We can begin with our foundational belief: that a dead man, after being murdered in a particularly brutal manner, rose again from the dead and then spent forty days forming the community that now bears his name. After that, he floated up into the sky.
That is difficult to believe. For starters, “where is heaven?” The Gospel writers claim Jesus ascended there, but a contemporary person is left wondering what that even means. We live on a globe surrounded by space in all directions. Obviously, the ‘heaven’ to which Jesus ascended cannot possibly refer to a real space-time location like Cleveland or Calcutta.
So yes, these are preposterous things. They challenge our credulity. And yet, I believe them. I am an educated person so I speculate how these beliefs can be credibly accepted or explained. However, they do not seriously challenge my faith.
The greatest challenge I have about our faith is the question of personal transformation. I wonder if Christians ever become “new creatures.” The New Testament claims our conversion leads to transformation. That word points to a change as radical as when caterpillars turn into butterflies or tadpoles into frogs.
But does this occur? Are Christians really that different than non-Christians?
We can avoid the question by claiming that although our transformation has not yet occurred, it will, “in another time and another place.” The New Testament does indeed teach that our greatest transformation occurs after death and ‘glorification.' Nonetheless, it also teaches that we are being made new now, in this life. The Apostle Paul even says we become like ‘living Bibles.’
Traditionally, Christians used the word ‘saint’ to describe this New Testament belief in personal transformation. Modern Evangelicals – at least ones I know -- find that word distasteful, even when referring to the apostles. They like it even less when we use it to talk about folks like Francis of Assisi or Augustine of Hippo.
“Aren’t we all saints,” they ask?
The New Testament teaches that we cannot save ourselves, that we are saved by Christ, though his graciousness and mercy. Jesus transforms us because we trust in Him. Therefore, he declares us ‘saints.’ He accepts us as holy – ‘just-as-if ‘— although we are not and invites believers to view themselves in that light.
That explanation does not solve my question though.
The New Testament leads us expect that the effects of this ‘just-as-if’ declaration becomes gradually visible now, in this world, in this life. As a believer walks into the new life God has given him through grace, his ‘old man’ dies away and his ‘new man’ walks in the newness of life.
But does this happen?
After a lifetime of Christian service and practice, serving as a missionary and a pastor in multiple situations and in multiple places, I can only say, “it seems to happen sometimes.”
Personal transformation is the exception and not the norm. Indeed, I don’t even see much concern for personal transformation among church leaders, or believers in general for that matter.
Furthermore, personal transformation on the magnitude of what scripture describes ought to have a huge effect on those communities in which Christians predominate. Such communities ought to flourish – or so it seems to me – in all areas of human life and thought, in ways that manifest, or at least hint at the coming kingdom when “the glory of the Lord will fill the earth.”
One should at least expect that church congregations, which are groups of transformed individuals, would manifest a sense of the peace and community Christian faith claims occurs when people follow Christ. One would think that a church would be the one place we might see personal spiritual flourishing that gradually infects the arts, sciences, personal health, joy, and delight -- every part of those who live in these communities.
Please understand; I am not expecting heaven on earth. I am not expecting that we will ever become in this life what can only occur in the next. I am only asking whether any hint of those coming things ought to occur today and that if they do not, what sorts of proof do we have that they ever will? Shouldn’t we expect non-believers to judge for themselves the quality of life -- personal and communal – that Christian faith produces?
In The Mountain of Silence, author Kyriacos Markides writes, “the spiritual struggle … aims at healing our existence, our personhood, and sealing our communion with the Divine, which is our real destination and the justification of our being in the world. As long as this goal is not reached, we will continue to function in an imperfect, pathological way, experiencing one injustice after another. The social world we collectively create will naturally reflect this pathology that lies within ourselves. “
My reading of the New Testament calls me to reject the popular Christian notion that we can only expect to be forgiven but never transformed. That idea implies that I can just pick up my “get out of hell free card” without worrying about the dysfunctions of heart, mind and body – the illnesses of soul – that create war, crime, disease and poverty. I can sing happy songs about Jesus without asking why I am not rising out of the gunk of life.
I find this avoidance of the central questions of life increasingly unbearable. It is church business at the expense of spiritual life.
If Christians are not changed, Christianity is not true. If it is not true, it should not be preached. It is unethical to make a living from something that doesn’t work. Disneyland makes a good living promoting mythology but they acknowledge that their business is entertainment. If that is our business, we should say so. If we claim we are presenting reality, then we must demonstrate proof.
I claim that Saints are the only real proof that Jesus rose from the dead, or that the Holy Scriptures contain anything that contemporary people should find compelling. If we have no saints to present, then we have very little to say.
It is because I believe a person can become a saint -- not merely declared a saint but become a saint -- that I continue to walk the Christian life. Believing that, I study the scriptures and try to apply their lessons to life. I enter worship expecting to experience the transcendence and awe that leads a person to step out of those natural circumstances of family, economy and intellect where God finds Him and on into the patterns of thought and life that forms him into a “new man in Christ.”
Sainthood is not mere escapist otherworldliness though. God made this world, this material world, for us – for us to know, enjoy and use. The material world is our appointed realm and the primary place of our spiritual stewardship.
That’s why I study those disciplines of human life to which I have been attracted. I read science journals because I believe God created the world and that He delights when we discover its secrets. I read novels because I believe in the arts, through which human beings express echoes of divine creation.
Saint Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is a person fully alive.” If the foundation of Christianity is the resurrection of Christ, then it follows that the definition of a saint is a person fully alive.
Culture wars, political fights, church spats, feuds, religious control of others, backbiting, gossiping – all these things are evidence for the opposing view – that Christianity offers nothing compelling or even real for the broken systems and the broken people of the world.
Saints, people who have been made fully alive, is what manifests the reality of Jesus to the nations of the world.
That, or nothing.