Sunday, May 17, 2015

Participants in the Divine Nature -- Salvation Series - Sermon #5

2 Peter 1:3-11

All good things must come to an end, and so while there is much more to say about salvation we come to the end of our journey this morning. Over the past several weeks we’ve discovered that salvation is a complex idea. Because it can be seen as otherworldly it can seem irrelevant and even off-putting. Let’s stick with the here-and-now. But, as we’ve seen salvation is about more than Jesus dying for our personal sins so we can get to heaven. Salvation includes reconciliation, liberation, healing, and taking on a new identity in Christ.

As we celebrate Ascension Sunday, it’s appropriate that we focus on salvation as union with God, or as we read in 2 Peter, in Christ we are becoming “participants in the divine nature.”  

Eastern Christianity tends to be more mystical than western forms. They place great emphasis on becoming one with God, and they use the Greek word theosis to describe this union. Theosis can be translated as deification, or as St. Athanasius, a fourth century theologian, put it: “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” [On the Incarnation - Enhanced Version(p. 62).]

Now, to say that we “might become God,” doesn’t mean we get to rule the universe or even get superpowers. This isn’t a story about the Justice League of America or the Avengers. But it does mean that our purpose in life is to be joined with God in God’s fullness.

Paul puts it this way: in Christ we put on immortality. Our future is linked to Jesus’ resurrection. Therefore, “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality,” so that death may lose its sting (1 Corinthians 15:53-55).  

So what does immortality entail? If we don’t get superpowers, will we at least be like Dr. Who, so that whenever our current body begins to perish we regenerate and get a new body. In the case of Dr. Who, he takes the memories of past identities with him into the new body, but this new body helps define a new identity. So, while the eleventh doctor was younger and hipper, the twelfth doctor is older and wiser. No, that’s not what Athanasius nor the author of 2 Peter has in mind!

This idea of theosis reflects the idea that is more present in Eastern Christianity than in Western Christianity that our purpose in life is to become like God. That is what we are moving toward. It’s what we were created for. Unfortunately, along the way the image of God in which we were created has been distorted and needs to be healed. Not only that, but because of this distortion death has entered the picture. This is the corruption that 2 Peter speaks of. I was going to use an analogy drawing from the realm of computers, but I thought better of it. I was going to say something about how computer programmers will write new code to fix a corrupt system. But I quickly realized that I was in over my head. So, I’ll pass, and stick with theology. 

Gregory of Nazianzus, another fourth century Greek-speaking theologian, turned to the idea of healing. He wrote:  “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” [“Critique of Apollinarius and Apollinarianism”].  Jesus, Gregory believed, was the Word of God who took on human identity and in doing so healed humanity from the inside. You might say that Jesus was a divine antibiotic. Analogies do have their limits, but in Christ that which became distorted has been restored. As theologian Veli-Matti Kärkäinnen puts it: for Eastern Christians, “a person becomes the perfect image of God by discovering his or her likeness to God, which is the perfection of the nature common to all human beings” [One with God: Salvation As Deification and Justification (Unitas)p. 20]. 

Western Christians tend to think of God creating a perfect world that went bad.  Eastern Christians, however, believe that humanity started out innocent, not perfect, and that life is a process of discovery where we grow into spiritual maturity. They sometimes use the word synergism to describe this process. God takes the initiative, but we play an important part in the movement toward experiencing divine perfection.  While the cross plays an important role in this work of salvation, Eastern Christians want to emphasize the incarnation as a whole, from birth through death and on to resurrection and ascension. Early Christian theologians like Irenaeus and Athanasius believed that by living faithfully in relationship with the Father, Jesus undid the mess we’ve made of things. He brings perfection to our imperfections, so that we might move toward fully participating in the divine nature.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that he abides in them and they abide in him, and therefore, they abide in God. He tells them that he is the vine that gives life and they are the branches that bear fruit (John 15:1-17). Paul speaks similarly of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). But in 2 Peter we find that particular virtues emerge out of our faith in Christ. Each virtue leads to the next. So we start with faith, which leads to goodness, which leads to knowledge, and then on to self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and finally love. Peter writes:  “For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:8). 

Salvation is a journey of discovery that leads toward full participation in the divine nature. The Good News is that the Word of God took on human flesh, to help us find our way into the fullness of God. Bruce Epperly calls this a “holy adventure.” It starts with faith and it ends in love, and as we read in 1 John, God is love, so faith leads to God and in this we find salvation (1 John 4:7-8).  

This Holy Adventure begins in this life and continues on into the next. As Eastern Christians would want to remind us – this journey is taken in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who communicates to our lives the divine nature perfected in Jesus. While we begin the journey as mortal beings, as we are united with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, we put on immortality. Death loses its sting.  As we read in 2 Peter:
Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. (2 Peter 1:10-11).
You have heard it said that some people are so heavenly-minded that they’re of no-earthly-good. It’s a bit like living in an ivory tower. By focusing on heaven we’re tempted to neglect the life we now live. Heaven becomes an escape. But that needn’t be the case. Remember that when we recite the Lord’s Prayer we request that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. God hasn’t forgotten about the earth, and neither should we. However, there seems to be built into our identity this hope that there is more of life lying beyond the grave.  

Although Bruce Epperly isn’t Eastern Orthodox, he has written about the connection between this life and the next that seems to be close to what Athanasius and others had in mind. He writes that “the God who was present in the energy of conception is equally present at the moment of death, luring us forward as God has done from the beginning toward the next adventure in partnership with God and the World.” In other words, death leads to immortality and a new adventure, where we continue “growing in grace and relationship with God and one another.” In this continuing adventure we’ll “be artists of our experience, growing toward God and others through our moment by moment decisions.” [Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 152]

 Although Bruce takes us beyond the limits envisioned by these early Eastern Christian theologians, he invites us to think in terms of what it means to live in partnership and in union with God. This vision of salvation invites us to continue on an adventure in partnership with Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, who communicates to our lives the blessings of the divine nature. This is our destiny: the Word became flesh, so that we might become God-like. That would seem to be a great way of understanding salvation!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
May 17, 2015
Ascension Sunday

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