The New Testament states that when one becomes a Christian, a dramatic change occurs in the life of that person. Different metaphors are used to describe this metamorphosis: born again, born from above, dying to the old self, raised to a new life, living according to the spirit, a new creation. How are we to understand this transformation–this newness–this rebirth? There appear to be two extremes in contemporary Christianity.
One extreme is seen by those some label as “religious fanatics” who, as they reflect on all this, say, “We must be separate.” And they define this separateness in three ways:
1) Through their exclusiveness: They possess an “us versus them” mentality. “We are saved because we’ve done what is necessary for salvation. The way presented by the Bible (which, of course, just happens to be our way) is the only way to be saved and escape the fires of hell.”
2) Through their understanding of being spiritual: Being spiritual for this group often means a denial of their humanity and the physical as well as being confined to the experience of “being saved” and following a rigid set of morals. Such spirituality has no concern for issues like hunger, ecological concerns, or extreme poverty. I once had a colleague whose answer to the charge of one of her students that she was not spiritual or religious enough was, “You have more religion than I need or want.” I understood where she was coming from.
3) Through a misunderstanding of the admonition “to be not of this world”: Instead of meaning to refuse to be conformed to the priorities and ways of a system alienated from God, this counsel is taken to mean to become “something out of this world.”
The warped perspective of the Christian faith behind these three ways is the source of much sick religion.
The other extreme is seen in Christians who read a passage like ours today and quickly move on. They ignore it, partly because they see the error of the “fanatics” but more because they know the New Testament does talk about conversion, a new creation, a radical transformation, being born again, and a qualitative difference–all of which is strange to them along with being something they are not sure they want to experience. In this group we find these characteristics:
1) There is no real difference between them and the world. They enjoy a happy and comfortable alliance with the world and its greedy, self seeking, and “look out for # 1” mentality.
2) They have little or no sense of the call or cost of discipleship or any appreciation of being in daily communion with the Almighty. Religion for such people, rather than being the center from which they live their lives, is just one more activity–one more item on their busy agenda (and usually way down the list on that agenda).
3) While the first group errs in being “out of this world,” this group errs in being “of this world.” Conformity, not transformation, is what characterizes their existence.
So, we have two extremes: one out of this world and the other of this world. Are these the only two choices available to us? To choose between religious fanaticism (which is about as useful as a square wheel) and conformity (in which there is no substantive difference between those within the church and those outside)?
To move beyond these two possibilities, we must ask a more pressing question: What is this new nature to which we are called? What does it mean to be born again, to become a new creation, to die to the old self and be raised to a new life, to cease living according the flesh and to begin living according the Spirit?
In this passage and elsewhere, Paul understands all this as a new orientation on the part of the Christian–a new perspective–a new way of see1ng which brings about a new way of being.
The old orientation was one of egotism, greed, fear, and selfishness. The old self lived unto and for self.
The new orientation brought about by Christ is characterized by love, sharing, courage, and self-giving. The new self lives open to God, others, and the future. And Paul sees this happening as the Christian identifies with Christ. I believe Paul has a Christian baptismal formula in mind as he writes about an identification which binds the person to Christ and which incorporates that person into Christ. In baptism, we die to the old way of living and rise to walk in a new way of living seen in the example of Jesus. When such bonding takes place, two things happen:
First, our lives are “hidden with Christ in God.” Now what does that mean? For one thing, it means that we are deeply grounded in God and in constant communion with God through Christ. The intimacy of God’s presence, the depths of God’s love, the fullness of God’s joy, the broadness of God’s compassion, and the communication of God’s Spirit are the environment in which we live and flourish. A Christian life that is not hidden with Christ in God in this way is destined to wither into nothingness. A Christian who does not have this grounding in God can no more live the abundant life of Christ than a husband or wife can have a joyful, fulfilled marriage without communicating with their partner. I am convinced that most of the lethargy and apathy among church members today is because this fundamental grounding in God is neglected. The tragedy is that it is possible to be in church all of one’s life and never experience God and never know the Lord deeply, personally, and intimately. And without that grounding, the transformation Paul and the rest of the New Testament talk about will forever remain a stranger.
But there is another aspect to the phrase “hidden with Christ in God.” Paul is saying that when we trust Jesus with our lives, we become secure in God because we know that we share in the future of Christ. What God does for Christ, God does for those who follow him. And so, there is no place for ultimate despair or fear on the part of Christians. They know a security which all the resources of the world cannot provide. Consequently, they are free to give, to risk, to love, and simply to be the children of God. So, Paul says that as we give our lives over to Christ, those lives become hidden with Christ in God.
And secondly, Paul says that in this deep fellowship with the Lord, Christians so identify with Christ that his concerns become their concerns. It’s as though Christ lives and loves through them.
And here is where the religious fanatics often make their mistake. They understand this in such a way that one’s identity, personality, and self-hood are destroyed on becoming Christian. They say to the prospective Christian, “God loves you,” and then when that person decides to become a Christian, they say, “Now God wants to destroy you.” They confuse God’s redemption of human beings with the annihilation of one’s personhood.
I have said several times from pulpits that God does not create by Xerox. God the Creator rejoices in multiplicity, diversity, and variety. God who has created so rich a universe does not will this world to become a laboratory of mechanical clones, devoid of personality, identity, and individuality. I may be redeemed, but I’m still Ron Zorn–a redeemed Ron Zorn, but Ron Zorn nevertheless. I’m one of a kind, and so are you. God’s redemptive process is not to be compared to frontal lobotomies in which personhood ceases. I think for most of us, God’s way of redeeming and making us whole can be compared to a deep love relationship. We meet someone who loves us. Why? We don’t know. That remains a mystery. In time we love that person back–that love deepens–we learn from each other–we change–we see things differently–the other’s concerns become our concerns. In time we so identify ourselves with the other that we experience life together. We become “kindred spirits.” We remain the same person, but at the same time we are not the same person–we have been transformed.
On a different plane and at a deeper, more eternal level, it is similar with our relationship with Christ.
He first loved us. Why? That is the mystery called grace.
We begin to love because he first loved us.
Our love deepens. We learn from him. We change. We see others, ourselves, our world through his eyes. His concerns become our concerns.
We remain the same person, but at the same time we are not the same person. We have been profoundly transformed. We have a new orientation. Life begins all over again. We are born from above.
Martin Luther, in commenting on this newness, said, “God takes us out of the world, transforms us, then hurls us back into the world to see through God’s eyes, to hear through God’s ears, and to love through God’s heart.”
Can you see how both extremes in contemporary Christianity fail at this point? The fanatics are glad to be taken out of this world, but they never understand their mission to go back into this world and to love it for God. And the other extreme never experiences the fundamental grounding in God which allows them to be in this world redemptively without becoming destructively of this world.
How different Jesus was! He was in the world but not of the world. He associated with the poor, sinners, outcasts, lepers, tax collectors, cheats. even prostitutes. His enemies called him a “glutton and a winebibber.” He was able to be in the world–truly in the world, but not of the world in all of its greedy, violent, condemning ways. Why? Because he saw with God’s eyes, heard with God’s ears, and loved with God’s heart.
This world does not need religious fanatics who are out of this world and who do not understand that God loves this world unconditionally and eternally. And neither does this world need nominal Christians who have conformed to the pattern of the culture around them to the point that no real difference exists between them and those outside the church.
What this world needs are Christians whose lives are hidden with Christ in God and from that fundamental grounding and joyful communion can join Christ in loving this world into its healing and liberation.
John Powell, the Catholic priest who taught at Loyola University, tells of a student he had who was the biggest pain in the neck he had ever experienced in the classroom. This student argued continually, made fun of Powell and the Christian faith, and took great pride in his atheism. Finally, the semester ended with the final exam. On turning in his paper, the student cynically asked if Powell thought he would ever find God. Powell surprised the student by responding. “No, Robert. I do not believe you will ever find God.” The student then turned to leave and as he reached the door, Powell said, “But I believe with all my heart that someday God will find you.”
The genius of the Christian faith is not what we do to find God or what we must do to secure our own salvation. No, the genius of the Christian faith is what God does for us. Even our response in faith is the work of God’s Spirit. As Paul says, “It is by grace that you are saved through faith and not of your own doing, lest anyone should boast.”
At this table where we are hidden with Christ in God, we experience that initiating, seeking, finding, transforming love, and we realize at our deepest level that ALL is grace. The bread and wine, the very offering of God for our sakes, tells us the story of our and the world’s salvation.
The goal of our being hidden with Christ in God is not for us to escape from this world. The goal according to the Apostle Paul is for us to become God’s agents of reconciliation–in Luther’s words, to be able to see through God’s eyes, to hear through God’s ears, and to love through God’s heart. Our mission is to let God be present in our world through us. And if we are truly grounded in God, we can do no other.
Depart now in the fellowship of the Spirit.
May your hands be holy as you handle creation in God’s name.
May your eyes be holy as you see the world with eyes of compassion.
May your ears be holy as you listen to your brothers and sisters as they share their joys and sorrows.
And may your heart be holy as you embrace the world in the purity of God’s love. Amen.