Friday, December 25, 2015

Full Disclosure in Evangelism

This reflection does not arise, alas, from personal experience of evangelism: I live in a Christian bubble most days and so find little opportunity for it.  My own method, especially as I tend towards introversion with age, is to pray for those around me, with as much unceasing effort as can be managed.

This reflection, instead, arises out of my existential experience as a Christian.  Or, maybe more, in the tensions I've noticed in the theology of broader evangelicalism of which I am a part.

In some ways, and maybe this is because our evangelistic context is America, our sharing of the Faith tends to sound like political campaigning: Jesus will "save" you from your sins, from your loneliness, from your brokenness, from your X, Y, and Z.  If only we will vote Him in as "personal Savior" or "Lord of our life," then...well, what?  Here's the tension.  We make great claims as to what Jesus accomplishes through that moment of decision (or whatever), but then are catechized into simul iustus et peccator, with particular emphasis on the peccator.  For some of the preaching that I have heard over the years, even after salvation we are just as mired in sin as we were before.  Our wills are inable, after conversion, to seek the good.  All our actions are sin, or as Luther supposedly put it, all our works are mortal sins.

It is a preaching of despair.

The point, as it has been explained to me, is to drive us again and again to Christ on the Cross.  Having forsworn works in the earning of our salvation, we must now be sure to not use them to maintain or prove our salvation.  (Yet, how do we know we are saved? Good works.). In other words, it is a continual chopping down of our Self, so that God alone may get glory.  God and man are locked in a zero-sum game: what is good for one necessarily takes from the other.  Our will, created by God to seek Him, is essentially or naturally at odds with Him, as salvation itself does not restore us to any Adamic (or Christic) freedom -- it only tackles the problem of legal justice and wrath.

It must be noticed, then, that the "salvation" offered is wholly eschatological: there is no actual deliverance from the power of sin and death until the afterlife.  It is possible -- nay, required -- that one become more moral, but there is no real power given with which (or by Whom) to accomplish and maintain it.  In this, again, our evangelism seems political: sure, we've got the right man in office, but he's unable (or unwilling?) to actually effect any change. We just have to hope that the future is better (which, of course, it will be, since the promise that this is so came from the same folks who promised us that we were going to be delivered from our sins...).

If this is, in fact, the Christian message and how it is lived out, is it any wonder Millennials are leaving the Church?  Especially when this message is juxtaposed with the optimistic narrative of Western materialism?

Could it be that our message of what salvation in Christ is, is too beholden to that dominant narrative? That the problem is primarily individual and legal (me and my sins), instead of ontological and relational?  Is the fundamental hope of our salvation fixing my broken actions and attitudes, or deliverance from what causes such things in the first place? (You'll notice, I hope, that I'm not "making light of sin" here: a doctor doesn't make light of the symptoms in treatment, even if they aren't worth mentioning in the context of the overarching disease.)

The problem, while exhibiting in every human individual, is cosmic: the whole of creation is under subjugation to Death and Satan.  As such, it is the environment in which, no matter how much we may want the Good, we cannot attain to it without egoism and violence against our neighbors: in the state of corruption, creation and man do get locked in a zero-sum struggle.  Here is where we find ourselves, without remainder, and so have a powerful evangelistic message: we are all confined under sin, in disobedience, but God has come in our form to deliver us from the bondage.  What must be remembered, though, is that as you leave the enemies territory, he will not let you go quietly.  He wants you to come back under slavery and will do everything in his power to make you return (why else would St Paul anathematize a different gospel, one that brought the hearers back into subjugation?).  Being delivered from bondage is only the first part: now you must train for war.  It is not that you can't please God -- far from it, as He now dwells in you and with you -- but you haven't yet built up the habitual defenses, the virtues, needed for full engagement with the enemy.  You will slip and fall from time to time -- the point is that you must resist becoming enslaved again.  For this God Himself abides in us, teaching us to say 'no' to ungodly and wordly passions and desires, and granting us access to His Body, the Church, where we labor with and for one another towards the fullness of salvation.

It seems, at this point, apropos to bring in the narrative of the Old Testament.  Here, again, we see its iconic nature, pointing beyond itself to God's larger story.  Israel, those who bear the promise, are under the heavy rigor of the Pharaoh, cry out for deliverance, and are released (set right, justified, etc.) by God the Redeemer.  However, Pharaoh pursues them until they go through the Sea, which St Paul connects to our passing through the waters of baptism.  Just because the host of Pharaoh is decimated, though, doesn't mean Egypt ceases to exist: there are many stern warnings in the Torah to not return to Egypt or take up Egyptian ways.  The Philistines, the perennial enemies of Israel who arise out of the Sea (sort of a Pharaonic redivivus), are descendants of ancient Mitzraim, Egypt herself.  Only King David will be able to fully subdue them...just in time for his son, Solomon, to make his chief consort the daughter of Pharaoh.  From there, his tragic story unfolds of looking more and more like Pharaoh himself: the conscripted labor force, the amassing of an army, the building of a 'large house' (the very meaning of the Egyptian title), and the accumulation of wealth.  It is possible, if we do not completely reject the corruption in the world, to fall back into it: the end will be worse than the start.

There are more layers to this, however.  After baptism, in which our enemies are thwarted and we are brought into union with Christ (symbolized by the covenant ceremonies in the Old Testament -- they point forward to the fuller union of theosis: covenant is iconic, not an end in itself).  However, the old way of life must be progressively overthrown.  Here is where the Conquest of Canaan becomes particularly significant.  We must, using the weapons of the Spirit, cast out and cast down all our passions, disordered desires, and sins, just as the Israelites were to do to the Canaanites.  We, of course, should add the exorcism of the demons, as a larger thread to this tapestry.  We should not, though -- and this is vital -- expect this to happen in a day: "and the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you little by little; you will be unable to destroy them at once, lest the beasts of the field become too numerous for you" (Deut. 7:22, cp. Ex. 23:30).  We are being trained up for spiritual war, which requires smaller battles until we are ready to enter our inheritance.  Or, as St Antony of Egypt put it, "Expect temptation to your dying breath."

What does all this mean for evangelism?  Certainly, Jesus has (not will) saved us from our sins, from death, and from the devil: once someone has been baptized and confessed the Faith, we can assure them that they are, indeed, free from that demonic dominion.  But, the work has just started, there is a practical eschatology: now we must be vigilant, must train and exercise, until we, through and with Christ, have conquered that and those which sought our enslavement and destruction.  That we are at war and expected to take part in it is an essential piece to evangelism.  Jesus has not died to make us comfortably middle class, but to deliver the whole world from its bondage to corruption.  Be free and enlist in the Kingdom that will throw down its enemies and bring the peace of which our satisfied, warmed, and filled human existence is but a shadow.  There is no room for despair here, for the King has conquered and continues to conquer: He gives us the eyes to see it and trains our hands for war.

Hallelujah, for this Lord is born as one of us and will lead us to the Promised Land.

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