26 October 2007

This is who you are!

Icon of the Transfiguration

Throughout the last two weeks' readings Paul has been trying to speak to the Church in Rome (both ancient and modern!), and getting them to understand who they really are now in light of their Baptisms, in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus and their incorporation into that reality. I was particularly struck by how he emphasizes, despite all his seeming equations between the old Adam and the new, our slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness, the power of sin and the power of grace, the old law and the new, just how truly different and incommensurate are all the things on the second side of these equations. Paul builds on equations where the second term is completely unequal to the first. He is not really building equations but comparisons of qualitative disparity. And this is what he really wants us to get: Who we are in Christ is a new kind of humanity. Paul's term is "a new creation," but how often do we really take this seriously?

When I was originally catechized I was taught the older theology of baptism that described the Sacrament in terms of the "washing away (of) the stain of original sin", or, "the restoration of our friendship with God," and the reestablishment of a state of Grace. It seemed to me that in Baptism, I had been restored to something very near the state Adam and Eve (not understood as a corporate identity) found themselves in in the Genesis narratives. When the newer theology of Baptism came to accent our being incorporated into the Body of Christ, and baptized into his death and resurrection, it added an important ecclesial and communal aspect to things for me, but it was not radically different than what I had been taught before. But Paul's theology is far more radical, I think.

In every case, with every one of his comparisons, Paul ends the discussion by emphasizing the qualitative difference between the old and the new. He says that "grace abounded all the more"; he says we are now the slaves or servants of God rather than of the lesser, though terrible, power of sin; he says that despite what happened in Adam, how much more in much greater measure is given (lives and reigns) in Christ Jesus, and of course, he says that we are a new creation, not simply the restoration of the old. How are we to think of this, and doesn't it sound elitist or exclusivist to suggest that in Baptism we are so radically remade as to become a new kind of humanity whose truest end is the Kingdom of God, and, in fact, life within the very heart of God?

First, in thinking about this new creation we become, let's be clear that Paul ALSO says that we remain at war within ourselves. There is the inner (or true) person, the person who truly exists in Christ and in the power of the spirit, and there is the "person" (the unverified, not yet made true person) who is still subject to sin, who does what she does not want to do, and fails to do what she really wishes. Paul is not unrealistic about our ambiguous existence in this world. Eternity has broken in on us, yes, but it is not yet all in all. God is not yet all in all. The yeast (to use another and non-Pauline image) has been included in the dough, and it is therefore a completely different dough than it would have been otherwise, but the yeast is not yet all in all. I admit, the analogy limps (I would be more concerned if it did not!), but it helps me think of the paradox that is involved here.

One of the newer readings of the Genesis narratives associated with theological reflection on the theology of original sin and the reality of Adam and Eve is diachronic rather than synchronic. It looks at Adam and Eve, not simply as corporate identities (another new feature of theological reflection on this whole constellation of problems), or as individual ancestors in the past, but as a reality which stands in our future, a reality which all human beings are called to, the seeds of which exist in the heart of each and every one of us. It is, in some way a different reality, a different humanity than we actually know here, an "evolutionary" leap, even while it is also consistent with who we are now. Except that this evolutionary leap is not accomplished by shifts in DNA as the shift from homo erectus to homo sapiens was accomplished. This shift is accomplished in Christ, in being baptized and living into his death and resurrection.

But, isn't this elitist? No, I don't think so, at least not so long as with Paul we ALSO realize that Christ's death and resurrection was for ALL persons, and that at some point God truly WILL be ALL in ALL. Every person is MEANT for this "evolutionary leap." Every person is called to this transformation, however it is to be accomplished. (For us Christians it has been accomplished in Baptism and continues to be worked out or realized in our lives on a daily basis, and in a conscious way through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a very great gift which allows us to walk through the world differently than those who do not know God as we do, but God is not constrained in this way and ultimately, in ways we may never even imagine, he will accomplish his purposes for each and every person that exists.)

Also it is not elitist because, of course, it imposes a tremendous responsibility on Christians to really BE who they are at the deepest core of their being, to really embody or incarnate this new humanity FOR others! Others will be brought to this new life in God only to the extent we do this credibly and cogently, only to the extent we, like Christ, live our lives truly FOR THESE OTHERS. (We call the Jews God's chosen people, and we call Christians today by the same title, not in an elitist sense, but in the sense that we are forerunners of something that will be extended to everyone through us. In the case of Christians, we are responsible for extending this new humanity to the rest of the world. One real betrayal of our "status" as chosen people (or as "New Creation") is to suggest or imply in any way that others are NOT also and equally called to this, and that we are not responsible for mediating this call to them with our lives.)

There are so many theological problems to work out and think through with regard to all this. But despite all of these, I think what is clear from the lections we have read in Paul's epistle to the Romans in the past couple of weeks is how qualitatively different he believes the new creation is from the old. We who are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, have also been remade, not simply restored to an older or more original wholeness (though this is also true, of course). This talk of being a "new creation" is not just poetry, or rather, it is deadly serious poetry which is also to be taken with a kind of literalness we often miss. When Paul says "how much more did grace abound" he is not merely saying God's love is extravagant; where Grace abounds all the more, something new comes to be!

We are a new humanity charged with the responsibility of embodying this in our world in an authentic way. We say of Christ: ECCE HOMO! And, unlike when these words were first spoken, we mean that he is TRULY or AUTHENTICALLY human. For us it is a proclamation, not a condemnation, something to be awed by and to wonder at, not a source of shame. The Pauline (and derivative) truth is that in him (and to the extent we are truly in him), this is who we are as well. This is the identity and vocation Paul is asking us to claim and incarnate as fully as possible in our world. A new creation. A new Adam. A new humanity. Not homo erectus, and not even homo sapiens, but homo Christus. This is who we are, and for the sake of the world and Kingdom, who we are called to be.