It must be close to 20 years ago now that I attended the 50th birthday party of a college friend of mine. He was a junior my freshman year at Andrews, a campus leader fully engaged in the social, intellectual and religious life of our college. I didn’t stay in touch as the years passed by and it was only because of a mutual friend and a business trip that took me to his home town that I wound up at his party. There I learned that he had become a successful writer of fiction. The evening is permanently lodged in my memory because in the fleeting exchange that a buzzing party allowed he asked me if I had “stayed in the church.” Of course I replied that I had and when he asked “Why?” I said, “Because the gospel is the best and sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.”
I am fairly confident that a majority, perhaps only a small majority but a majority nevertheless of my college contemporaries have not “stayed in the church.” If my suspicion is correct, it might be taken to imply that there is something surprising about my uninterrupted engagement with the body of Christ. I would deny that there is. Rather what is genuinely surprising to me is that anyone ever leaves. I am convinced that leaving is only possible if one has not heard the gospel. One does not exchange the best and sweetest thing there is for anything else.
Paul says in the tenth chapter of his infinitely compelling letter to the Roman Christians that “faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” I did not and do not hear the gospel because of an especially acute capacity to listen and to hear, nor because of the exceptional gifts of influential Christians in my life. I hear and have heard the gospel because, by God’s grace, the words of Christians become the Word of God.
Here is what I have heard:
There is a man named Jesus who loved and loves everyone perfectly. He was born in Bethlehem. You can go there. His birth was the second time he brought light into a world full of darkness. The first time he simply said, “let there be light.” Darkness is so dark that his second gift of light resulted in the slaughter of Bethlehem’s other babies. It is so dark that this man who loved and loves everyone perfectly was tortured to death by people who knew him. The perfection of his love expressed itself in his plea to his father to forgive them because they didn’t know what they were doing. You see, they had not heard. They wanted to be done with him. But his love was not done with them and having submitted to the full fury of their antipathy to love he annulled their lust for his death and rose from the dead. He is alive.
His first friends were a pitiful lot, who to a man (but not the women) abandoned him in the darkness. And when the women discovered that he is alive, that the darkness had not overcome his light, his friends came out of the shadows and rejoiced in the light. From then on, filled with his living light they bore witness to his victory. Their witness provoked a futile repetition of murderous attempts by darkness to be done with light, to be done with Jesus. Having suffered with him, every witness to the light will also one day, upon the return of Jesus to this, his birthplace, leave death permanently behind to live eternally in the fullness of his light.
The people who tortured and killed Jesus were the theologians of his day, called scribes at the time. I am chagrined to recognize myself in them. The beauty of his light exposes my own inexplicable appetite to be left alone, for self-mastery, for self-satisfaction, for dominance, for darkness. My very joy in his triumph over suffering and death can be exploited by the lust for darkness that insists that it is I and not he who is the creator and redeemer of my world. So it is true of me as well that grace has taught my heart to fear. And yet even my fear reveals the beauty of his light because it lives only out of awareness of the availability of infinite glory, glory that can, even if only for “three days” be dumped into the grave.
But he is not in the grave. Death is not the truth. Life is not a charade of denial best endured in a state of intoxication with the currently relevant or the metaphysically indifferent. Life is a wedding feast. The bridegroom is on his way.
What have you heard?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6298