December 18, 2017

Another Look: Eschatological Me

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Note from CM: This is one of my favorite posts that I have written. The concept I discuss here is, in my view, a genuine key to Christian self-identity and practice. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand at a glance, so I hope you’ll take some time thinking about what I write here and that we can talk about what it signifies for our daily lives.

• • •

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.(Gal. 2:20, KJV)

You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Col. 3:3, CEB)

On a Monday afternoon a few years ago, as I was waiting to board the bus to return home from Chicago, I walked across the street from the south side station to McDonalds. I had to go to the bathroom…bad.

This particular restaurant is not in the greatest neighborhood, and I noticed a sign on the wall that the bathroom was locked because of vandalism; one had to ask at the counter for someone to open the door. So I stood at the side of the counter and the young clerk looked rather disdainfully at me and said, “The restroom is for purchasing customers.” I said OK and waited. I was going to buy something, but a bodily need more urgent than thirst was demanding my attention.

I didn’t realize right away that she wanted me to buy something first before she would open the bathroom, so I stood there hoping she was just finishing up with her customer and then she would help me. She, however, interpreted my standing there as stubborn insistence that I wasn’t going to buy anything but was going to sneak in the bathroom when someone else entered. So she raised her voice at me and said it again: “Paying customers only!”

I got a little angry. I told her I really wasn’t interested in buying food and then taking it into the bathroom; that I was going to buy something but wanted to use the bathroom first. I might have muttered something unkind under my breath as well. She would have none of it. So I went to the counter and bought a Diet Coke. The girl said she would hold it for me until I came out.

There I was, a chaplain, a pastor. Inspirational black gospel music was playing in the restaurant. I had just spent the morning learning and discussing theology with my sainted professor and fellow divinity students. And I was on the verge of cussing out a young woman in public because she wouldn’t open the bathroom door for me.

I could have blamed it on the fact that I had been up since two a.m. with only a few fitful hours of sleep. I was tired and ready to go home. I was in a bit of a time crunch, fearing I might miss my bus. My bodily needs were screaming at me. I had my reasons.

Also, I think of myself as a fairly trustworthy person, and to be honest, it was insulting that she didn’t trust me. Of course I understood where I was and the kinds of people she had to deal with all day. I’m sure I didn’t appear all that impressive to her — in dungarees and ball cap, with scraggly beard and circles under my eyes. But her automatic dismissal and distrust awakened the dragon in me.

I had, at that moment and upon further consideration, yet another opportunity to reflect on what Jürgen Moltmann calls, “the notion of paradoxical identity,” his phrase for the famous theological dictum, “simul iustus et peccator” (at the same time righteous and a sinner).

But I think somewhat differently about that concept these days. I’ve come to understand it in eschatological terms.

Many people understand the sinner-saint duality as an ontological, psychological reality: part of me is a saint, part of me is a sinner; I am a mixture and no matter how hard I try, I will regularly fall short because I am, after all, never fully free from my sinful condition. However, I also have the seeds of sainthood in my spirit, and there is a godly part of me that wants to do and is capable of doing good.

In other words, I live a kind of Jekyll and Hyde existence — this is now my nature as a Christian.

However, there may be a better way of thinking about this. Let’s start with a quote from Wilfried Joest:

The simul is not the equilibrium of two mutually limiting partial aspects but the battleground of two mutually exclusive totalities. It is not the case that a no-longer entire sinner and a not-yet completely righteous one can be pasted together in a psychologically conceivable mixture; it is rather that real and complete righteousness stands over against real and total sin…The Christian is not half-free and half-bound, but slave and free at once, not half-saint, but sinner and saint at once, not half alive, but dead and alive at once, not mixture but gaping opposition of antitheses.

• quoted in Justification Is for Preaching

Joest goes on to point out — and I agree with him — that I am both a sinner and a saint is not so much a description of my inner constitution as it is a statement about my participation in both this age and in the age to come. It is a statement of eschatological realities.

Paul speaks of this age as the realm of sin, the flesh, the world. It is the domain that is “in Adam,” and under divine condemnation, for God has passed judgment on it. As a human being who has not yet been glorified, I live in this realm. I participate in the death-dealing thoughts, words, and actions that characterize this kingdom. As much as I might try to justify myself, the divine verdict always comes back: sinner. As long as I live in this transient reality, I live under this verdict. I am sinner.

On the other hand, in Christ, another verdict has been declared toward me. United to him by God’s grace through faith, I have a share in all that is his. Like Abraham who believed, faith has been reckoned to me as righteousness. The verdict of my standing before God as a member of his people at the final judgment has been declared in anticipation of that event: I am saint. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).

So, the eschatological reality is: I am both total sinner and total saint. 100% of each.

As long as I live in this age — in the flesh, in the world, beset by sin — I will never be not-sinner.

As long as I am in Christ — I will never be not-saint.

Both of these statements reflect the truth about me.

I think the verses quoted at the beginning of this post reflect this reality. In Galatians 2:20, the apostle expresses the simultaneous dualities of my life eloquently:

  • I am crucified but nevertheless alive;
  • I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me;
  • I live my life in the flesh but I live by Christ’s faithfulness.

We also see this concisely stated in Colossians 3: I have died and my life is hidden with Christ in God. Paul goes on in that context to talk about those aspects of my life that “remain upon the earth.” Though he is using spatial imagery here, the framework is actually temporal — my life in the present age vs. my life in the age to come; my part in the old creation vs. my part in the new creation.

What then of sanctification? If we look at life from an eschatological perspective, then sanctification is not a matter of me becoming less and less a sinner and more and more a saint. God has already declared me both a total sinner and a total saint. I am not growing toward sainthood and leaving my sinful status behind.

Rather, it seems that we should track “progress” from the other direction.

Any ability I have to display the character of Christ, or to exhibit the virtues of faith, hope, and love, and any success I have in contributing to God’s mission in the world comes as I experience more and more of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into this present age.

And this is where the realities of Church, Word and Sacrament, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit come into play. God’s kingdom comes, and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven as he communicates more and more of his grace to his people through the means he has chosen. It is not our movement toward holiness that matters. It is God’s ongoing movement toward us that is decisive.

As Paul says, “The life I now live in the flesh [that is, in this present age] I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God.” And, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

However, if you see me at McDonalds one day and I don’t impress you with my saintliness, I’ll have to confess that, much of the time, my life is “hidden with Christ in God.”

Comments

  1. Princess of Equustria says:

    So you think you’re better than everybody else? (“There I was, a chaplain, a pastor.”) That the rules shouldn’t apply to you? If anybody could just come off the street and use the restroom, they would. It would be full all the time, so “paying customers” wouldn’t be able to use it. There would be homeless people living in there, heroin addicts shooting up, gangbangers screwing. But you’re obviously a better class of person than that, being white and Christian and oh so entitled.

  2. Thanks, Mike. This helps to put life into perspective, not only about myself but understanding others.

  3. Good post. Thanks.

  4. Amazing grace is not displayed by Princess of Equustria
    Chaplain Mike may still be filtering about what he heard from Nadia Bolz-Weber
    This post has me comparing the different Christian group’s means of grace
    I look forward to commenters here for what this means for our daily lives
    I’m not a good prayer, and because groups include this as God’s means I feel like I’m missing out
    In daily life, God does grace the ability to share in the virtues Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount

  5. David Cornwell says:

    “Any ability I have to display the character of Christ, or to exhibit the virtues of faith, hope, and love, and any success I have in contributing to God’s mission in the world comes as I experience more and more of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into this present age.”

    Yes. And when this becomes our expectation, our burden day by day is carried by Christ and not by us, And neither will we expect so much from Hillary or from Donald.

  6. It is not our movement toward holiness that matters. It is God’s ongoing movement toward us that is decisive.

    What if these are somewhat one and the same, what if I start to look at whatever (small) advances I make in holiness as a “kingdom come” moment ?? Maybe this isn’t either/or.

    This is one of your best, btw.

    Go cubbies.

  7. CM, I’m re-reading Brennan Manning’s “The Ragamuffin Gospel” and your bathroom story would fit right in with some of his.

  8. “It is not our movement toward holiness that matters.”
    “But I say, walk by the Spirit . . .”

    Mutually exclusive statements, unless specifically recognizing the paradox and affirming the both/and consciousness necessary for spiritual growth. It needs to be said and emphasized over and over that both are necessary. Both. It is not enough to sit in a pew and go thru the motions week after week of the “Church, Word and Sacrament, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit” unless we make the effort to intentionally open up our heart and spirit to receive and be changed, and not just for an hour a week but 24/7. Paul talked about running the race, fighting the fight. These are not words of passively bemoaning our fallen condition and waiting for God to do our work for us that we can’t possibly do. We can’t make ourself better but we can open the door for God to do His part, and this is a necessary work on our part, not an easy one. If you encourage me to stop this effort, I regard you as the enemy of my soul.

    It does not help me to be called a “sinner” with its attendant load of guilt and punishment. I am not a sinner, I am a Child of God in process. Word for today from David R. Hawkins, “Relief of guilt and greater compassion for oneself and others occurs through realizing that the individual person did not voluntarily create the structure of the ego, nor did anyone else. . . . Mankind lives in the realm of tension between emotional instincts and the counterbalancing power of spiritual awakening (that is, the animal/angel conflict).”

    • First I agree with you that it is not either/or. Human effort is part of the process. I just want to make clear that the process involves laying hold of eschatological realities, “heavenly” realities if you will — the “life of the age to come” — and is not merely a personal self-improvement project.

      Second, I regret that “sinner” is such a loaded word. I actually mean to clarify its meaning here, away from the ‘I’m a worm’ personal connotation it often carries. To be a sinner is to be more a victim than a perpetrator– a person bearing the divine image, but dwelling in the realm of of the powers of Sin and Death with all the imperfection and corruption that operate therein.

      • Probably “sinner” was a loaded word even before the Pharisees. In my view, one of those religious words that we need to update and replace if we are trying to communicate with real 21st century people and not just talk shop amongst ourselves. It sets my teeth on edge, and I imagine most non-church people shut their ears as tight as they can. Definitely agree that entering the kingdom is NOT a self-improvement project, and in fact that may prevent entry. Something that prevents entry into the kingdom may be as workable a definition of “sin” as anything else. Calling self-improvement a possible sin would probably leave a lot of people scratching their heads, but fits right in the context of your message today.

        I’m not a worm, nor am I a victim either, another “sinful” mentality keeping us outside the gate. I usually push back against anything that I feel is discouraging me from the effort of opening my heart. It’s hard enough as it is, and I think one of the main reasons for gathering together is to lift each other up and encourage each other in our efforts to be open and grow. Obviously not everyone agrees with that, but you, CM, have a great sense of balance and openness which I much appreciate.

  9. There is only one small quibble I have with this. I would’ve gone with a double quarter pounder with cheese rather than Diet Coke. 😉

    Thank you for this perspective, CM.

  10. Thank you for this. Such a good reminder. Also, very N.T. Wright – like, which I mean as a compliment.
    God and the Kingdom moving toward us is the story of Scripture in a nutshell also, but somehow often missed among the noise.

  11. Burro [Mule] says:

    Delivering parts for a computer company in Miami, I walked into the IT office to deliver a DEC Alpha motherboard to a Dr. Alford S. Knox, prepaid. There were about seven people in the room, only two of whom were white. I walked up to the one who was male and pulled out the invoice.

    I’m Dr. Knox”, said one of the African American gentlemen behind me.

    Sometimes you just have to own up to the monster.

    • Ah well, most likely the first and last time you pull that one, and most likely neither the first nor last time for the good doctor. I wake up at two o’clock in the morning smacking my forehead over something stupid I did twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. We should be given the occasional mulligan or do over from time to time, and perhaps that is even possible if we step outside the box. Ah well.

      • It is all one great big gigantic mulligan. Kyrie eleison. Alleluia.

        • It’s all one great big gigantic mulligan…except for those people who’ve “done me wrong.” For them, I hope they don’t get a do-over. Rain fire down on them, Lord!

          😉

          Point is, how quickly we hope WE’RE given do-overs, but how quickly we won’t give OTHERS do-overs.

  12. Christiane says:

    Driving from Princeton NJ down to the airport in Philly, I had to make a pit stop REAL BAD, but when I got off the highway I was in some weird little neighborhood from the fifties (time warp, I guess) and I did park and went into a sleazy-looking restaurant-bar-illegal-drug-pick-up-place and asked to use the restroom. Same thing happened to me. I had to buy something. I did. I got permission to use the filthy restroom, JUST IN TIME FACE GRIMMACE. And then I’m outa there hopeful that I won’t get mugged on my way to the car. BTW, I bought a diet coke. Didn’t drink it, though. Place was too weird.

    No dragon aroused. Made the plane on time. But hearing your story, Chaplain Mike, brought the whole thing back.

    God help the weary traveler who has to go and ends up in the Philly bad-lands. Oh my goodness! Bad scene.

  13. I think I will be chewing on this for some time. I have been leaning on the “Simul iustus…” identity for a while, but I find this a beautiful and useful turn on the idea. There is so much in the Christian story that involves one reality (heaven) overlapping another (earth), impinging, inserting, enfolding, intermingling. This works so well because I have taken up NT Wrights explanation of heaven as another dimension that in every place, in every moment, is “just around the corner,” overlapping and interlocking with our earthly reality. Add to this the way that the guys on The Bible Project ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zy2AQlK6C5k) explain the work of Jesus as creating little “clean places” (which are in a larger sense pieces of heavenly territory) inside of each of us, a precursor of the new heaven and new earth to come. At that time, his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.

    Your focus here is more on time than on space, but I suspect that Einstein knew more than he knew when he posited that time and space are interlinked. The overlapping of the eschatological age, and the overlapping of the heavenly realm, those are interlinked.

    As for the question of effort toward sanctification, this conversation made me think of my martial arts training. My coming to understand that the ultimate goal of all these repetitions, and forms, and sweat, was the transcending of technique. This is when artificial movements are so internalized into muscle memory that one no longer needs to focus on technique, but instead one simply acts and it all flows together. I think that what you are saying is that our efforts to act in a “future kingdom” manner are acts of faith where we call the Spirit to transform our feeble efforts into holy work. And when we make a habit of opening ourselves up to this kind of ‘inbreaking’ we begin inhabiting the future time and place in a different and more complete way — and that changes us inside now as well.

    All musings, but helpful images for me. Thanks.

  14. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    One problem is the title terminology.
    Thanks to the unsleeping efforts of a LOT of Christian Leaders(TM), “Eschatology” has come to mean “Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist.”