Here is the Lamb of God

“In those moments when all that we are is on the line, we are met by the one who came so that even death itself shall die. The temptation will always be around to not care, to not love, to not open ourselves up to the possibility of pain; but at that moment – when it feels like everything we’ve longed for is being taken away – that is the moment when God is most present, offering all that He is to mend our broken hearts and heal our deepest wounds.”

John 1:29-36 & Genesis 22:1-19

This was one of the most difficult sermons I’ve ever preached, but also (or maybe because it) expresses one of the most central convictions of my theology. The Christian faith is not a means of knowing enough to be in control, but of finding the embrace of God when we are finally willing to give up control and risk all that we truly are. If I’m right, we almost always look at theology in the wrong direction. The vulnerability of relationship comes first, which in turn creates the space for words of faith to do and mean something true.

 

The Heart of the Christian Faith

Moana’s lyrics in the movie’s climactic scene better represent Christ’s words on the cross than most strands of Christian expression today.

I’m going to try and tie several things together to express what I think is deeply lacking at the heart of those expressions. I don’t have the time to do justice to the kind of post this topic deserves, but the notion herein is so central to what I believe is at the heart of Christianity that I feel compelled to share at least this disjointed set of thoughts that may in some way point toward the message we, the church, so desperately need to hear and proclaim.

  1. An Article – I recently read an article connecting healing from a history of abuse with the message of the movie Moana. The entire article is well worth reading, but the point that stuck out to me so profoundly was the recognition that naming and accepting the trauma of our past is an absolutely vital part of finding healing and wholeness. If we cannot look into the eyes of our past as it actually happened rather than how we desire that it would have been, we will never be able to find joy in who we are and will become. The article closes – “You are not defined by your darkest hour. You are greater than what has been stolen from you. It is never too late to heal. It is never too late to make a fresh start. It is never too late to have your heart restored.” Great movie, incredible article.
  2. John 3:14-16 – “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I can’t recall a single person ever quoting John 3:16 while adding what comes just before as opposed to what comes after. I’d also be surprised if you could change the nuance of a message any more deeply than by reading two verses ahead of 3:16 as opposed to the 2 following verses that are so often quoted. I preached a sermon a while back on the passage in Numbers to which verse 14 refers. Far from the “believe your way into salvation” message that is so easily implied by 16 and following, the imagery of 14 forces us to see that salvation comes in the confrontation with our most profound brokenness. When we stare into the heart of darkness, sin, betrayal, trial, and tragedy we find the love by which we are created and made new.
  3. Vulnerability – Brené Brown is one of my absolute heroes. Her research gives language to express aspects of the faith that we do not even begin to address in the Christian circles in which I’ve taken part. I wrote a far more thorough post about why I find her work so valuable as it relates to faith, but I’ll summarize the relevant point here. Most of the church-y words and slogans we use are a means to hide as much as they reveal. We put words up as a shield so that we don’t have to experience the vulnerability of exposing our wounds and feeling powerless over how others respond. To claim that the cross is the center of our faith is to claim that God’s vulnerability is the source of and model for our lives. Jesus Christ became vulnerable so that we might find life in Him. For our lives to give witness to a cruciform life is to expose the imperfections that we so desperately want to hide from the rest of the world. We are restored when we are truly seen.
  4. Parable and Truth– The human mind has absolutely no meaningful grasp of truth or how to tell if a particular message guides us toward the truth or steers us away from it. I don’t mean that to be a critique of any particular strand of Christian thought – more an indictment on virtually everyone’s inability to have the conversations we think we’re having and our lack of appreciation for modern day parables. Something profoundly important happens when we know we’re listening to a story that isn’t supposed to report on events that actually happened – we are forced to give up the illusion that we have a truly objective and common way to speak of God or the world as they are. The stories we tell ourselves quite often define the reality we see at least as much as anything coming from the outside world. To know truth, sometimes we are required to hear it through the lens of unfamiliar or uncomfortable stories.
  5. Stories that Form – Americans right now are seeing with unprecedented clarity that the stories that wrote us form us in ways that make it very difficult to change our perceptions. This reality leads us to act in ways that harm others and even our own self interest. The way to overcome the faulty and problematic narratives of the world is not to prove the objective problems within a given narrative, but to offer a more compelling and truthful account of what life is and what life is for. To do so can’t happen with simple truisms or catchy slogans. Change only happens through the authentic, vulnerable relationships by which we come to see our lives in the light of a different story.
  6. Sin and Evil – Sin and evil are two sides of the same coin. Sin is the way we have broken the world. Evil is the way the world breaks us. To speak of sin and evil primarily from a perspective of ‘punishable offences’ or ‘punitive justice’ or ‘criminality’ never creates the space to see that before we are or do anything, we are God’s children. There are no individuals and thereby no actions that can be objectively and meaningfully defined as sin or evil until after we understand ourselves to be a particular part of the created world and human community. How we are formed by God’s creation is more basic than who we are as an agent of change. Therefore, what actually makes a difference is whether our lives and actions embody the relationship that God is or become sin that breaks the world and evil by which we are broken.
  7. The goal of modern medicine is to get out of life alive – Stanley Hauerwas has shared a variation of this quote in a multitude of writings and interviews, one of which can be found here. With getting out alive as the increasingly common understanding of our goal in life it becomes impossible to come face to face with our greatest source of vulnerability – our own mortality. If any of what I have shared about vulnerability is correct, then the quest to live forever cannot help but entail the rejection of being fully embraced as the imperfect, broken, struggling self that we all are. Rejecting that embrace means rejecting the story of God’s quest to know and redeem our broken bodies. To even fight the darkness of sin and evil is ultimately to refuse to accept our mortality. The way to salvation is not by combating that which makes us imperfect but by experiencing a love that is far more powerful than anything we could think, say, or do.

A far too brief attempt to tie these thoughts together and express the heart of the gospel message – whatever we have done and whatever has been done to us, we are defined not by the failure of our humanity but by the embrace of our God. God became sin so that we might see nothing can separate us from the love that is stronger than death. We are loved. We are accepted. We are enough. There is no other foundation on which to stand. There is no more important aspect of our relationship with God and one another. There is no hope, no life, no joy; no justice, no mercy, no mission; no holiness, no salvation, no redemption without God’s radical embrace of exactly the frailty and failure we fear most; without God’s radical embrace of death itself on the cross.

Our greatest problem is not that we are too sinful or evil. Our greatest problem is that we have no idea what it means to know and be known by a love that has no bounds and never ends. Until we experience the embrace of community as God is in Trinity and desires in creation, we’ll never know what sin and evil break or how to then seek forgiveness and healing. In the climactic scene, Moana sings these hauntingly beautiful lyrics that might as well be Jesus’ words from the cross:

I have crossed the horizon to find you.
I know your name.
They have stolen the heart from inside you.
But this does not define you.
This is not who you are.
You know who you are.

To look upon the cross is to confront our greatest shame and deepest wounds; and to hear the voice of God respond: I am yours, you are mine.

The reason we cannot know God without scripture is not because scripture is or contains God. We cannot know God without scripture because scripture is and defines the identity of God’s people who are the means by which God chooses one for the sake of all. To know God is to be God’s chosen people and to be is to both embrace and transform that which made us what we are. If we are who we have been made by the history that actually happened, knowing anything clearly is accepting and rejecting the stories that wrote us.