Sunday, May 31, 2009

For the Life of the World 6

"O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?": Christian Mission and the Reality of Death

Today, we are concluding our study on For the Life of the World. I hope you all have enjoyed this study as much as I've enjoyed leading it. I hope that this book has challenged you as much as it has me. I hope we have been able to see during the course of it that this world is God's good creation and that the true life of this world is Jesus Christ. He fills everything in every way and because of this, we can enjoy communion with Christ in the sun, the moon, the stars, in the whole created order, in our pets, in our relationships, in our work, in our food, and, most importantly, in Christ's bride—the Church. This sacramental reality was lost in the Fall but it is being returned in Christ—no, has already been returned in Christ.

I hope that something else has come clear in the course of our engagement with this book. How and from where is this sacramental reality flowing back into the world? Where is it on earth that this sacramental reality of Jesus Christ as the life of the world has already in some sense been fully realized? The Church, of course, especially in the Eucharistic ascension but also in its every act. The Church is central in Jesus Christ's work of reclaiming the world as God's Kingdom. This is the very life and mission of the Church. Listen to this final and decisive word on 113 of For the Life of the World on the Church and its central role in this mission:

And it is our certitude that in the ascension of the Church in Christ, in the joy of the world to come, in the Church as the sacrament—the gift, the beginning, the presence, the promise, the reality, the anticipation—of the Kingdom, is the source and the beginning of all Christian mission. It is only as we return from the light of Christ's presence that we recover the world as a meaningful field of our Christian action, that we see the true reality of the world and thus discover what we must do. Christian mission is always at its beginning. It is today than I am sent back into the world in joy and peace, "having seen the true light," having partaken of the Holy Spirit, having been a witness of divine Love.

This is why I chose this study, because it clearly brings across the importance of the Church for Christian mission and Christian life. It takes the Church seriously. It gives it a place of central importance, and this is an emphasis that we as American Protestants have ignored for far too long. We will not take the Church seriously until we teach that it is serious—until we teach that it is central. This idea is present in Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, but it is also present in historic Protestantism. Presbyterianism's Westminster Confession of Faith affirms that the visible Church is that "out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (25.2).

We must realize that what we do within the Church, what we do in our mission in the world, in our worship, in our teaching, and, especially in our fellowship and how we treat one another, are all matters of eternal dimensions for ourselves and others. If we object that in our experience the Church does not feel like the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, that it is not satisfying, that it does not excite us and is not the center of our Christian experience, that we are turned away from Christ because of the way that we are treated in the Church, that we are not spiritually responsible for one another, and that, therefore, we must reject ascribing to the Church any saving significance, I counter that it is perhaps because we say that the fundamental reality of the Church is "invisible," because we say that the sacraments are "just" symbols, because we think of our relationship with God as purely individual and personal and not in any way as communal, because we emphasize what the Church is not rather than what it is, because we do not see Jesus Christ in the faces of the people in our churches, that it is because of all of this that we do not experience the Church as the very presence of Jesus, as the love of Jesus Christ. How can we find Him there if we are not looking for Him? How will people come to know the love of Jesus Christ and be saved if we do not love them, if we run them off from the Church by treating them as less than members of the Body and our beloved sisters and brothers? It is a message like what we have heard and discussed in For the Life of the World that can inspire us to take the Kingdom by force and let the Church be—no, make it be—the society for world transformation and renewal that it truly is.

Today, to conclude our study, we will look at how even death has been caught up in the sacramental reality of Jesus Christ as the life of the world, how through the ministry of the Church to the sick and dying even this great evil has become for us a means of union with Christ.

We begin our look at death with Schmemann's observation in the first section of this chapter that Christianity has adopted two basic views of death, two ways of reconciling itself with the reality of death. In his mind, though, the problem with these two basic views is that they are not Christian at all but are really just the basic human attitudes toward death which Christianity has adapted itself to.

The first view we will call the worldly or secularist view of death. The second view we will call the religious view. It's interesting because Schmemann makes this observation that Christian ministers are called upon to use both languages and views of death. It sounds contradictory but it makes sense. The secular view wants ministers to preach Christianity as basically life-affirming, without any reference to sin, to death, or to the death of Christ. This view wants us to pass over the true Christian understanding that death is the fundamental reality of the fallen world. This sounds very much like the way that the great American Neo-Orthodox theologian Richard Niebuhr described early 20th-century Christian liberalism. He said that it was a Gospel in which "a God without wrath called men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." On the other side, however, the religious view wants ministers to comfort people and reconcile them with death by framing death as a good thing, by describing life as a mere preparation for death or by framing death as a release from this wicked, wretched world. The problem with this view is that it wants us to pass over the truth that Christ died for the life of the world and not to give us an "eternal rest" from it. This is the view of death we see reflected in the classic spiritual, "I'll Fly Away." Let's see if the description Schmemann makes of the modern Christian minister's dilemma on the bottom of 96 is accurate:

The worldly man wants the minister to be an optimistic fellow, sanctioning faith in an optimistic and progressive world. And the religious man sees him as an utterly serious, sadly solemn and dignified denouncer of the world's vanity and futility. The world does not want religion and religion does not want Christianity. The one rejects death, the other, life. Hence the immense frustration either with the secularistic tendencies of the life-affirming world or with the morbid religiosity of those who oppose it.
Well, let's explicate the ideas above. What the Church ended up doing in regard to death was simply to accept the old religious views of death, those associated with the world-denying side of pantheism, those associated with Gnosticism and Platonism. These views are all about explaining death, reconciling us with it, and getting us to accept it as a positive good. These views are reflective of the instrumental nature of the old religions. Help for humans, not worship, is the central tenet of these old religions. It was the same with death; the old religions provide a "solution" to the problem of death. The solution is to say that death is preferable to living in a world of change and suffering, that death is better than suffering old-age, sickness, and the loss of loved ones. Death is thought of as freedom from the inferior material world and entrance into the superior spiritual world. Hope is placed in the fuzzy doctrine of the immortality of the soul and death is given the ultimate meaning of either reward or punishment for what one did in this world. That sounds a lot like a funeral sermon, doesn't it?

If we think about Christianity exclusively in terms of death, though, doesn't that take away its significance in this world? Well, as we've been looking at in this study, Christianity also has a strong life-affirming tendency. When the world began to reject the old death-centered religions, which unfortunately Christianity had become, and began to grab a hold of this strong life-affirming tendency in Christian faith, they began to reject Christianity itself and not just the "otherworldly" and death-obsessed baggage that it had assumed. On the bottom of 97 and onto 98, Schmemann says:

Christians often do not realize that they themselves, or rather Christianity, has been a major factor in this liberation from the old religion. Christianity, with its message offering fullness of life, has contributed more than anything else to the liberation of man from the fears and the pessimism of religion. Secularism, in this sense, is a phenomenon within the Christian world, a phenomenon impossible without Christianity. Secularism rejects Christianity insofar as Christianity has identified itself with the "old religion" and is forcing upon the world those explanations and doctrines of death and life which Christianity has itself destroyed.

What do you all think? By the Christianity that leads to secularism, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe this as Christian culture. If people live with a kind of misplaced Christian optimism about the prospects of life, meaning that this optimism is rooted in Christian cultural experience but not necessarily in devoted Christian faith, in an age of modern technology and medicine where death doesn't seem to be such a constant and all-pervading threat like it was hundreds of years ago, Christians who are not just cultural Christians come off as real party poopers with all their talk about what happens after death. If Christianity is all about heaven and hell, well, we'll just worry about that later. Life is good right now. I'm not going to die anytime soon, so why do I need Jesus?

Well, secularism, the Christian variety of it included, has its own "religious" account of death. Secularism says that death is unfortunate, but it's natural, so, let's just get as much out of this one life that we have. We won't think about death right now, though. We'll leave that to God. He might exist, and, if, God in his mercy and love, decides to reward us with immortality, that's his own gracious business, but, in this view, as Schmemann says, "Immortality is an appendix (however eternal) to this life, in which all real interests, all true values are to be found." This is essentially the secular Christian view of death. So, if the old religious view of death and the new secular view of death are not really Christian, then what is the true Christian understanding of death?

Well, it isn't about helping us deal with death; it's about telling us the truth about death. Authentic Christianity teaches that death is not natural; it is not good; it is the enemy. Death is abnormal and horrible. This is why Christ wept at Lazarus's grave and why he was so troubled as he approached his own death. Christianity does not help with death because this world and this life are beyond help if they accept that death is normal. In fact, as Schmemann says, the fact that we as human beings have accepted and normalized death reveals just how wrong things have gotten. Let's continue to deal with this bad news—what we are accustomed to calling Law—and then let us begin to hear the Gospel on 100:

This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes "awful," the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any "other world"), it is this life (and not some "other life") that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by "transforming" them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the "end" and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.

Is this a big course correction for us? Do you all have any issues with this description? Is this something new or different?

Let's begin to talk about the victory over death. He begins to address this in the context of this discussion of illness and the sacrament of healing. He has a brief reflection on the "secular" and the "religious" responses to disease that sort of goes along the same lines as his reflection on death. You've got hospitals and doctors on one hand, and prayer and faith healing on the other. If one looks at all of the studies that have come out in recent years about how prayer "works" as a treatment for illness, the idea has developed that both the "secular" and "religious" responses are "valid" and compatible approaches to health care. He talks about how today in hospitals it is almost as if ministers and chaplains are specialists, assistants, or therapists brought in to supplement or complement medical treatments. Well, we are certainly not speaking against visiting and caring for the sick and dying by ministers but maybe we need to examine just what it is that the Church is doing in its ministry in this situation. Again, it's not so much that we are providing "help" as we are working to achieve Christ's victory over sickness and death; the Church's ministry to the sick is not for treating emotional or "spiritual" health alongside the doctor's treatment of physical health, but neither is it the signs and wonders and miraculous healings of the "old religions," such as we see in modern Pentecostalism.

This is where the sacrament of anointing of the sick comes into play for the Orthodox. Let's remember that the key idea of sacrament is passage into the Kingdom, the world to come, this life in this world as it will be when it is fully redeemed and restored by Christ; it is transformation from the old to the new. It's not a miracle but a manifestation of the true reality and life of this world—Jesus Christ. The sacrament, which is a sign and seal of the benefits of Christ's death and resurrection, is a transformation of life in this fallen world into the life of the Kingdom, into the "joy and peace" of the Holy Spirit. In the Orthodox view, then, what the sacrament of healing accomplishes is to transform even disease, suffering, and death into means of communion with God, to make of them an entrance into the Kingdom where the only true and eternal healing takes place.

We actually perform this sacrament as Presbyterians, but, we don't call it a sacrament. However, this rite of anointing the sick with oil has a biblical basis. Let's look at James 5:14-15:
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.

Now, this passage indicates physical healing, but I think we get a hint of this sacramental idea of passage and transformation. The Lord will raise him up and his sins will be forgiven. This indicates the idea of grace in this act, and, since grace is none other than the presence of Jesus Christ, and the presence of Jesus Christ is the Kingdom, we can speak of the anointing of the sick as a passage into the Kingdom and as a transformation of disease and suffering into the presence of Jesus.

The Orthodox, of course, in affirming this practice as sacrament base it in the death and resurrection of Christ. In this world, we will suffer.
And yet Christ says, 'be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.' Through his own suffering, not only has all suffering acquired a meaning but it has been given the power to become itself a sign, the sacrament, the proclamation, the 'coming' of that victory; the defeat of man, his very dying has become a way of Life. (103-104)
In the Orthodox understanding, and I think we should see it this way as well, the death of any Christian is the death of a martyr. In our own suffering and death, when it comes, we will each bear witness in our own bodies to Christ's suffering and death. Together with Stephen, the first martyr, we will behold and proclaim "the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56).

Schmemann concludes the chapter with a reflection on Christ's death and resurrection and how we are to relate to these realities not as doctrines or even as future hopes, but as something we really and truly experience from day-to-day and especially from week-to-week when we gather on the Lord's Day to partake of the Eucharist. The resurrection of Christ is not just some objective fact we are to accept, but it is something that we are to experience as our very life. We are truly to fill our lives with Him, to have Him as the Life of our own lives. Eternal life is not just later; it is our life now and it flows forth from the Church—the sacrament of the world—and this Life will only grow as we progress forward. I think that this on 105-106 should be the final word on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and on the mission of the Church as we conclude our look at For the Life of the World:

The great joy that the disciples felt when they saw the risen Lord, that "burning of heart" that they experienced on the road to Emmaus were not because the mysteries of an "other world" were revealed to them, but because they saw the Lord. And he sent them to preach and proclaim not the resurrection of the dead—not a doctrine of death—but repentance and remission of sins, the new life, the Kingdom. They announced what they knew, that in Christ the new life has already begun, that He is Life Eternal, the Fulfillment, the Resurrection and the Joy of the world. . . .

In Him death itself has become an act of life, for He has filled it with Himself, with His love and light. In Him "all things are yours; whether . . . the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's" (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).
Therefore, we can join the Apostle's taunt, "‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O death, is thy sting?’" (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Praise be to God that death has been trampled down in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Dustin said...

What was the response to this study? I'd be curious to hear what Protestants thought of Fr. Schmemann's works.

Jamie Stober said...

I think they were quite bamboozled. The text was a tad more difficult for Presbyterian lay persons than I had anticipated, but I think they greatly appreciated what they were able to understand. I think they loved the chapter on the Eucharist. It's quite remarkable how deeply influenced by the ancient liturgies both Calvin and the modern high Reformed Eucharistic liturgies are. I think they were really captivated by the broad vision for Christian mission that Schmemann put forward; at least I was. This is really a fine piece of theology and also of devotional literature. I would also say it is quite a good apologetic against secularism and for the Orthodox tradition. Pure goodness and beauty!