Here’s another fourfold. I was reminded of this at church today when we spoke of the Incarnation in Sunday School.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Christ came from heaven; the gospel was born on earth. It has always been announced from the earth, whether by prophets, angels, or God himself when he delivered the promise of the head-crushing Seed of the woman in the garden. The gospel is from heaven, being designed in the mind of God before the world began; but it is inherently earthy, and that means something. The gospel is about bodies. The Jews knew this. They knew what it was like to slit the throats of bulls all day, to wade through the blood and to smell it in the hot sun. They knew they ache of carrying the carcasses to the altar, carrying the offal to carts to be taken outside and burned. Atonement was real; it had its own smell and conjured up its own images. It wasn’t an abstract thing.
This didn’t change in the new covenant. Christianity is not docetic; Christ did not merely appear to die; he died. He had a heart that stopped beating, lungs that burned for want of air, arms and legs that spasmed with nails driven through them into the thick wooden cross. He really died, and was really buried.
And he really rose. His body wasn’t replaced; it was resurrected, transformed, glorified. There are still holes in his hands, but they pain him no longer. He still has lungs, and his heart beats stronger than ever. Our Lord still has a body. This isn’t likely to change anytime soon, either. You will always have a body, save for a brief intermission should you die before the Lord’s return. Christianity is not fleshly, but it is inherently fleshy. Let Gibbon mock all he will about the minutiae of one letter; it matters.
Because bodies are tied up in the gospel, we cannot think of it as something abstract. Jesus may have ascended, but the gospel hasn’t. It is as immanent as it was when Jesus first said, “This is my body, broken for you. Take and eat, all of you.”
Avoid abstractions. “Love” means nothing by itself. Love whom? Love how? The love of money and the love of God are two very different things. Ideas ought to be general enough to fit the entire church without losing sight of specific people, tasks, or virtues. I know of a few churches which are all for “missions” and never send a single missionary to a people group.
The thing about gospel living that makes people not want to get very close to it is that it leaks all over the place. We like to judge the judgmental, mock mockers, mistreat the violent, and get back at the vengeful. Scripture brooks no distinction. “I’ve really been learning how to love my enemy,” we state proudly in Sunday school, secure in our complete lack of any real enemies. But what when the snotty girl from up the block (that pig-tailed arch-nemesis of all that is holy) slaps us in the face for no good reason? Lord, surely the “turn the other cheek” rule does not apply when dealing with playground tyrants.
But not many of us are ten years-old. For us the more relevant picture is the negligent co-worker who takes the last cup of coffee without making a new pot, the over-empowered secretary whose reign of terror in the office is complete, the self-righteous small group member with all the right answers, the arrogant worship leader who turns every service into a showcase, or the wounded spouse who misinterprets every action as an insult or offense. The difficulty lies not so much in loving an enemy who dwells in Plato’s world of the forms as in loving the enemy who happens to share a bathroom with you.
And this is what Christ intended, is it not? Jesus, the Man of heaven, knows more about earth than her natural sons. He knew how good the scribes were at loving neighbors without faces, so he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Rather than telling the crowds what the Kingdom of Heaven is, he told them what it is like- like a prodigal coming home. The Son of heaven came to earth so that the sons of earth could go to heaven, true; but it is a mistake to think that because the Word became flesh we should strip off our flesh for words. Heaven is about being further clothed, not about being naked. We will exchange this earthly tent for a mansion- this progress, not regress.
So the gospel has elbows. What does it all mean? It means there is real grace for real circumstances today. It means that prayer is an exercise in seeing what is there, not what isn’t. Some things are too real to be seen with these weak eyes, too solid to be touched with these fading hands.
It means that there really is a battle occurring for souls, and Jesus really interceding for his own right now, and prayer really does matter.
It means that things like discipline in eating or sleeping, like long hours spent listening to the wounded soul who needs a friend, like genuine happiness in the morning, not being too harsh with disobedient children, refusing to be eaten up with the anxieties of life, are not just actions or attitudes divorced from Sunday church. Rather, Scripture calls them self-control, patience, joy, gentleness, and peace. Gospel living takes place in the Kingdom, not in Never Never Land.
Are there abstractions to be found in Christianity, however? There are, but not nearly as many as the typical Sunday school astral-plane travel might expect. Jesus has passed through the heavens. We have not come to a mountain that can be touched. Faith is the evidence of things unseen. All true. But these things are abstract in the way that a flower is abstract when the bulb is planted. Faith says that spring is coming, and it waits. It doesn’t wait for a metaphysical spring, the idea of spring; it waits for the taste of fresh rain on the tongue, the smell of buds on trees, the feel of the sun on its back, the sound of rippling brooks now unchained, the sight of life once more.
There will be bodies in the new heavens and the new earth. Is it too much to hope for football?
Jesus is building his church, but he won’t be finished until Resurrection Day. As the church-in-progress, what we believe heaven will look like we will incorporate into our existence here. If we believe heaven consists of disembodied (or at least vaguely bodied) saints sitting on clouds endlessly playing harps, then we will be wispy people who value asceticism (even if we don’t practice it) and a have a taste for repetitious and boring music. Paradise is indescribably better than this life; that is not to say that it is indescribably different. Jesus’ ascent to the Father did not involve casting off his body; the church’s ascent is no different in this.
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory. We have seen it- and it’s got elbows.