Alive In Christ
ALIVE IN CHRIST
As a minister I used to think that my profession was pretty safe from technological advancements that are drastically changing other areas of the world economy. But recent technological advancements are causing even me to consider if I should start thinking of a backup plan.
Perhaps, you use Alexa, Amazon’s personal computer assistant to order your groceries online. Well now you can have a computer program handle not only your groceries but your mental health. The chatbot’s name is Woebot. It is a computer program designed to help people with their woes or personal problems, no therapist, pastor, or even caring friend required. To quote a wired magazine about the app, “Created by a team of Stanford psychologists and AI experts, Woebot uses brief daily chat conversations, mood tracking, curated videos, and word games to help people manage mental health. After spending the last year building a beta and collecting clinical data, Woebot Labs Inc. just launched the full commercial product—a cheeky, personalized chatbot that checks on you once a day for the price of $39 a month.” Woebot’s creators believe that Woebot has the potential to even surpass human therapists. Alison Darcy, a psychologist and the CEO of Woebot argues that Woebot is better than a human therapist because there is a lot of noise in human relationships. To quote Darcy, ““Noise is the fear of being judged. That’s what stigma really is.” Darcy argues that Woebot is superior to human beings, because it is not human, so it has no real judgments. To quote the writer of the article, “There’s nothing like venting to an anonymous algorithm to lift that fear of judgement.”
Paul puts the human predicament that led to Woebot well in Romans 7:18-19, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” While none of us like to be judged neither can we free ourselves of our conscience, neither can we free ourselves of the sense of right and wrong, and having fallen short of our own standards of right and wrong. The cry of Paul’s heart is perhaps the cry of our hearts as well, “ Wretched man that I am who will deliver me from this body of death?” Who will lead us out of our darkness and into the light without shaming us for our darkness? The world has many inventions, like WoeBot which it offers as the answer. But the Bible gives us a different answer. The Bible has good news for us today.
The Good news today is we are Alive in Christ and thus we are free from the powers of this world that shame us. Christ has freed us by
- By nailing our debts to the cross. And putting the rulers and authorities to shame
- By burying us with Him that we might be raised with Him
- By circumcising us with a circumcision not of the flesh but of the heart.
First, we are made Alive in Christ because God has put the rulers and authorities of this world to shame by Jesus’ victory on the cross. Whatever wrongs we may have done in this life, in Christ God has forgiven us and nailed those wrongs to the cross. The image Paul gives here is an IOU, a note that we write to God every time we sin. With the way the world has fallen into darkness we owe God a sum we could not possibly repay. But in Christ’s victory on the cross he has wipped that debt away. Imagine if someone instantly paid off your twenty year mortgage, or your credit card debt, or served the prison sentence that you justly deserved. This is the image that Paul gives us. It is an act of Grace we can do nothing to earn, but an act of Grace that God gives freely.
In Christ’s victory on the cross God has also put to shame the rulers and authorities of this world. Along with our own mistakes and sins, the Bible describes a spiritual world beyond our world full of spiritual powers that are set against God and His plan to free us from darkness. Different religions have different terms for this spiritual darkness. The Bible calls it Satan and demons. Call it the dark side of the force if you wish. But there is a sense that sometimes we are bound by forces and systems beyond our understanding. While we are sinners we are also sinned against. While we do commit injustices sometimes things happen to us that we did nothing to deserve. And sometimes these things can cripple us and convince us that there is not a God who loves us. These forces shame us and cause us to think there is no hope that we can get better. Paul tells us that Christ has put these powers to open shame through his death and resurrection.
The image that Paul gives us here is the image of a conquering General returning to his home country, with his enemies trailing behind him, naked and in chains. The image here is a war that has been won decisively and the great celebration that breaks out in heaven afterwards. In Norfolk we might think of the 65th annual parade of nations at the Norfolk NATO festival. The parade is filled with marching bands, and floats from the 29 members of the military alliance. Those of you who lived through the Cold War are no doubt aware that NATO was instrumental in countering and defeating the power of the totalitarian Soviet Union. And yet that war did not end in a nuclear apocalypse. Instead, it ended as the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight. This was symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin wall that divided East and West Germany. Likewise, Christ has torn the veil that divides us from God, and the dividing wall that divides people from each other. The Evil Powers and authorities sought to hang him on a cross, not realizing that very cross would be used for their defeat.
Second, Paul says that part of being raised with Christ means being buried with Christ. Christians represent this by the Sacrament of Baptism. Presbyterians call Baptism a sign and a seal of God’s Grace working in us. In our church we Baptize infants as a Sign that God’s grace is at work in our lives, through the family of faith, even before we fully understand what God is doing. And we ask families become members of the church before Baptism because we as a family want to look out for you. We want to build you up in the faith. We are saying that we are in this together. When we break the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper it is not just us looking at our own lives but it is saying we are in this together. It is asking us to look to each other, and ask, what are the needs, what are the fears of the person next to me, and how can I show Grace to this person. This is what the sacraments say. They say that we cannot walk the walk of faith by ourselves. The sacraments say that we are in this together.
Third, Paul says that when we die to ourselves and are made Alive in Christ, we receive not a circumcision of the flesh but of the Spirit, what the prophet Jeremiah called a circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 4:4). The outward covenant of circumcision was designed to distinguish the people of God from other nations. Indeed, even from a spiritual perspective the Old Testament suggests that we guard ourselves from the outside world. The famous Proverbs 4:23 represents this view when it says, “guard your heart , for from it flows the wellspring of life.” The Old Testament is primarily concerned with the people of God protecting themselves from the outside world, both as a nation, and in their hearts. And indeed, even today with the threats that face our nation we can still see the need for a military alliance like NATO. Even with the challenges that face us personally we can see the need for proper boundaries and to be careful with who we trust. For we all know what it is to have our trust betrayed. We all know what it means to be shamed and to feel ashamed.
But the image of circumcision of the Spirit or heart that Paul gives us suggests that the walls we build should be practical and not permanent. That instead of closing off and protecting our hearts, we should remove the covering that protects our hearts, and open ourselves up to trust God and others. Indeed, Paul does not address this letter to one person, but to a community, a church, the body of Christ. And he encourages them to be rooted in Christ, and to be established in faith. Part of being a Christian is realizing that we were not meant to walk the journey of faith alone. When we baptize someone in the church we make a promise to look out for them, whether they be an infant, a teen, or an adult. When we partake in communion, we partake in the body and the blood of the Lord Jesus, we are reminded not just to think about our sin, but to think about the needs of the person sitting next to us and what they are going through. When we look at the life of Christ we see a trust which crossed boundaries, which touched the leper, before he was clean, and declared him clean, cleansing him of his shame. And thus Jesus does with us. He touches us before we are perfect, and by his victory he makes us clean and opens our hearts to feel again.
When thinking about how we who have Christ within us should live, I thought about the example of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who literally bore Christ in her womb. When the Angel Gabriel came to her and told her God’s plan of salvation, I suppose she could have said no, and spared herself the shame of being an unwed mother in a culture that would certainly cast her out for being so. Instead she told Gabriel, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Jesus’ victory on the cross was made possible by an unwed mother not protecting her heart but opening her heart to God and to the needs of a hurting world. Mary didn’t have any power to speak of but when her cousin Elizabeth comes to visit her and bless the Messiah in her womb, Mary sings our call to worship, she sings of the power of God to bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
Have you ever felt foolish in your life? Have you ever felt weak? Have you ever thought about all the things you are not instead of the things that you are? Have you ever felt despised? Have you ever felt like a leper, like no one will touch your heart before you are perfect? Have you ever felt alone and dead inside? Perhaps we have all felt such feelings in our lives. And perhaps God is calling us today, as a church, as the body of Christ, to die to ourselves, circumcise our hearts, and become Alive In Christ.