From time to time those of us who travel the spiritual path are blessed with an insight that radically turns upside down the underlying assumptions that, for lack of a better term, have reached the exalted status of “sacred cow.” Sometimes these revelations come from books we are reading or from some inspired sermon we may hear. They also might come from radio, television, or during our times of quiet communion with the Sacred Silence. Recently, I was blessed with such an experience and it is safe to say that it was a revelation that brought several confusing aspects of the Christian faith into a clearer focus.
The insight I am speaking of is related to the reality of Christ, who he was (and is), and what he accomplished by coming to this planet. It also has to do with our mission, which is to emulate Christ in his actions and to carry forward his mission of transpersonal compassion. In relation to Christ identity and purpose, let’s lay down the foundation stones:
Christ is pre-existent; part of the Godhead in ways we cannot fully fathom and ways that have not been revealed, in Holy Scripture or elsewhere.
Christ’s true identity is hinted at in both the Old and New Testaments, but most clearly in Proverbs 8:22-36; the Prologue of John’s Gospel; Paul’s hymn in Philippians; and in the opening chapter of Colossians.
Perhaps the greatest disservice rampant in the church has been, and still is, the whole “fall/redemption” theology, which in its wake, spawned the ill-conceived theory of the “substitutionary atonement.” As a result, the real miracle and power of Christ’s incarnation has been lost to generation after generation of Christians who have built their entire walk of faith on the foundation of the “blood” and the “cross,” while failing to truly understand either one. The ramifications of all this are easily discerned. Churches everywhere are filled with lukewarm Christians who have little true commitment to the cause of Christ and even less understanding of what that cause is.
Christ’s mission to this world is so sublime and subtle that we may never understand all of it. However, this much is clear: He brought a new type of experience, fueled by a new type of energy and spirit, into this world and all creation. As a result of this, two things are readily apparent: first, Christ now inhabits (infuses) the universe in ways never seen prior to his incarnation; and second, we are empowered to live the kind of life that he calls us to. Through his presence in all things, and through the ministry and power of the Holy Spirit, we are now able to “have life and have it more it more abundantly.”
In connection with the point above, Christ infuses all creation with a type of energy that is beyond description, but can be identified at least to some degree by its function. In addition to acting as a catalyst that both makes possible and accelerates spiritual formation, this energy also has another vital function. This energy also makes possible direct contact between humanity and God. Without the completion of this aspect of Christ’s mission, intimate contact between humankind and God would not be possible. God’s pure Spirit would be too much for our fragile vessels to handle. In the vernacular, we would be toast.
In Scripture we are told that Christ is a mediator between God and man and that is exactly what he accomplished through his incarnation, death, descent into Hell, resurrection, and ultimately, his ascension. In scripture we are also told that Christ not only ascended back to heaven, but ascended higher than the heavens “so that he could become a part of all things.” (Ephesians 4:10) By becoming a part of all things (some translations say he “filled all things”) Christ was able to carry out the aspect of his mission whereby he infused himself into all creation in a new and vital way. One result of this infusion was that humankind would no longer be incinerated in God’s presence.
A side bar to the above discussion is simply this: In the Old Testament we are given a precursor or metaphor of what Christ was and is, and also of what we, as humans, would one day become, in the scene where Moses is tending sheep in the wilderness. He encounters a burning bush that is unlike any bush he has ever seen. Not only is the bush on fire, but it is not consumed. It just keeps on burning without ever extinguishing itself. On top of that, the voice of God comes out of the bush. I think the burning bush is a metaphor for Christ, in the exact sense that Christ is not consumed in God’s presence and now, because of his mission to this world, neither are we. In essence, Christ serves as a “bridge” between this world and the spiritual world.
Granted, these sort of metaphysical issues may be hard to grasp at first blush, but careful reflection and prayer validates their veracity. And to be sure, they make a lot more sense than the inane doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” that has been foisted upon us for so long.
In terms of our mission in general and our call to emulate the Master in thought, word, and deed in particular, we can see yet another aspect of Christ’s unique brand of spirituality. As we have seen, Christ differed in his approach to the spiritual life by negating the traditional path of “ascension” spirituality. Instead, Christ taught and lived a spirituality of “divine descending” or “kenosis.” Instead of perfecting ourselves and ascending back to the heavenly realms, we are called by Christ to not only a sacrificial lifestyle of love, but also to “self-emptying” spirituality – a brand of spiritual endeavor whereby we become more holy by giving away all that God has given us. This refers not so much to living lives of poverty and destitution, but instead, involves utilizing our spiritual gifts in selfless services to God and others.
Unlike the New Age adherents, we are not here to “learn lessons in earth school.”
Unlike the “prosperity” teachers, we are not here to become rich.
Unlike the Gnostic disciples, we are not only here to “know ourselves.”
Unlike the Buddhists, we are not here to achieve enlightenment and escape the rounds of birth and death.
Unlike the Vedanta followers, we are not here to perfect ourselves and discover the “God within.”
Unlike Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, we are not here to work off our moral indebtedness in some sort of karmic sweatshop.
Unlike Muslim and Christian fundamentalists, we are not here to purify ourselves through legalistic obedience to religious laws, thus preparing ourselves for some final judgment.
Instead, we are here to carry on the great mission that Christ began when he decided to put on an earth suit and walk among us. In doing so, Christ revealed the true nature of God as a being of infinite love – a being of kenosis, who emptied himself into all creation through Christ. Since then, things have never been the same on this planet and they never will. Through the blessings of the Incarnation, blessings far too sublime for us to ever wrap our minds around, Christ revealed the heart of God. When I reflect on these themes, I suddenly and profoundly see John 3:16 in an entirely new light:
For God gave his only begotten son, so that whosoever believes in him should never perish, but have everlasting life.
Our mission is one of continuing incarnation, of becoming the hands, feet, and especially, the heart of Jesus in this hurting world. Nowhere does scripture reveal a more cogent, relevant, and profound truth than in Matthew 25:35-40, where the following exchange between Christ and the disciples is recorded:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and come to see you? And the King will answer and say to them, “Today I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers and sisters of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.” (NAS)
This world we find ourselves living in is broken in many ways. Some theologians and biblical scholars call our world “fallen,” but I think this misses the mark somewhat. Is this world steeped in what Christians typically call “sin.?” Without a doubt. Is this world populated by a majority that operates on the premise that you should always “look out for Number 1” You bet it is. Is this world a place where trust and openness more often leads to pain than comfort? Just try it and see.
My point here, however, is not to detail how much our world has fallen from God’s standards and ideals. No, my point is just the opposite:
This world, with all its suffering, pain, and injustice, is the ideal place for us to grow spiritually through following Christ’s example of kenotic self-transcendence.
This world, warts and all, provides us with the proper venue to hone our spiritual skills in ways a utopian society never could. Rather than seeking to find ways to accelerate our way back to our pristine spiritual homeland, we are to embrace this world, find out where God is working, and join in, utilizing the spiritual gifts that God has already placed in us. This is the way to become the optimal version of ourselves and, along the way, attain spiritual fulfillment.
In closing, I want to return to a theme discussed earlier, namely this: Christ’s mission to our world brought about a new situation – a new relationship between the spiritual realm and the material world. Through the mysteries of the incarnation, Christ brought into this world a new paradigm, empowered by a new energy that we only marginally understand.
Cynthia Bourgeault encapsulates this reality quite well in the following passage from her book, The Wisdom Jesus:
From a God’s eye view of creation, the real operational challenge is not sin and evil; it is posed by the vastly unequal energetic frequencies between the realms. How can the sun touch a snowflake? How can the divine radiance meet and interpenetrate created life without incinerating it? This is the ultimate metaphysical koan – to which Christianity proposes as its solution the mystery of the incarnation.
The ramifications of viewing Christ’s mission in light of this energetic paradigm are profound and in no way take away from his role as “savior,” a distinction dearly held by many. Christ comes to make contact with the ultimate “Light” possible – and that is exactly what God is – light and love. Through Christ, humankind is able to experience the full intensity of God’s light and God’s love. As Paul tells us, Jesus Christ is indeed that mediator between God and man. He is a bridge between the worlds.
In spite of our lack of comprehension of the intangible aspects of Christ’s mission, we can still utilize this new energy and, in fact, all spiritual growth, in the final analysis, is accomplished by and through the agency of this new energy. We can use a variety of terms to describe this energy and its associated paradigm, each perhaps accurate to an extent but also limited.
I prefer to call it grace.
© L.D. Turner 2010/All Rights Reserved