September 16, 2014

Eschatological Me

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 Monday afternoon, 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. It’s 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. I live a kind of Jekyll and Hyde existence — this is now my nature as a Christian.

However, there is 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. 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.

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. Mary Anne Dutton says:

    Thank you for the authenticity…as “Pilgrim’s Progress” profoundly states ‘it’s not over till its over’.

  2. Thought-provoking post……I’ll have to reread a mull this one over.

    RE: Your Micky Dee’s expereince: Sinner and saint we may be, but we are also ANIMALS with needs. You were facing an unmet need at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy, which makes everybody decidedly unhappy and cranky!

  3. It is over.

    You have been crucified with Christ. (Romans 6)

    That old sinner is dead, as far as Jesus is concerned, He killed you. And then He raised you again (Romans 6), with Himself.

    The holiness project is over. He declares that you are holy and righteous…even though you still exhibit behavior that is unbecoming.

    I blew it, yesterday, as well. What else is new?

    Simul iustus et peccator.

  4. Maybe I see this backwards. I would like to think that it comes from reading the gospels and meditating on what I see. Instead, it’s more likely that this is coming from Radio Free Babylon’s “Coffee With Jesus.”

    You said: “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.”

    Jesus said that the Son of Man did not come to be ministered unto but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many.

    Your purpose in going in to the store was to be ministered unto, to have your own needs met, to achieve your own ends of biological necessity. Had you gone in and looked for a way to affirm someone else and provide them job satisfaction in a service industry by allowing them to help someone in need, the outcome would have been more pleasant. Here’s how it could have gone:

    You walk in, make eye contact after glancing at her name tag and say, “Hi, Julie. I’m Mike and I really need to use the restroom, but it’s locked. Is there any way I can get someone to open it for me?”

    You have now treated her with dignity, respect, and elevated her to a level of person who is capable of solving your problems, not a servant who needs to bend to your bidding. You recognize that she has power over you and you have asked her to exercise her power on your behalf.

    Julie says, “Well the restroom is only for paying customers. You’ll have to buy something first.”

    And you reply, “Sure. I’d be happy to. Is it okay if I use the rest room first and then buy it after I come out?”

    At this point, by leaving the decision up to her instead of taking control, you affirm her power over you. Any normal human being would say, “Sure, go right ahead.” But let’s say she’s a hard case and she says, “No. We have too many people come in here and use the rest room and leave without buying anything.”

    So now you have the opportunity to REALLY be Jesus to her. Ask, “Fine. I’ll be delighted to buy something. What do you want?”

    She will look at you dumbfounded and say, “Excuse me?”

    And you (Jesus in you) replies, “What do you want? I’m not really hungry and I don’t want anything except to use the bathroom. Your rule is that I have to buy something first. Your rule doesn’t say I have to buy it for me. So, just to be compliant with your rule I’d like to buy you something so I can use the restroom. What would you like? An apple pie? A McFlurry? What sounds good to you?”

    You have now broken through to her in a way that shows Jesus like she has never seen him before. You are bringing in the kingdom of heaven on this earth. You will have transformed a tiny little bit of the world in the mad holiday rush all round us into a tiny piece of glory. Because now, a little girl who has power over you in the form of a rest room key has seen you not only yield to her power, but you will have gone beyond what she asks, to have given not only your coat, but your cloak also.

    And this is how we bring about the Escaton. This is the End of This World as we know it and the creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth. This is where the World that Is to Come breaks through into the Here and Now.

    Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.

    • Rick, thank you for the long moral instruction, but it was unnecessary and completely misses the point. Do you really imagine that I don’t know what the “right” thing to do is in a situation like that? Of course I do and the point is that I nevertheless did not do it. Nor will I ever do it with perfect consistency, and even if I did it outwardly 100% of the time, I would never do it all the time with perfect love toward God and my neighbor. The life I live in the flesh is that of a sinner, curved in on myself. It is only when the power of the new creation breaks through and I live by the faithfulness of Christ that the life that is hidden with Christ in God becomes visible and plants seeds for the new creation in the here and now.

      • Mike,

        I’m an instructional designer and former classroom teacher. All that I do and am in life centers around equipping people to do what it is that they most want to do. It is my default setting. At the risk of redundancy, you said (which I mistakenly took for you point since it was in bold type):

        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.

        My question is, “What would this look like?” and my answer is to provide an example, which my lengthy reply attempted to do. That was all.

        My goal as I teach my College & Career age Sunday School class is not to create perfection this week or even in this lifetime. My goal is to get them one step closer, one inch nearer, to living the life of Jesus in their own bodies. I can’t do this with just the high ideals and principles found in generalized statements of theological dilemmas and crises. I have to go to “worked examples” as we call them in the training world. That’s all I was attempting to accomplish. To put an example of what sanctification would look like so we don’t have to beat ourselves up about not reaching perfection or shrugging our shoulders and dismissively excusing ourselves with “Nobody’s perfect.”

        Won’t a moment-by-moment approach to sanctification do us much more good? More importantly, won’t it do those around us much more good? Not intending to argue or counter your post. Just intending to supplement it.

        But since we’re on the topic of perfectability and the corrupting influences of human impulses, let me ask this: Was Jesus still perfect when he prayed in Gethsemane to have the cup pass from him? Was his request within his perfect love of God an neighbor? Granted, he was willing to say, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine by done,” but the fact that Jesus had a will that wished something counter to God’s plan poses a dilemma for those who suppose that human impulses reflect a sinful nature.

        Just asking.

        • There is a place for moral instruction, yes. But most of us know what kindness, generosity, and selfless behavior is about.

          What I’m trying to get at in this post is two things, two sides of the coin as it were:

          1. First I’m addressing the person who misunderstands simul iustus et peccator as an excuse for moral laziness, saying, “Well, after all, I’m not perfect, I’m a sinner-saint, you know.” As though one moment I’m a sinner, the next I’m a saint — all defined by my thoughts, words, and actions. That is a wrong conception of the teaching. God has judged me in Christ as both a total sinner and as totally righteous (a saint). I will never “outgrow” my sinful status in this life. I am a sinner and will remain a sinner in this transient world of sin until the day I actually die and am raised up into the glorified state. Life is not a holiness project, as our brother Steve reminds us, to try and improve this sinful person that I am. I am not climbing a ladder of virtue, becoming less a sinner and more a saint. Rather, I am both, totally, at the same time.

          2. The challenge, then, becomes how to access the new creation reality of my new life in Christ. Doing so is not so much the result of moral instruction as it is receiving the ongoing blessings of God through the means of grace he has given us: the Church, the Word, the Sacraments, prayer. God works through these means to communicate kingdom realities to our hearts and lives through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Through them we receive the benefits of Christ’s work again and again. Over and over again we die and rise to new life. And at the end of the worship service, the minister says to us, “Go in peace, and serve the Lord.” Having once more been assured of our peace with God in Christ, we are freed from having to justify ourselves and we who have received from God’s open hands are free to open our hands to the world.

          On a daily basis, as an individual who has particular vocations and mission opportunities, I rise, make the sign of the cross to remind me of my baptism by which I died and rose again to newness of life in Christ, ask God for his kingdom to come to and through me this day, trust that God has gone ahead of me into the day, and look for ways in which I can cooperate with him at every turn. When I miss out on him or fail, as is inevitable, I run back to the means of grace, to Christ, where through confession and absolution I once more die and rise again to walk in newness of life.

          This is the power of eschaton unleashed in the world today. As to what it actually looks like in practice, the stories are as diverse and manifold as the people of God.

      • One other addendum. The story I told is not intended as a one time example of how this particular interaction could have gone better. It was intended to be an example of a total pattern of living, i.e. seeking to affirm, value, and build up others in day-to-day ordinary moments is where the Kingdom of God is most visible. Great oaks from little acorns grow, and a mustard seed yields a giant tree in which all the fowls of the air will rest, not just the ones who go by the name of Christian. It’s not perfection, but I am not so sure God calls us to be perfect in the sense in which we speak of it in the US and the West. I believe perfection is achieved in maturity and full fruitfulness.

        Of course, I’m likely mistaken and probably don’t beat myself up enough about all my sinful failings. But then if I’m a sinner, I guess that’s to be expected, isn’t it?

        • Wow, Rick is out of control A man had to urgently use the bathroom. When the smoke cleared, he used it as a way to zoom back in on Jesus. Give him a break.

        • Thanks Rick. I get it. We are looking under the hood here a bit. I hope my clarifications help put things in some practical perspective.

  5. Ah, this post helps me quite a bit. So the basis for our actions in this life are sacramental – we act Christianly as a reflection of ourselves in the next age, as a confirmation of our hope in what is to come, the purified me.

    • Yes and not just as a “reflection” of ourselves in the next age, but in the very in-breaking of that age into our present experience. I think this is what the ministry of the Spirit is all about.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    And I was on the verge of cussing out a young woman in public because she wouldn’t open the bathroom door for me.

    When you gotta go, YOU GOTTA GO.

    “POTTY EMERGENCY.” — Animaniacs

  7. Chaplin Mike…interesting post. I’m going to re-read this later. One question I have is the following. When John Piper teaches that sin or evil is ordained by God…how do you respond to that? Did God odrain that Adam would fall? Was that his plan? If so that puts a twist on everything…from almost cussing out a McDonalds employee to flying a plane into a building or molesting a child.

    • Yet another reason I am not a calvinist! :)

    • One problem many of us have, including Calvinists, is wanting to know and figure out the hidden God. The simple honest answer, the only one you should respect from any Christian about such matters is, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

      • But most Christians seem so afraid to say that. I think that’s really interesting. I wonder about people like Ravi Zacharias, who’s clearly a great guy and all, but it sounds like, ‘demonstrate to the unbelievers that we do have answers to their every objections, and then they’ll be sure to get on board.’ I’ve seen Christians who LOSE it when some rough patch baffles them, because this wasn’t supposed to happen, they feel like they were sold a bill of goods. When of course, if we’re supposed to walk in faith, we shouldn’t be so afraid of saying, “I don’t know.” But we are, we are.

    • cermak_rd says:

      Interesting the idea that the Almighty ordered the Fall. It is not so far off from a Jewish interpretation that states that the serpent was sent by the Almighty. Of course, in the story, the couple had free will so…

      Another interpretation is that the Almighty sent the serpent and the outcome (the couple giving into the temptation) was good (Man became wiser and able to discern and think and yes, even argue like Abraham with the Almighty).

  8. Thankyou, a wonderful post.
    This gives me thought on the meaning of being like Christ. He was fully man and fully God. When we are to be like Christ, we are being fully sinners and fully saints (despite our best efforts). No longer an either-or dichotomy, but a single being with a ‘batteground’ happeining in my nature with different sides winning at different times. Maybe that is where our inner convictions come from, the saint letting us know we gave into the sinner.

  9. Rob Grayson says:

    Mike, this is brilliant.

  10. Bill Garrett says:

    I don’t comment on your posts often, though I regularly enjoy them. This was and will continue to be a wonderful item for contemplation and conversation during the Advent season and in the years to come. Blessings!

  11. If I was to follow Rick’s script in Chaplain Mike’s situation, I don’t think I’d need the key to the bathroom for much longer…it’d be too late!

  12. Another Mary says:

    I love this place! I’m still laughing at JFDU’s post. I can’t really add much except to say this also confirms a truth we walk in is that God has his way’s of ‘keeping us real’ and thankfully will not allow us to become so ‘saintly’ that we don’t need him as desperately as we always have. I am grateful and I appreciate the sacramental nature of this walk we live.

    Way to go Chaplain Mike!