I am accepted. I am loved. I am a new man. Brennan Manning is right: God loves me as I am, not as I should be. These are the statements that we are given to saying as part of our gospel paradigm. And I've been given many good examples of the use of statements like these. They've helped me immeasurably. But I've felt a growing dissatisfaction with the place that they've occupied in myself and in the understanding of a large number of people who are reacting to "nasty old fundamentalism" and it's ilk. And the conclusion that I'm coming to is that these are not central statements to the paradigm we're given by Jesus. They are a point along the way, certainly. But the new paradigm that I have been working with is this: Jesus is worthy because, among other things, he accepts, loves, and makes a new man out of someone like me. Do you see the difference? Those three statements at the opening are true, but the subject is me, and my condition. What I look at is the "new creation," and I rejoice, because a wonderful work has taken place. However with time, and with this as the mainstay, I become confused about the source of the Gospel, and will probably struggle with being sure of my salvation, or with believing that God really loves me. And I will certainly craft a spirituality that concerns itself basically with personal experiences, unhealthy individualism, you know....the "personal Jesus" that Depeche Mode sang about. Ironic, isn't it? The more I concentrate on amorphous "God loves me" statements, the more his love gets lost in the fog. Here's why: "Creation" implies creator. Just like the New Creation implies something like a "New Creator.” I'm thinking of the parallel between John 1 and Genesis 1. If the condition that I've come to, the glorious perfection I now have, doesn't start and end with the Perfector, and gets bogged down in a fascination with my identity in light of the Gospel, the goal will inevitable fade from view.
An awesome brother and friend gave his testimony in church on Sunday, and while I'm very scrupulous not to pick apart what people say when they're giving they're heartfelt testimonies, he illustrated this point very clearly. In describing his conversion(conversions, actually. Like many today, he "got saved" five or six times), he identified the moment where he "finally made himself right with God." Obviously, anyone with any theological understanding has red flags going up everywhere at a statement like this, and there's a good chance if confronted on the statement, he'd admit that he misspoke. But I only want to use it to illustrate my point: my friend went into detail a few times about how he struggled terribly with condemnation, had been told many times that he was destined for hell because he couldn't get things right-- surely we've heard the drill before. My thought was, "is it any wonder, in an evangelical culture in which creating personal experiences of salvation, where one can 'get saved' half a dozen times and 'make themselves right with God' in these experiences, that our lives are paralyzed by guilt and condemnation, as his was and is? This happens because we think our salvation, our condition before God, is the mainstay of the Gospel. It's not.
Is the connection clear? When the story orbits around what happened at 3pm on June 14th, 1993, it's up in the air as to whether Jesus is consuming my attention. When we believe a message which promotes primarily the state of the individual getting saved, their belovedness, their identity as a new creation, their perfection, we are still concentrating on something other than the source. Jesus himself alone is worthy of the kind of all-consuming attention we are designed to give. Our redeemed selves are not. It matters what my eyes see. Thus when I look at myself, and try to understand the gospel in terms of what I see there, no matter how true it may be that I'm redeemed, my eyes do not tell me that. We are not simply spirits, we are bodily(which leads us to something far different than what the docetists would have had us believe). And so my understanding of my condition inevitably rests on what I see myself doing day in and day out. And therein is not always found a great argument for a new creation. That's why Jesus was incarnate, and didn't simply pronounce forgiveness and atonement from the "spirit-plane" of being. Born of a Virgin. Suffered. Was Buried. Now my eyes can rest on him.
The simple reason this confusion happens, I suspect, is that we are here, and Jesus is not. So I can't see him. This statement sounds offensive to many at first. "Jesus is in my heart" is the oft-repeated line that we have used to convince ourselves of his work. He's here. I guess I won't say that's a useless statement, but if that's the foundation we're working with, we're doomed. Is Jesus not omnipresent, since he is one with God? Certainly, but the revelation to us of God-ness, is not found in the omnipresence of God, or in our new creation, or his "presence" in and among us, at least not most fully. It's found in Jesus. So in a way that's very important to Gospel-shaping our paradigm, he's not here. Yet my hard-wired nature is for my attention to be riveted by that which my eyes can see and my ears can hear. So in my zeal to sense Jesus as a present being, my eyes have no choice but to rest on something that's here...and that isn't Jesus. Something that isn't as worthy of my attention. So what I have to remember, and what is crucial to the Gospel, is that someone did see him; that the Gospel is in fact the relation of a historical event, no better yet, of a man. Jesus came to people, talked with them, and displayed the glory of God with hands and feet, amid sweat and dirt. Incarnation is communicated through incarnation. Thus through the ages, the Church carries on the practice of telling. Of relating the event. Amid sweat and dirt. Christmas. Easter. Eating his body and drinking his blood. I know Jesus, the man who isn't here, because someone for whom he was there told someone, who told someone, who told someone....He's not merely a spirit-being, and in a very real sense he's not here. Could this be the reason Luke began the book of Acts with Christ's ascension? To show us that what the apostles did, and what Jesus-people through the ages do, is done in remembrance of his coming, and in anticipation of his coming back. It's done in light of events. Or as Luther said "live like Jesus rose from the dead yesterday, and is coming back tommorrow." To know him is to know him now, but the one who I know now is known through historical events laid down in text.
This could be the resolution to a number of ongoing debates, I suspect. I'm thinking of Catholic vs. Protestant views of justification, Calvinist vs. Arminian uber-fascination with the moment of salvation...but I suppose that's for another time.
You could go on and on with the implications(which is why it's a paradigm). Is the celebration of communion designed to focus on the effect of his broken body and shed blood....or on objective fact of his broken body and shed blood? When I read the Bible, is the paradigm essentially "give me bits of information that apply to my life," or is it "show me Jesus, so I may know him, for knowing him is eternal life(John 17:3)?" It is only when Jesus himself fascinates me that I begin growing out of different soil.
That's why Jesus became something we can look at. So we would look at him.