On Loving God (Part III)

Jesus and Peter

“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks.

Peter gulps. He’s been put on the spot, he’s got cards in his hand but he has to play them. Either he’s dead on and he’s talking to the climax of history, he’s allying himself with the right hand of Yahweh himself…or he’s going to an insane asylum when the lunatic he puts his faith in makes a break out of town. Either way, the cards are in his hand and he’s got to play them. He takes a deep breath, and looks him in the eye: “I think you are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus nods, and smiles, just a little- like all the mountains and all the hills were a mustard seed Peter had planted. Like the words “good and faithful servant” exist solely for the purpose of describing Peter. Jesus, the Messiah, The I AM That Is And Was, looks at him and says: “Blessed are you.

“Blessed are you”, the words rang with the grace for eternity! The grace for the next moment, when…

Then Jesus turns, and pauses for a moment. “So,” Jesus continues, speaking to the rest of them, “Now we must go to Jerusalem. Just a heads up, I’m going to suffer quite a bit at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes.”

Peter squints, confused.

“And they will kill me,” Jesus finishes and the rest of his disciples gasp a little. They look scared. Betrayed. Confused. But Peter’s not confused- Jesus is making a mistake. And he doesn’t realize it! He keeps going: “Though on the third day I wi-“

Jesus feels a hand take his arm, grab him, and pull him away halfway through his sentence. Peter turns Jesus to face him. “What do you think you’re doing?” He asks him. “Do you have any idea what you’re saying? God help us, have you read the Torah? Have you taken a moment to consider the oppression these people are facing? We need liberation, not someone to come along and get killed with us! Did you come to add to our misery? To add to our confusion? Far be it from you!!” He takes a deep breath. “If you’re God then start acting like him!”

Jesus does not react physically, his jaw doesn’t even quench. But the fire of an eternal rebellion, his hatred for Lucifer and all the armies of evil He’s about to conquer, burn deep within them and Peter’s hand loses it’s power and falls from Christ’s arm to his side.

“Who,” Jesus says, in a whisper so low it cuts through all the normal words of life and burns into Peter’s memory.

“Who in all of hell,” Jesus says, “ Do you think you are… that you might presume to tell God who He is.” Jesus turns and redirects himself to the crowd, not before uttering an unforgettable phrase to Peter’s befuddled and bleeding ears: “Get behind me Satan!”

Until we realize we are all idolaters, we have no hope of seeing past our idols, contrived beliefs and perceptions of God so we can actually begin to glimpse God passing behind the storm cloud. We have no hope of seeing the God disappearing in the fog; of glimpsing the only part of him we can still glimpse and possibly survive long enough to comprehend. Until we learn to call God by another name, or better yet no name, to hear the phrase “Allah” and realize it’s our English “God” just in a foreign tongue, until we can promote ourselves to seeing God as the Divine, the Great Healer and Judge, until we un-name God and in doing so smash our golden calves, we are just the Israelites balking at our golden calf and wondering where the hell Moses has gotten too.

There’s a reason the Orthodox Church holds strongly to the mystery of God, to the unknowing aspects of God. Rather than utter what God is, and risk heresy, they proclaim what God is not. There’s a reason the Israelites refused to spell out God’s name, a reason they quivered upon hearing it, and a reason that his many names throughout the Old Testament range from “I AM” to “God of Jacob, Isaac…” to “The Lord Your God The Lord Is One”. The reason is because none of these names contain the Divine. None of them begin to describe him. They’re just words attached to an object and given to us, because without a name attached to something, our minds cannot comprehend that something exists. We cannot grasp the unnamed potential of eternity.

Love God, I boldly and adamantly declare. This is the foundation of who I am and how I live. I am not a believer in inclusivism or universalism, but I am a believer in Mystery. I am not a believer in pluralism, in anything goes, in being so open minded that your mind itself falls out. But I am a believer in the existence of relative experiences. I am a believer in relative experiences which point to the absolute truth of the Universal, the Universal I Am, the Universal Beyond Words, The One Who Is And Am And Will.

I am a believer in stepping back from my golden calf and contemplating that perhaps this isn’t the best way to melt the gold. I’m a believer in pausing when I write an essay on anti-abortion, in reflecting on my stance on social justice, homosexuality, tattoos and binge drinking, pausing while I take a hymnal out of the church pew and proceed to sing the words in a worshipful manner because it’s the best way I know how.

I’m a believer in rethinking the ways in which I build my Babeling Towers of intellect and critical thinking. In contemplating such, I hope to realize that the tower I’m building is itself a horrible idea, that the golden calf before me isn’t just a little off kilter, but is actually nothing more than culture’s idea of what and who God should be meanwhile the real Divine is a moment away from mixing up our languages and truly befuddling the hell out of us. His goal is not just to confuse us- per say, though that is a comedic and retributive side effect, but to give us a shot at expressing ourselves in a thousand different manners and hopefully this time finally figuring out how to express the idea of God. Of course, thousands of years later, we still haven’t gotten it right. We still attach God with political parties, personal agendas and individual moralities. Our towers still stand, still fall, and are still rebuilt day after day.

If we are to love God, then we must do just that. We must love God more than just our idea of God, more than our preconceived notions of God, more than the impulse to tell our Savior “what the hell do you think you’re doing? This isn’t how you’re supposed to act”. If we have a chance of accomplishing this, then perhaps we have to start with unthinking our ideas of God. Perhaps we have to start with disbanding cultural platitudes and seeking the Mystery afresh and anew. Perhaps we have to start not with just our hearts, just our heads and just our hands, but with all of them at the same time. Perhaps we have to start with realizing that grace surrounds us every moment, that conclusions are okay as long as they are not golden calves set in stone. Perhaps we have to start with the realization that loving God requires loving God above all else, above our hopes for God, our hopes for salvation, our hopes for redemption, morality and all the liberation the world might find. We have to start with loving God above our holy and sacred ideas of God.

Perhaps what this really means that we have to start with unstarting, as T.S. Eliot penned, arriving at the place we began and truly knowing it for the first time. It means we have to find ourselves bowed over in humility, laying at the foot of a wooden cross, the most despicable and humiliating form of execution on which the Atoning Sacrifice was hung. It means we have to face each day with a mind that is open to the possibilities of lives that are not our own and a plan for redemption stretches beyond us and out to the entire cosmos. Perhaps it means we have to start everything in prostrate prayer, fists clenched, begging, crying over and over again: “I believe, open my eyes so I can see! Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Help my unbelief!”

Yes, perhaps we have to start there.

If you liked this then you may also like:

On Loving God (Part I)

On Loving God (Part II) 

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Guest Post: A Cruel Resurrection

I’m going to put forward a simple theological contention today, so let me preface so we’re all on the same page. I am assuming a Christian framework for the argument and making assumptions on that basis. That being said, this argument doesn’t exactly start from scratch. Alright then, let’s proceed.

John 11: 41-44:  So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

I’ve had a question running through my mind for a while now: “Why would Jesus resurrect Lazarus? What could be the point of pulling a man out of Heaven?” Being returned from eternity to a fallen world would be upsetting at best, soul-crushing at worst. I have a confidence that Jesus would not have been spitefully cruel, but then what exactly was he?

Common explanations for this usually go along two lines:

Argument 1: Lazarus’ soul moves from death to Heaven, being fully in the presence of the Father. While there, however, he is called back to the Earth with the full knowledge that he will be a part of the final work of Christ. This is a joy that he understands, willingly accepting a second death.

Argument 2: Lazarus was not in the presence of the Father yet anyway. His narrative is further justification for the fact that the dead slumber in death until the final return of Christ at the end of days. As such, he was simply “woken up” from the slumber of death; it was a pleasant surprise, not a cruelty.

While these both answer my question on some level, I have issues digesting either one whole. To explain why, I’ll need to briefly put forward a Sunday School conception of human construction:

Part 1- The Body

From nose to toes, it’s your very flesh and blood. The body is, however, incomplete, weak, and prone to dying. We are promised that in the fully revealed Kingdom of God we will have a completed, eternal body. Hopefully that means no more acne.  Not much to contest here.

Part 2- The Spirit

It’s who you are. You have a personality and you have whims and you have feelings, and they flow from a spirit that has developed in you since birth. For the purposes of this argument, it’s basically equivalent with one’s “consciousness”. The spirit is who you are in this world. We will have a spirit in the Kingdom as well, one free from sin and incompleteness. Through it we will experience eternity.

Part 3- The Soul

This is the part that matters most. We are all eternal souls. The soul exists beyond personality, preferences, and proclivities. It is beyond relationships, circumstances, and feelings. It is my identity, formed by God and held in His hand. The difference is that I only have one of these. The soul is my eternal identity. It stands unchanged behind my mortal existence and my eternal one.

That last bit is why the question on Lazarus bothered me. The explanations assume that the soul “leaves” an earthly timeline and is mystically transported into the eternal timeline.

So if that’s true, then Lazarus shows up at the Pearly Gates, has a few brews with St. Peter (wait, I mean Abraham. They hadn’t switched out yet), then gets a message on his pager (work with me) that he has to pop into temporal existence for a bit and do his best mummy impression.

Here’s the rub: at what point exactly would Lazarus enter the eternal timeline? I ask because Jesus himself didn’t leave eternity to become incarnate:

John 1:1-3: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

Or, if I can paraphrase St. Athanasius: Christ sustained the universe from the time of Creation. That didn’t stop simply due to his incarnation. The soul of Christ experienced a simultaneous reality, as the eternal God of the universe and the Word made flesh on Earth. It’s not as if God in eternity was only 2/3 Himself for about 33 years a few millennia ago.

The idea seems complicated, but it actually fits pretty simply. If God is eternal and He exists before, after, and outside of time, then shouldn’t the eternal realm function in the same way?  Do our souls operate so differently? We all recognize that we eventually enter a timeless eternity, but when exactly do we arrive there?

Here’s the root of the thing: I think it is reasonable to conclude that even as we now exist in the finite, earthly realm, we simultaneously exist eternally. We have one soul, one eternal identity. And that soul is expressed through a finite body and a finite spirit on earth, just as it is expressed through an eternal body and an eternal spirit beyond earth.

Lazarus didn’t go to Heaven when he died; his soul was already there.

If this argument brings any clarity to the question of eternity, it leaves me a little less clear about my mortal life. If we aren’t solely preparing our souls to go into transcendental hyper drive at death, then what exactly are we expected to do here?

Well, we have a few Biblical imperatives to work with. We are responsible for honoring God with the whole of our lives and for making disciples of all nations. This is the work that brings our souls in line with the truth of God.

So maybe even though our soul is already in eternity, it can still change and grow toward a more perfect union with Christ. Our soul can move toward the throne of God or away from it. Perhaps we make that move in our mortal life and our eternal life simultaneously.

God has reasons for all he does.  Though most of life is trivial (just read Ecclesiastes), God does not give us life trivially. It is ours to embrace life for what it is, a co-existence with eternity, and pour ourselves into the preparation of our souls and the souls of all for their eternal identity. How God works this all out is a mystery, but He has given us as much as we need to know.

 

About The Guest: Matt Ely graduated from Wheaton College (IL) in 2011 with a degree in Political Science. He also completed the school’s Army ROTC program with this blog’s author and was commissioned upon graduation. Matt is currently wrapping up a nine-month Army party as a First Lieutenant in Afghanistan.