul reminds us that followers of Jesus are “united with Christ” meaning that our very identity is shaped by our ongoing relationship with the risen Christ. Through Jesus Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of God and through our adoption we are united with Jesus Christ in ongoing  relationship. Just as Jesus is the Father’s natural Son, so we are adopted sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ. This leads to the following.

Third, the Christian life is “life in the Trinity,” where we learn to relationally participate in the Triune life of God as his adopted sons and daughters. I think I’ve known this intuitively but since 2016 it has come front and center especially as I’ve watched so many evangelicals sell their souls to the political idols of our day. About 250 years ago, Western Christianity began defining faith as a transaction, as an enterprise, as something that can be manufactured by technology. We spend inordinate amounts of time patrolling our theological borders looking for the “undocumented” among us. Even when we find agreement with others in different groups on 90 percent of what we believe, we become like those evangelicals at that 1989 conference I attended ready to go to theological war over things that we perceive as a threat.

My Christian friends in eastern churches like the Coptic Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox churches see the goal of the Christian life in far different terms. This is not to say that they are anywhere near perfect in following Christ or that they don’t have conflict over theological and political matters. Or that they have no need for reform. But while Western Christianity sees faith as transactional, Eastern Christianity sees it more in relational terms. Nowhere is that better seen than in how Eastern Christians understand the Christian life, what the theologians call “sanctification.”

Western Christians given their transactional approaches to faith see the Christian life reflected in outward practices. Catholics see outward participation in the sacramental life of the church as the ground for Christian life. American Fundamentalism has viewed it in terms of avoidance–non-participation in practices defined by their leadership as “worldly.” Mainline Protestants see it as participation in activities related to their approved understandings of “social justice.” Evangelicals have tended toward the need for theological precision, an impossibility given the conflicts between Baptists and Pentecostals, Methodists and Presbyterians, and a host of disagreements about how best to frame Christian teaching. Eugene Peterson describes all of this for what it is: “Spiritual pornography is prayer and faith without relationship, intimacy with Jesus reduced and debased into an idea or cause to be argued or used” (Tell it Slant, 2008).

Eastern Christianity (and not just Eastern Orthodoxy) tends to view the matter differently. The Christian faith involves learning to participate in the divine life of the Trinity as his adopted sons and daughters. One of my Gordon-Conwell colleagues commented about the importance of this discovery for his own faith. “Oftentimes, I would wake up and wonder how I could find Christian community. Now, I wake up and realize that I don’t have to go find Christian community, because I am already living in community with the the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  Exactly.

For a few years back in the 1980s, I subscribed to USA Today. Then I stopped for this reason: Every time I read their editorial page it presented a new “issue of the day” for me to worry about and for me to “virtue signal” that I was fired up and concerned about their flavor of the day. That is an exhausting way to live. What is better is learning to know God and participate in his Triune life. From that posture, I can then live with purpose while recognizing my human limits. I cannot fix America or the world. I cannot even fix myself. But i can align myself with the Triune God because he is sovereign and he sustains me as I live in community with him simply because I am a recipient of his amazing grace.

As I said above, I’m still working out all of this especially as I witness the decline of American Evangelicalism. Perhaps that decline is best because we can stop with the “virtue signaling” and allow the Spirit to draw us deeper as individuals and communities of faith into what actually matters–the Triune God himself.

Jesus, the Fullness of God’s Glory

“In the beginning…” With those words the Apostle John links Jesus Christ to the creation of heaven and earth described in Genesis One. Jesus Christ, the very Word of God, was “with God in the beginning,” and through Christ “all things were made.” Moreover, Jesus Christ, the very word of God, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God has taken on human form through Christ, and through him not only do humans have opportunity to see the very nature and character of the Triune God, but “grace and truth [come] through Jesus Christ.”

Note how John 1:14-18 parallels Exodus 33-34. First, God’s word is revealed through the Torah, and then even more fully in Jesus Christ. Second, Moses tells us that God dwelt among his people in the tabernacle (Exod 33:10-16). John teaches that Jesus Christ, the very word of God, “tabernacled” among us (Jn 1:14). Moses beheld the glory of God. Jesus disciples beheld the glory of the Son, and in both instances that glory was full of grace and truth. While no one can see all of God’s glory (Exod 33:20), it has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Recently, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around a staggering reality: that the God of the universe became a human being, lived among us, died, and was raised to life so that each of us would have the possibility of reconciliation with our Creator. When we embrace that reality, nothing can ever be the same in our lives, in our relationships with others, and how we live in the world. The New Testament scholar Ben Witherington suggests that the entire New Testament can be seen as its writers struggling to come to grips with this reality.

I wonder if this has become so familiar to us that it no longer amazes us. So many evangelicals live their lives as if God doesn’t exist, or if he does, that he needs lots of help from us to accomplish his purposes. Perhaps we need to step back and once again ponder what it is we claim to believe and teach. Perhaps we need to consider what God desires for his followers, and that is simply that we learn to participate in his Triune life as his adopted daughters and sons. That is a journey that begins now and will stretch through all eternity.