I’m becoming convinced that one of the most common (and perhaps willful) fallacies with regard to the Gospel is manifest in two exactly opposite ways, which together hold in tension the opposition between liberal Christians and conservative Christians, speaking here of the hyper- sort. Both groups need to protect the fallacy as a means of self-preservation, because neither group could exist as such without the ‘other’ group to exist against. But, unfortunately for both groups, the Gospel provides no basis to support their opposition as such and therefore neither for their strange and codependent relationship and therefore neither for their group identities as such. The Gospel strips its adherents of any rhetoric that requires a sustained grammar of opposition against a “them” in order to define, and preserve, an “us.”
The Gospel came to all, Jews and Gentiles alike, conservatives and liberals alike, from the Other side of enemy lines. It is only in hearing it declare us its enemies that we can hear it declare us its allies–only the accused can hear their Advocate–because those apparently opposite categories of identity are held together in the Gospel’s one Word of declaration in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter Sunday survives only to the degree that it remains staked to the Friday before. The Gospel thus indeed preserves the language of opposition but transforms it within its unique grammar of reconciliation (established in principle in the hypostatic union from which pours forth a new and holy grammar on all flesh, cf. Acts 2:17).
But Conservative Christians tend to sanctify the language of opposition simply by sanctifying themselves, that is, by moving “us” onto “God’s” side and thereby dramatically demonizing the “them.” It is Easter Sunday untethered from Friday’s cross and staked only to an eschatological “us.” And therefore Sunday is no longer Easter and Friday is no longer Good.
And Liberal Christians, on the other hand, tend to, with inexplicable immediacy, stand on the grammar of reconciliation without any word of definition, topsoil for an entirely new language, categorically refusing grounds for any accusation whatever by moving “God” onto the side of “us” thereby erasing the possibility of “them” and gently annihilating the “other.” So the liberal speaks of “acceptance,” not “forgiveness,” of “inclusiveness, not “repentance,” an ever-widening and -accepting circle of “us.” It is a fusion, not a union. But, ironically, an opposition must be maintained, namely against any word of accusation. As such, none are excluded except the excluders, none are judged except the judgmental, none are rejected by God except those whose God rejects anyone. And, it turns, each group ends up balancing out, equally exclusive, and–as a group–equally antichrist.
The underlying fallacy of this circus has to do with a misunderstanding and/or misappropriation of the grace of God under the New Covenant, namely that either:
(a) the grace of God under the New Covenant lowers God’s standard of righteousness (e.g., the sloppy liberal confession that is willing to say “we’re all sinners” in general, according to God’s Word, but unwilling to allow God’s Word to define any sin in particular);
or (b) the grace of God under the New Covenant is an entirely separate category from God’s standard of righteousness (e.g., the militant (but equally as sloppy) insistence that grace means “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except though [‘us’, ahem, we mean ‘Him’]”, on the one hand, and, on the other, that his righteous standard is still based on a Law he established with Israel that the rest of the world should be obligated to apply in principle (or at least a carefully (re: conveniently) selected adumbration of laws), regardless of whether or not they recognize the Law-Giver, which of course suggests that the world needs godliness but doesn’t really need God).
If I may, to both groups, recommend a sermon once preached that addresses this fallacy and both its manifestations found in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapters 5-7. Actually, it is not a sermon. We only call it a sermon, even giving it the formal designation “Sermon on the Mount,” because of a refusal to acknowledge that under the New Covenant God has, in fact, descended to the Mount Himself as the Law, to issue the commands in Person, and thereby reveals an infinitely higher standard of righteousness. As long as we can codify the words uttered on the Mount as mere sermon principles, we can avoid the terrible prospect of hearing them as the codification of a New and binding Commandment. They are nothing less and, indeed, much more.
God’s standard of righteousness, this side of the New Covenant of grace, is no longer defined and established by the Old Covenant of Law—God’s commands to a nation. God’s standard of righteousness is now defined and established in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ—God’s love for the world—who fulfilled the righteousness intended to create a just society and exceeded it with a righteousness intended to create a gracious society. That excessive righteousness is the only way to the Father, which is precisely why Jesus, not Christian fundamentalism, is the the only way to the Father. Only the Grace that comes from the Father can take us back to Him and make us gracious like Him.
So the New Covenant of grace does not effect a decrease in the righteousness God requires but an infinite increase. That is why Jesus said, in effect, the righteousness required to enter his kingdom exceeds the righteousness of the Law-keepers (Mt. 5:17-20); why not-love of another, whether enemy or neighbor or neighbor’s wife, is tantamount to murder; why under His standard all of us are “liable to the hell of fire”; why in the burning light of His love all of us should become one-eyed and dismembered (Mt. 5:21-30); why the self-righteous polarizing rhetoric that identifies one’s own group as sheep by wiping its bloody hands on the forehead of some homogeneously identified other group as goats (whether “liberal” or “conservative” or “fundamentalist” or “skeptic” or “Muslim” or “Christian” or perhaps even, quite ironically, Christ Himself) is tantamount to the kind of scapegoating that can demand holy justice in the world only by permitting the one small exception of its own injustice, the kind of scapegoating the Law revealed was provisionally necessary because it simultaneously revealed that all fall short of its righteous standard, the kind of scapegoating that can be embraced only if the Gospel is rejected.
Christ is either the Lamb slain for a world of goats, or we will simply have to convince God that “we” are of a kind of sheep more spotless than the Slaughtered Lamb and “they” are a kind of goat more stained than Pilate’s hand, the centurion’s hand, the hand not reaching out, the hand clinching tightly to control, to greed, to revenge, to unforgiveness, the hand clicking on the mouse, the hand that is ice cold to the spouse and children that so need its living and loving warmth. We will have to convince God to be more satisfied with a judgment of guilt that exiles the ‘other’ than the judgment of guilt that reconciles the world (cf. Romans 5 and the rest of the Bible).
“Judge not, lest you be judged” (Mt. 7:1).
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt. 6:12).
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).
“So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot help but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-21).
Lying here, trying to stop thinking about how I wish I could stop thinking about not being able to fall asleep, I keep circling back to another unsolicited thought: Is the news of tomorrow really good news? Do we really want a risen Lord?
If Jesus stays in the tomb, it means that the world can continue on its course, unaccountable, free of any Absolutes–other than death–shrugging off that nagging Voice of its conscience time and time again. If Jesus stays in the tomb, there is no Lord to answer to, no Voice from without, only fleeting (if competing) echoes from within, and at any rate all voices are moving toward a finality of silence.
That, to me at least, seems much easier to deal with than is the prospect of the destruction of death. It’s much easier to imagine death brings a certain finality to all that I have done and not done, all that I have said and not said, to missed opportunities to love and help and give and forgive, to my violence, my greed, my self-indulgence… I can’t help but think it is easier to make peace anticipating closure to all that than anticipating that my life and my will and my secret thoughts and intentions are wide open to an infinite future, a future in which I am not Lord and death is not an option, a future from which that nagging Voice is issued from a throne, a Voice that alone is Absolute.
There was terror that first Easter (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:36-43). And I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. The world has lost its autonomy. Death no longer affords any escape routes. Life is laid bare to an infinite future that we know now only as a Voice, often just a faint Whisper–but then we shall see Him face to face.
What a glorious–and terrifying–day tomorrow will be.
“And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child will be laid down for the fall and the resurrection of many, and for a sign that is opposed, (and a sword will pierce your own soul also), so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35).
The baby was born. They called him James.
There’s not much to say about James. He doesn’t say much about himself in the letter he left for us. The only other thing the Bible says about James is that he was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). All we get from Church history about James is in fragments, no cohesive narrative. A guy named Hegesippus called him James the Just. It stuck.
But it’s no surprise there’s not much to say about James, because all that is said of him is said under the shadow of his big Brother. James the Just, brother of Jesus the Judge, born in the shadow of the Savior. A hard act to follow.
I wonder if Mary felt guilty. She was found to be with child, again, but not by the Holy Spirit again. This time by plain ol’ unholy Joe. This child surely would not be so godly as her First. I wonder if she felt guilty before James was born, knowing that she could not love him as much as her Firstborn (of all Creation)?
But even more than that, I wonder if she felt guilty after he was born. I wonder if she felt guilty when she realized that she loved her second-born just as much.
I remember when we were expecting our firstborn. All Keldy thought about was the baby. She loved him in I suppose the way only a mother can love an unborn child. I on the other hand felt guilty. I could not relate. For those nine months my reaction to her pregnancy was a kind of surprised “Oh yeah…”, coupled with a nagging fear that I wasn’t going to love him like a father is supposed to love his son. I literally feared that I would love my dogs more than my son. Babies just hadn’t been all that impressive to me, because I am not a woman. The honest men out there know what I’m talking about. Women have no clue.
Except for maybe Mary. Mary knows. Mary had, after all, held at her bosom the one who came from the bosom of God the Father (Jn. 1:18). Mary had indeed “kissed the face of God.” But this second-born would be just another face in the shadow of the Almighty. Mary wasn’t yet used to having children who weren’t God. Middle children already have a syndrome named after them, but what of the one that comes second to the Savior of the world. Mary knows.
When Kezek was born, I started treating my dogs like dogs. I loved my firstborn so intensely that I was afraid I loved him more than God. I was afraid that if anything were to happen to him I would hate God. That fear lingers.
When Keldy told me we were expecting again, I was doubly guilty and doubly afraid. Not only did I love my firstborn more than or as much as God, now I feared that I would not love my second-born as much as my firstborn, perhaps only as much as the dogs.
The baby was born. We called him Levi Ryser. There was no sound. He was blue. The voices of the people in white raised an octave. They stopped looking us in the eye. They were looking at some protocol that was visible only to those who knew some unspoken “code.” Ryser needed decoded.
The doctor handed him to me to carry as I was paced at an uncomfortable pace en route to the NICU. It seemed far too much like a formality for my first embrace of my second-born son, like it was a consolation, a mere gesture, the beginning of some process necessary for some Contingency Plan Z. It felt like I was greeting my newborn son with a goodbye.
There are no words here that will do.
I held him as close to my heart heart as humanly possible. I tried to hold him as close to my heart as humanly impossible, or as inhumanly possible. I tried to pour my life into his. I tried to empty myself to fill him up. I tried to breath for him. I wanted to cut out my heart and put it into his body. I wanted to die so I could raise him from the dead. Anything. Just please…
I think that was the first day I ever actually interceded for someone. I beat on heaven’s door like one of those old grandmothers who’s earned the right to act that way. I was pleading, then I was demanding, then I was crying. I had felt the joy of a father’s love with my firstborn but with my second-born I was brushing up against the prospect of a father’s grief. I was feeling the very sharp other edge of love for the first time. I learned that day something about the sword Simeon told Mary about (Lk. 2:35).
Four days later, he was stable. Over those four days I started to understand what I suppose Mary had come to understand with her second-born: that the love of God and the love of a son are not two separate loves. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart and the spear that pierced her Son’s were felt first in the love that was laid at the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). God is love in a very nounish sense, like the nounish sense of the word creation or the Word Incarnation. Mary couldn’t compare her love for Jesus with her love for James, because her love for James came from the life of Jesus. There is no love apart from that Life. Indeed, there is no life apart from that Love. If it is in God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then Love is the ether of all our relationships. To love is merely an act of alignment.
His name has become more fitting than I had intended. Levi Ryser means, by my assignment, death and resurrection, or offering and acceptance, or more simply “Gift of God” (with the intentionally ambiguous genitive). It is the second-born of Mary, after all, by whom we discover ourselves, since we all are second-born of the dead. We discover that unto us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, in order to restore love to its proper form, that we might love our own as we love God, because he loves us as though we were his own. That is the meaning of yesterday’s Birthday and therefore every birthday in the light of its shadow.
Levi was born on the altar, where all gifts are born. He was born without breath, blue. But while he was yet unknown and unknowing, en route to the NICU, he was already being born in the bosom of his father. I think in that moment, if for only that moment, I understood Mary. I think I understood something about motherhood that day. I understood what it was like to carry a life that could not carry itself apart from my own. I understood what it was like to carry life with a sense that if one dies, we all die, if one lives, we all live. I think I learned something about being the Mother of God that day. I’m certain I learned something about being a father that day, maybe even something about being a Son.
We had decided to call him Ryser before he was born. But Levi was Ryser before he was born. He was raised in his mother’s heart for nine months. And he was raised in his father’s for four days. He is now growing up in both. And all this is from God, because he has been raised from eternity in the heart of Love. And my only plea for his life is that through our feeble hands he will continue to be held in that Love. God, help us.
Ryser is our number two, but he is loved just as much as the Firstborn, even if he was born in His shadow, even if we did use leftover nativity scene wrapping paper for his birthday presents this year.
Happy Birthday, Ryser. You are loved with an everlasting love, my son.
“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of man take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”
~ Psalm 36:7