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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Theology for the dying and the dead

Death has been on my mind for more than a year. I can trace its shadow back to a strange origin: The birth of my daughter.

I think about it every night, as we put her to bed. We help Olivia into her pajamas, watch her brush her teeth, read "Goodnight Moon" together, and say a prayer. The lights go out. The rocking chair creaks, Olivia sighs in her sleep, and my own mortality grips me. And holding her there in the darkness, I'm filled with a holy ache. The close of the evening is one tiny goodbye in a lifelong string of goodbyes.

I can't help but whisper Jesus' name. I hold my daughter tight, and I cling to the Gospel all the tighter.

"A theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating," wrote Martin Luther. His words reflect the profound mystery: The kingdom of eternal life is hidden in dying and death. Here, the power of God is revealed to us through littleness, lostness, lastness, and leastness. It's revealed to us in a homeless carpenter, cast out by the outcast and crucified by the criminals.

It was this losing-as-winning Gospel that repelled even those closest to Christ. What kind of God comes to earth to save it from certain damnation and gets Himself killed? This stuff does not make for good action movies.

Saint Paul makes this life-through-deathness the climax of his letter to the Romans, intimately tying the work of the Spirit to the death of the flesh:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

And later:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I draw attention to "in all these things" -- and specifically the word "in" -- because this passage is easy to misread. Paul isn't speaking as if we were an undefeated football team, plowing over our impending slaughter without a scratch. Instead, he points out that it is in our very sheepish slaughter that we are conquerors through Christ--the Lamb of God who was first slaughtered for our sake.

I am in no way saying that we somehow pay for our sin with our individual deaths, as Christ paid for the world's sin with His own death. Rather, we are brought through death (by the death of Christ), and into resurrection (in the resurrection of Christ) so that our bodies may be redeemed. Christ blazed the trail, and the Spirit carries us along down that same path, washed in his blood the whole way.

This eschatology must inform our preaching of the Law: Its fulfillment is tied up in this trail-blazing suffering, death, burial and resurrection I've been harping on. Too often, we tend to use the various uses of the Law like the blades of a pocket knife--pulling them out to tackle whatever situation is at hand. But the Law is not so easily divided. The Law certainly gives us directions--the so-called "third use"--but the roadmap laid out is inseperable from its final destination: the grave. The struggles, sufferings, and death we face along the way aren't merely the deterrents of the world, they are the divine vocation God has called us to.

To put it succinctly for other Lutherans, this is the theology of the Cross. And it turns the whole world on its head. Any shred of safety we used to try and find in "doing the right thing" has been torn from beneath us, so that all we have left to lean on is Christ's looming death--and the blazing hope beyond it. "But hope that is seen is no hope at all."

In the end then, I savor these quiet moments I spend holding my daughter. With each passing moment, each fading goodbye, each final word, and that one final breath, the kingdom unfolds before us.