Buried with him

A while back, some friends I were talking about the meaning of Paul’s language in Romans about burial and resurrection with Christ. “We were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4; CEB).

I’ve always stumbled over the idea of having died with Jesus. It sounds sci-fi, or psychotic; and what few treatments of it I have encountered gave me the willies. In youth group, I remember it was connected to the usual enterprise of lust suppression. “Consider yourselves dead to sin” was kind of a mental strategy: by thoroughly imagining their deadness, one sought to reduce the vitality of various troublesome passions. Or (I think) I remember reading a popular spiritual author who made it into an arduous interior exercise; once achieved through calisthenic meditation, it rendered the Christian miraculously free from sin. Either way, the whole idea reminds me of “the power of positive thinking” – only in reverse. Instead of fantasizing one’s desires into existence, one reckons one’s unwelcome desires out of it.

Where the text began to make sense – where I stopped reacting to it, anyway – was in its consideration of Jesus’ resurrection. This Paul describes in beautiful, enigmatic prose. Christ will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over him. The life he lives, he lives to God. Especially that spare, climactic phrase – “he lives to God” – seems more like negative space than a fully realized picture of the risen Christ. It’s just a dative – an indirect object – orienting the new life of Jesus towards God. But its radicalism lies in its comprehensiveness. I take it that the phrase expresses something of John’s idea, that Jesus “works the works of him who sent [him] (John 9:4). Whatever God is about in the world, Jesus now pursues with a totality that was previously unavailable to him. Death – and resurrection – somehow liberated Jesus for an existence of truly boundless compassion.

This is more than a spatial transition, as from a local to a universal presence – Christ who walked by the Sea of Galilee to Christ who “fills all in all” (Eph 1:23). That death that no longer has dominion over Jesus does not mean only that he now exceeds the constraints of place; or that he need no longer fear ceasing to breathe. Death is an active power at work in the world, holding the poor in abjection, rearing up in inexplicable sicknesses and catastrophes, stifling initiatives for justice, warping and retarding all our attempts to love. In some way, the nature of Jesus’s subjection to this asphyxiating force was changed through his resurrection.

And in some tortuous way, Paul holds that we, too, who follow in Christ’s wake, feel the effects of Christ’s liberation for unreserved availability to God. Paul knows that our bodies are still beginning their decomposition (Rom 8:10). And that creation groans under the crushing weight of sin and suffering (8:18-23). But he also preaches that there is “a newness of life” at work, too: that death has reached its terminus already for us, in the body of Jesus, so that its power is, as it were, spent; and its occupation is then spottier and more porous to God’s life-giving work.

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Loyalty to a thousand generations

Today I was rifling through Exodus to make a quiz for the intro Old Testament class. I skimmed through the golden calf chapters (32-34), which are, as far as I am concerned, one of the Bible’s great theological rainforests: lush, loud, teeming. There I read again about God’s self-revelation to Moses, when God recites God’s own name:

“The Lord! The Lord!

a God who is compassionate and merciful,

very patient,

full of great loyalty and faithfulness,

showing great loyalty to a thousand generations

yet by no means clearing the guilty,

punishing for their parents’ sins

their children and their grandchildren,

as well as the third and the fourth generation” (Exod 34:6, 7; CEB).

One of the quiz questions I posed the Old Testament students was this: “How does Moses persuade God not to obliterate the Israelites after the sin of the golden calf?”

I misremembered the answer; I had thought that Moses peer-pressured God, pointing out that the nations would consider God a failure if God were not to bring his people to the land of promise (as he does in Numbers 14). Instead, in this section of Exodus, Moses convinces God to spare the people by appealing repeatedly to his own status as God’s favored one. Exodus 34:9 (CEB) is a good example: “If you approve of me, my Lord, please go along with us.” Moses moves from God’s love for him out to the whole people.

Maybe it’s a misinterpretation, but today I heard this same reasoning in the declaration of God’s name. In God’s self-recital, God pledges loyalty and favor to a thousand generations – in consequence of one generation that fears him (just like one generation that commits iniquity reaps punishment to the third or fourth). God’s love is that abounding – God loves one generation, or one individual, so intensively that it radiates out undiscriminatingly to embrace countless others with whom they are associated – family, children, even guests.

It occurred to me later in my own meditation that this is the same sort of logic that drives the inclusion of Christians in Jesus Christ. In Exodus, God’s love for Moses is so deep that it extends outward to include wayward Israel. In the New Testament, God’s love is primarily for Jesus. Jesus is God’s beloved (Ephesians 1:6). God loves Jesus so intensely that God could not let him lie unjustly dead; God raised him from death. With regard to God and the man Jesus, love was indeed stronger than death (Song of Songs 8:6). But God’s love did not embrace only Christ – it extended outward to include all those united with Jesus. Because of Christ’s faithfulness to God, a thousand generations receive God’s favor in him. And more! The measure of God’s love for Jesus is the width of humanity to which it reaches for his sake. “One man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Romans 5:18; NRSV).