An Odd Prescription
I have, over the last few months, had the privilege of regular interaction with a couple of young men who (independently) came to our church inquiring about baptism. In their own words, both know “next to nothing” about Christianity. They don’t know much about history or theology, the have read little more than a scant few verses in the Bible, they aren’t much interested in the latest controversial issues in the church, and (gasp!) don’t find my sermons terribly memorable. But they want to get baptized. They don’t know much about Jesus, but they want to come to him, to sign up to follow, even though they don’t have much of an idea what they are getting into.
(Come to think of it, how many of us really do?)
This morning, I spent a bit of time with one of these young men going over the story of Scripture in very broad strokes. We walked through the basic Creation → Fall → Redemption → New Creation paradigm. We stopped for questions and dates and assorted other details. It was a bit of a whirlwind tour through the narrative, but he seemed to get the idea. When we got to the cross and the resurrection, though, he was puzzled. He wanted to know why Jesus had to die. He wanted to know how Jesus rose from the dead. It wasn’t clear to him how a dead Jew on a Roman cross fixed anything. He wanted to know how and why the whole package worked.
It’s funny how explaining things like how God “works” in Jesus seems a lot easier when done in a context the concepts and images and assumptions of a Christian worldview can largely be assumed. Or at least more easily translated. It’s funny how difficult this translation and explanation can seem when starting quite literally from zero. There was plenty of drawing on napkins, plenty of circling back to explain certain words, plenty of pausing, plenty of “you know, that’s a really good question-ing!” For the first time ever, I even found myself explaining how atonement and resurrection “worked” through the lens of Harry Potter! It is interesting to periodically look at one’s own convictions and worldview content through the lenses of those who do not understand much less embrace so many of the things you take for granted. Interesting and challenging.
Back in the office, I found myself wondering how, if I believe that this Jesus really is the solution to the biggest problems our world has ever seen and will ever face, it could be so difficult to explain this to someone who did not presently inhabit this story in the same way I do. I was absent-mindedly cleaning up some notes on my desk when I came across a quote from S. Mark Heim’s Saved From Sacrifice that I first encountered a few months ago.
We miss something crucial unless we start with this long view as well, setting the cross in the frame of all of human history as the early Christians did. They were convinced that the crucifixion directly addressed a universal human condition, a profound conflict between God and evil and not merely the peculiar needs of a special tradition. But they were also quite aware that this was an odd claim to make for an execution, an event in which the world clearly saw no such thing. The cross and the resurrection changed these believers, by lighting up a problem that they had never grasped so fully until they saw it so decisively challenged.
If the work of the cross is a universal saving act, there must be something universally wrong in human life that is directly involved in Jesus’ death. But it must not be universally apparent, otherwise the crucifixion would be obvious good news rather than foolishness and a stumbling block. This is an odd prescription.
Yes, an odd prescription indeed. A prescription that seems even odder when the disease is understood and experienced differently by different patients, when the symptoms aren’t as easy to detect even though the discomfort and the need is just as acute. A prescription that seemed odd to those who first took the medicine, as well, though. And, a prescription whose strangeness it might be good to remember and recover for those of us who have been popping the pills for quite a while now.