Monday, May 7, 2012

Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water

The old adage, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” apparently originated after the medieval bath practices.  To conserve resources, families would bathe infrequently drawing each time one tub of water.  The father would bathe first, followed by the mother, and on through the children, finishing with the baby.  By the time the poor infant was dipped in, the water must have become quite turbid, and if the parent wasn’t careful, the baby might go out with the murky bath.

As with all adages having stood the test of time, this one illustrates--rather graphically, I think—an all too common truth of human nature.  We have a tendency of answering one set of extremes with an opposing and equally extreme set before we finally--usually after considerable collateral damage—settle into a balanced view.  An example of this on my mind of late is the crucifix.

Most of the Protestants emerging from the reformation in the 16th century repudiated symbols such as the crucifix because they were seen as idolatrous; they worried that people would worship the graven images rather than the invisible Lord.  I confess that most of my life I have felt the same way; although I have a much more liberal view about the graphic arts than members of some minor Christian sects.  When it came to the crucifix, though, I was more concerned by its theology than it being a potential idol.  To me the resurrection of Christ is pivotal to the Christian faith, and somehow this seemed to me more in keeping with an unadorned cross than a crucifix.  I’m having a change of heart on this; I'm beginning to wonder if I may have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Certainly, the resurrection is essential to our faith.  But the resurrection would have been meaningless had Jesus not suffered and died the particular death He did; His was no ordinary death; Jesus died into death by experiencing for us complete separation from God.  Because Jesus was perfect both in humanity and divinity, such death had no hold on Him; God raised Christ to a life transfigured both physically and spiritually from the life we live now; Jesus’ resurrection was not a mere resuscitation as with Lazarus, who would die again—even though Lazarus’ resurrection was a type of what we who trust in King Jesus will have through Him.

We have no clue of the suffering Jesus experienced in our stead.  The beatings, scourging, taunts, and jeers our Lord endured, and the pain he suffered from being nailed to the cross through his wrists and feet were horrible beyond most imaginations.  But what set the terror and torment Jesus endured outside any human experience was His complete separation from God who is the source of life.  We have no reference point for such suffering.  For this reason it has drifted into mere abstraction for us, with debilitating effects.
As our understanding of the cost Christ paid for us to gain access to God’s eternal kingdom dwindles, I’m afraid we find it more difficult to be the suffering servants our Lord calls us to be in the present world.  As we lose sight of the suffering component of being a kingdom dweller, we become more fixated on the rewards of being in the kingdom; and this results all too often in complacency, or worse, sin.

Saint Paul clearly explains in Romans 12  what our proper response should be:

“(1) Therefore, I urge you, Brothers [fellow believers] , through the tender mercies of God, yield your bodies as living sacrifices, holy [and] well pleasing to God—your reasonable divine service. (2) And don’t conform to this age, but be transformed (metamorphosed) by the renewing of [your] mind, so you can ascertain what is the good, well pleasing, and perfect will of God.” [my translation]

What are these tender mercies of which Paul speaks?  Are they not captured in the “therefore” beginning this passage?  Yes: there is God reaching out to us in mercy that we might see our sinfulness and repent (Rom 2); and there is God’s faithfulness to His covenant promise through Christ’s faithfulness on the cross, with the certainty of the kingdom for all who put their trust—who walk by faith--in King Jesus (Rom 3,4); and there is forgiveness of sins, peace, and the love of God filling us through His Holy Spirit in this kingdom (Rom 5); and there is life in Christ because He lives (Rom 6); and there is power through His Holy Spirit living in us to please God, and the certainty of God’s faithfulness in the final vindication of His kingdom dwellers and the restoration of all creation (Rom. 7,8).  We have a great and sure hope in the kingdom of God, but that hope demands a response.  And the response is sacrifice.

All of those tender mercies should lead us to the conclusion of our sacrifice because to be a kingdom dweller with Christ forever demands we be transformed; only when we are fully transformed can we share in the Divine nature and finally perfectly know and therefore conform completely to the will of God.  And this transformation will entail suffering, but suffering we can be certain will attain its objective—our transformation; this is the certainty we have as kingdom dwellers through faith in King Jesus.

The trouble comes when we see this transformation happening purely by osmosis, as if we are simply passive recipients.  But that is not what Paul said.  We must in response to all that God has accomplished through Jesus the Christ seek to present ourselves as living sacrifices, which means we make daily, even minute by minute decisions to change away from the standards and paradigms of the present age and into conformity with the will of God.  The Holy Spirit identifies these needed changes in us, He empowers us to make those changes, but we must choose to obey Him; this is what it means to be a living sacrifice.  There’s more.  If we fail to obey him, He will remind us of this, too; and if we repent, we are forgiven.  But again, repentance is another aspect of being a living sacrifice.  It is also what Jesus meant by us needing to exert all of our effort to enter the kingdom through the narrow gate.  Many people will believe that transformation is simply a matter of association with Jesus and doctrines and concepts about Jesus; they will be disappointed in the end because only through striving to be living sacrifices by faith in King Jesus do we truly enter His kingdom and therefore salvation.

So I ask again, how can we be living sacrifices if we are desensitized to the horrific sacrifice that made God’s kingdom open to us?  I think it’s nearly impossible because without a deep sense of Christ’s suffering we so easily slip into a perspective of “it’s all about me” instead of “it’s all about Christ”.  For this reason Christ broke bread and shared the chalice of wine with His disciples and commanded us to carry on the same practice until He returns.  Christ knew we needed to be reminded regularly of the cost that was paid for our redemption.  For this reason, too, I think it is good to have a crucifix in plain sight to remind us what it means to be a living sacrifice and keep us awake to the entreaties of the Holy Spirit and so be living sacrifices.


Jeff said...

It is good to be reminded of Christ's sacrifice in our place but I think there is a deeper truth. Only Christ could have atoned for my sins! Even if I could somehow be crucified for my sins it still would not be enough - only the perfect Lamb was good enough to wipe out my sins! Only God could have done it! So maybe a crucifix is a better reminder of this truth. An empty cross might imply that anyone could have atoned for my sins...