Thursday, May 13, 2010

At Odds Living

There is a common way of explaining that in Christ we are justified “just as if I’d” never sinned. It’s cute and easy to remember. It’s also unfortunate. It will never be as if it never happened. As Dallas Willard says, “I will always be a redeemed sinner, and that’s going to be part of the mental and spiritual furniture that helps me live before God for eternity.” Our life in God can’t ever be as Never-Sinned Humans. We stand before Redeemer God as his Beloved Forgiven, and there is a certain richness in that relationship that comes from an acceptance of those terms.

Justification is about the resumption and restoration of relationship with God, often referred to in the Bible as “peace with God” and “being reconciled to God.” We even have to be careful in using those phrases that we understand that there is nothing in God that has to be changed in order for that reconciliation or peace to occur, but something in us. I’m not sure about those understandings of atonement that say that God is an angry God whose honor has been offended and who requires that someone be punished in order for his anger to be assuaged and his honor restored, even if that one is his own son. Or those that say that God is Perfection and therefore cannot allow sin or sinful persons in his presence or else he will get sullied. (Jesus came into a sinful world and by his name declared that God is With Us, then hung around with sinners.) No, Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t change something in God that was blocking reconciliation, he changed something in us that was blocking us from reconciliation and peace. It was/is our enmity toward God, not his enmity toward us, which stands in the way. This is not to say that sin doesn’t grieve God, or doesn’t disappoint God, or doesn’t anger God. It’s just to say that that’s not the problem. Our ignorance of God, or our ignoring God, or our denying God, or our disappointment in God, or our anger at God—these are the things that stand between us that must be dealt with. And that’s what Jesus did.

Justification has traditionally been understood as the restoration of our relationship with God, and there is much to be learned and valued in that understanding, but it is not the only way that the Bible presents justification.

A synonym for justification is vindication. Vindication isn’t a change in status from unjust to just, vindication is a determination that a person has been just all along, that their actions have been right all along.

In 1st Century Judea, a dead messiah was a false messiah. Everybody knew this. It was indisputable. That’s why Jesus’ disciples kept expecting Jesus to do something when he was arrested, accused, tried and convicted. It’s why Peter drew his sword when Jesus was arrested. He was probably surprised that he was the only one who had drawn his sword, surprised that Jesus not only stood there swordless but actually rebuked him. It’s why Judas sold Jesus out, either to force his hand to rise up against the Temple leaders and the Romans, or because he saw that Jesus was on a suicide mission that would ruin everything, so he might as well get some silver for his wasted 2½ years. Because a dead messiah is a false messiah.

And the resurrection proved that Jesus really was the Messiah. It vindicated Jesus’ decision to confront the corruption of the Temple cult and the violence of the Romans with non-violent, sacrificial love. It justified his entire life and teaching.

In the same way, Jesus calls us to live our lives in a way that is at odds with the way the world says one should live. The Kingdom of God is at odds with the kingdoms of this world, because the kingdoms of this world have it backwards, or upside down. He calls us to live as citizens in the Kingdom of God even though it has not yet come in fullness and the kingdoms of this world still control most everything. He calls us to live right-side up in an upside down world, and right-side up in an upside down world appears to everyone—including us—to be upside down.

Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Everyone else points out that if your enemy is truly your enemy, acting in loving ways toward them is going to get you killed, and you know what? That makes a lot of sense. Jesus says that the first are last and the last are first, and the world points out that that’s just nuts. The last are…last. First is…first. And second place is just first loser. Makes sense? Sure it does.

Jesus asks us to live in a way that doesn’t make sense, and that will feel, in many ways, wrong. Upside down. Not working.

And he says, “I know. I know it doesn’t feel right, look right, or result in a lot of success or even happiness right now. But you gotta trust me. You gotta believe in me. You gotta have faith in me. And if you do, in the end, when my Kingdom comes in all its fullness, it’ll be shown that the way you lived was right-side up all along. You’ll be vindicated. Justified. Live by faith in me now, and you’ll be justified by that faith.”

Isn’t that what Paul says? “A person is justified by faith.” (Romans 3:28) Justification in this sense requires living at odds with the ways the world says to live. These ways of the world make sense in an upside down world, and to live at odds with ways that make sense doesn’t make sense. And that’s what Jesus tells us to do, live in ways that don’t make sense. Yet.

For the Kingdom is coming, and those who have lived according to Kingdom values will be vindicated. And they’ll be ready. Those who don’t live at odds with the world won’t be ready. There will be a lot of adjustments they will have to make in order for the Kingdom to feel like home, and maybe some will never be able to make the adjustments and will always feel like aliens in the Kingdom.

So here’s the bottom line: you can’t be vindicated (justified) if you don’t live at odds with an upside down world.

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