Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Union In Christ: "Were on a Mission from God"

Purves and Achtemeier begin their commentary with a brief discussion of the title: Union in Christ. Their thesis is that the concept of Union in Christ is the defning characteristic of Christian life, witness, and unity.

Union in Christ is also a key component of our personal identity: “Those baptized into Christ are united with him in a spiritual relationship that now defines them in their core identity.” (9) This statement isn’t supposed to be a statement about the sacrament of baptism – Purves and Achtemeier are assuming the background of Presbyterian understanding of baptism – that it is not the action that is efficacious, but the faith behind the action. However by speaking in terms of sacrament, they’re demonstrating the inseperable nature of faith and obedience. Faith in Christ leads us to obey the call to repent and be baptized – and in our baptism as a response to faith, we are spiritually strengthened with greater faith. That greater faith confirms for us our core identity as belonging to Christ.

The opening verse of scripture from Colossians 1:17 is very telling regarding their purposes – to take our eyes off ourselves and our agendas and machinations and fix them upon Christ: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Without Christ, the authors point out, human life slips back into “chaos and nonbeing.”

These are big claims – and they hinge on the question “Who is this Christ then” – is he the wandering dusty prophet of the skeptics? Is he the radical antiestablishmentarian revolutionary of protest warriors? Is he the uber-peace child of 1970’s musicals?

Achtemeier and Purves make it pretty clear which Christ they speak of: “With the witness of Scripture and the church through the ages we declare….” Their purpose is not to re-envision Christ. Quite simply, their assertion is that Christ has made himself known clearly through Scripture and through the testimony of the saints; it behooves us to listen to them.

There have always been radical voices that reject the historic affirmations about Christ; yet they have done so against the testimony of scripture and the saints of the past. At some point they have said “I don’t care what scripture says” or “I don’t care about the whole counsel of God, I only accept this book as scripture” or “The church has gotten it wholly wrong, and we alone are the repository of truth.” These voices are present in history; they may have even been ascendant for a season of history, yet they don’t accurately represent the Christ as revealed in scripture.

But wait, what of the Reformation? Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing that has happened in reformation and renewal movements of the past. Not at all. Reformation and renewal is at its core a call to return to the scriptures and return to the witness of the saints of the past. The proliferation of denominations, sects, and movements is not necessarily a witness against Christian unity, but rather it can be a witness for it. For it demonstrates that there are essentials on which all Christians must be united, and there are other areas that may organizationally divide us (proper administration of baptism, for instance; or structuring of church government) but we may still be united in our witness of Christ as lord and savior.

It is for this reason that I as a Presbyterian can claim Augustineof Hippo, Patrick of Ireland, Bernard of Clarveaux, John Chrysostom, Teresa of Avila, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Dorothy Sayers, JC Ryle, Fanny Crosby, John Wesley, and a legion of other non-Presbyterians as the saints of the past upon whose foundation I build. I can claim them as my own heritage because we all share the same confession of the same Lord – we all understand the same Christ. It is the Christ of the Nicene Creed; the Christ of the whole scriptures – fully human and fully divine. The second person of the Trinity. The prophet, priest, and king of our confession.

This is the Christ that Purves and Achtemeier talk about in their declaration:

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God
To the world
And for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.
His coming transforms everything.
His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.
They begin with the unusual statement “Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world” – At the time of their writing, this was a relatively unfamiliar way of naming Jesus. We think of individuals carrying out a mission, or living a mission or having a mission – But Jesus is the mission. He doesn’t just show they way and proclaim the truth and teach about life. He is the way, the truth and the life. He is the word made flesh. He is the human embodiment of the triune God whose self revelation to Moses was “I am that I am” (exod 3:14). He is the fulfillment of all scriptures (Luke 24:27, Matt 5:17).

This wording fits, because Jesus mission is likely much bigger than simply the salvation of sinners. Certainly that is the part of his mission that concerns us and puts our heart at ease, but that’s not the sum total of God’s mission. The declaration talks about Jesus’ true humanity, Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ victory over sin and death, among other things. And there is more to Jesus’ mission than that. The very glory of God is an end goal of Jesus’ mission: “Truly truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.” (John 5:19-20) The whole discourse in John 5 speaks of the intimate relationship of God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit – ultimately pointing to the end goal of the greater glory of the Triune God.

Rightly said then is the statement that Jesus is God’s mission. We could spend a lifetime contemplating the implications of that truth.

Soli Deo Gloria