Growing in Christ

(system) #1

This week the Sabbath School quarterly has as its key thought the statement “Christ’s victory on the cross defines the scope of the victory into which the Christian may grow.” It is a true and aptly phrased observation drawn from this week’s key text, Colossians 2:15: “He [God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, triumphing over them in him [Christ].”

Having in mind our twenty-eighth fundamental belief (“Growing in Christ,” voted at the 2005 general conference session), the author of our lesson is keen to point out that, taken together with other Pauline statements, these “rulers and authorities” may be understood as “satanic powers and evil forces” at war with the people of faith.

However true it is that Christ claims victory over every destructive external force, I find myself more personally interested right now in what victory Christ has won over my destructive internal forces: insecurity, self-doubt, despair. I would argue that such interior forces are among the most powerful sources of affliction that can prey upon our consciousness.

French philosopher and social activist Simone Weil (1909-1943) talks poignantly about her stint as a factory worker, a post she took to help her understand and relate to her human brothers and sisters among the working class. Through that experience, “the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul,” she writes in Waiting for God. “There I received forever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron which the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave.”[1] It is a forbidding testament to the inner wounding that can happen even to a person who offers her life for others. Love is no guarantee against oppression and affliction from within, and sometimes our very obedience to the summons of Christ leaves us with deep hidden scars.

For this reason, I find it necessary to talk about Christ’s defeat before I feel comfortable talking about his victory. Before ascending to the Father in glory, Christ shared in our inward affliction. Usually when I think about Christ, I like first to remember his humanity. I imagine the boy Jesus growing up, as I read somewhere recently, under the threat of state-sponsored terrorism (courtesy of the Romans).[2] I imagine him ridiculed as the poor and illegitimate son of a peasant girl. As an adult he is a wandering vagabond, always giving, but spiritually very much alone. Finally he dies, crushed beneath the weight of abandonment, a criminal between two thieves. In short, he was what we find in Isaiah 53:7: “oppressed and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth.” Citing Galatians 3:13 (“Christ… being made a curse for us…”) Simone Weil points out that “it was not only the body of Christ, hanging on the wood, which was accursed, it was his whole soul also” (81). “Affliction” characterizes the whole life of Jesus, only climaxing at the cross. The final gift at the climax of his life leaves Christ with a wounding much deeper than the flesh, providing a point of existential contact for all people who, for whatever reason, find themselves interiorly afflicted.

The question of how we “grow in Christ” can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Perhaps the most straightforward way is to ask how Christ-followers become nicer, better people. But a more suitable way of asking the question for our purposes is theological: how do we share at a personal, psychological level, in Christ’s resurrection over those places of affliction in our lives? How do we participate or grow into the life of Christ as a theological reality?

The gospel invites us to enter Christ’s “victorious” resurrection reality by first entering into the grave of Christ’s defeat (Rom. 6:5; Phil. 3:8-11; 1 Pet. 4:13). Christian theology has traditionally called this process (which we Adventists enact in baptism), the “Paschal Mystery,” a term referring to Christ’s “passing through” death and resurrection (remember that Christ’s death occurred on the Jewish Passover, a holiday commemorating how the angel of death “passed over” the first born sons of Israel during their days of slavery in Egypt).[3] I believe this way of looking at the cross (as participation in the mystery of dying and rising) offers a richness sometimes missing from more technical or legal explanations of the atonement. Our quarterly author invites us to reflect on how Christ’s independent actions on the cross have “saved us from the devastation of sin.” While we could make the typical justification/sanctification distinction and say that Christ’s actions “justify” us before God, I would argue that the fullness of salvation as an experience happens not so much by what Christ does for us as by what Christ does in us, by drawing our hearts and minds into the mystery of his dying and rising. Then the destructive inner “rulers and authorities” we discussed at the beginning of this article can be defeated. Our wounds, united to Christ’s, are transformed into sources of healing for others.

What we are invited into at a very basic level is a growth “into” Christ. Reflecting on the writings of the early church father Gregory Nazianzen, Olivier Clement explains that according to Christian theology, “The sacrifice of Jesus accomplishes the Father’s eternal plan to unite humanity with divinity, to bring alive and deify the depths of human nature, of the universe, of being.”[4] This does not mean that we cease to be creatures distinct from the creator God. It means that we enter, through Christ, the fullness of the life God designed for humanity—intimate relationship with the one who loves us. By growing into Christ through the fusion of our flesh with his on the cross, we grow the capacity for communion with God. We are resurrected, set on our feet, and made whole to love and to serve. The paschal mystery is meant to be a constant dynamic at work in our Christian lives. When those dark inner “rulers and authorities” whisper cruelly in our ears, we can hide ourselves again and again in the wounds of the crucified Christ. Again and again, resurrection seizes us and heals us because, as Gregory of Nyssa reminds us, “the resurrection of one member [Christ] extends to all, and that of a part to the whole, by virtue of the cohesion and unity of human nature.”[5]

This, I believe, is true victory: the miraculous fruit of our defeat.

[1] Simone Weil, Waiting on God, trans. (Emma Craufurd), London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951, p. 33.

[2] My source here, sadly, eludes me.

[3] As an aside, it’s interesting to reflect that in the story of Exodus, the children of Israel are spared by the angel of death, but in the Christian mystery believers are called to die with the Paschal Lamb into a new spiritual resurrection.

[4] Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, (trans. Theodore Berkeley), London: New City, 1993, p. 45.

[5] Quoted in Clement, 47, from Catechetical Orations, 32 (PG 45, 80).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at