Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"the last enemy to be destroyed"

Christus Victor (1450) by Fra Angelico

Not long ago, I was at a funeral where a minister shared a poem called "Go Down, Death." It tells the story of the death of a woman of faith named Caroline. It begins: "Weep not, weep not, she is not dead;/ she's resting in the bosom of Jesus." God, the poems reveals, saw Sister Caroline in great pain and, taking pity, summoned Death and commanded "Go down, Death, go down... and find Sister Caroline." When the pale, white horse and its rider found her, "Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline;/ He looked to her like a welcome friend." Death then carried her off to Jesus.

I'm sure a lot of people at the service took comfort from Sister Caroline's story.

I, however, was not one of them.
Instead, I was stunned by how the poem's depiction of death runs so counter to the biblical picture, particularly the role death plays in Paul's gospel. According to Paul, death isn't "a welcome friend" or a dutiful servant carrying out the will of God. According to Paul, death is the enemy.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is retelling the past and forecasting the future of redemption. He first tells of Jesus's death and resurrection, and the apostles' mission to take that good news to the world (15:3-8). Then he begins to correct those in his Corinthian audience who reject the very idea of resurrection—"if the dead are not raised," he writes, "then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins!" (15:16-17) Not only has Christ in fact been raised from the dead, but, Paul points out, he is just "the first fruits of those who have died" (15:20). This is when Paul shifts gears and, instead of reminding the Corinthians of what God has already done, he starts to pull back the curtain and reveal some of the promises still to be fulfilled. Those who belong to Christ will also be raised when he comes again (15:23; see also Rom 6:5). And then
comes the end, when he [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (15:24-26)
Death is an enemy—the final enemy!—that Jesus will destroy. "Death will be no more" (Rev 21:4). Obviously, Christ's work isn't done yet, but already, because of the resurrection, "Death has been swallowed up in victory!" (15:54; see also Isa 25:7-8) For Paul, death isn't a faithful servant of God. Death is the enemy. It's the wages of sin (Rom 6:23). We know this.

And yet, when we come face to face with death, we often tell ourselves a different story. We try to downplay the horror of what has happened by dismissing death as no more than a bridge to eternal bliss. When we come face to face with death, suddenly we cling to a different gospel that is all about rest in the hereafter and misses the whole plot of the Bible: the story of a God who sees how the devil and sin have wrecked this world and refuses to let that stand, a God who is doing something about it.  Death would have locked us all in its dark pit, forever, and Jesus needed to beat that door down to set us free—so that's exactly what he did. (That's what I love about Fra Angelico's painting up top: the risen Jesus has knocked down the door to death's prison, and there's even an unlucky demon squished under the door.)

Even at funerals we try to get around the terrible reality of death, but in the process we misrepresent the gospel. We even inadvertently lay the blame for tragedies at God's feet! "God just wanted another little angel" doesn't put the Lord in a very good light in the eyes of a grieving parent. What a grieving parent needs to hear is the truth: 'This is awful. This is the most awful thing imaginable. It's wrong, and Jesus is crying with you right now. But he conquered death for your baby. He hung on the cross to win eternal life for your baby, to make sure this isn't how things end'. That is what we have to proclaim in the face of death.

I don't find comfort at funerals from being told that death is really no big deal, that it's a friend, carrying out God's will. Anyone who knows how much the death of a loved one hurts knows that death is no friend. Anyone who's felt the shockwaves of a suicide, a murder, an overdose, a car wreck, or cancer can tell you that death has nothing to do with God's good will for our lives.

What gives me comfort at a funeral is hearing that death is not what God wants for this world, and so our Father sent Jesus, who conquered death and sin, and "thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" (1 Cor 15:57) What gives me comfort is hearing the gospel.
We don't have to dodge the awful reality and the hurt, because Jesus stood in between us and the very worst that death can do. We can face our losses and our tragedies because Jesus is our Savior. We don't have to misrepresent the gospel, because it's still good news, even in the face of death.

In fact, it's exactly the good news that we need to hear.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Shape of Water and the Image of God

This year’s Academy Award nominees were just announced, and The Shape of Water from Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy; Pan’s Labyrinth) led the field with a whopping 13 nominations. My wife and I decided to go see The Shape of Water last weekend because of all the buzz: it’s a visually striking Beauty-and-the-Beast tale about isolation and love, as well as a fine example of magical realism, where things enchanted and incredible live alongside things everyday and unremarkable— amphibious men and healing powers rubbing shoulders with car salesmen and Jell-O ads.

But it’s also more than that.
The movie is also an explicit meditation on biblical stories (the story of Samson primarily, but also Ruth) and themes, particularly the theme of the image of God.

[Warning: there will be spoilers below, but they will be clearly marked.]

Early in the film, our mute protagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and her co-worker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are talking with Michael Shannon’s brutal government man Richard Strickland about the creature (Doug Jones), who is being held in a top-secret facility where the women work as janitors. Strickland insists that the creature is an ‘it’, not a ‘him’, a thing, not a person, because the creature, he explains, is not made in the image of God. ‘God’s a person,’ Strickland tells Zelda, ‘he looks like me, or even you… Well, maybe more like me’.
This question of who is and who is not made in the image of God rears its ugly head again in one particular scene which briefly, but forcefully, reveals that African Americans like Zelda, as well as gay men like Giles (Richard Jenkins), are not seen as divine image bearers by everyone in this early 1960s America.


Strickland’s failure to recognize the image of God in the Amphibian Man inevitably leads to violence, and, as in any version of Beauty and the Beast (and as The Shape of Water hints from the start), in the end it’s the relentless hunter who is the true beast, who sheds something of his own God-given shape along the way. In the film’s final scene, Strickland catches Elisa and the Amphibian Man at the docks, just before the creature can escape to freedom, and shoots and kills both. However, the creature’s miraculous healing powers eventually revive him, and suddenly the one whom we were told was not made in the image of God becomes the film’s Christ-figure, dying and rising again like Jesus, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3). Like Christ, the Amphibian Man also grants resurrection and new life to those who love him, in this case, Elisa. Even Strickland himself, before the tide of violence turns his direction, utters a confession reminiscent of the centurion standing by the cross on Good Friday. If anyone in the movie, this scene suggests, is a reflection of God, it may have been the “creature” all along. Strickland, in insisting otherwise, had been as blind as Samson.


Perhaps, The Shape of Water proposes, perhaps we need a more expansive definition of “the image of God.”

Perhaps our understanding of the divine image doesn’t need a guard at the door but rather a lookout, someone watching for those who’ve been excluded, so they can be welcomed in.

Perhaps—just as we recognize that these characters were wrong to question the black woman’s or the gay man’s having been made in the image of God—perhaps there are those still today whom we, consciously or unconsciously, actively or passively, by our words or by our actions, insist are not divine image bearers. Enemies, “Philistines,” outsiders, pagan Moabites like Ruth, a child in the womb, a transgender woman, those who look different than us, who look different than our mental picture of God, anyone to whom we can show mercy, but instead pass by on the other side.

Perhaps precisely that person is the neighbor we’re called to love.

The film closes with narration by Richard Jenkins which unlocks the meaning of the title with a few lines, probably inspired by the Sufi poet Rumi:
Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.
This movie tells the story of a woman who finds the humanity in a “beast” and sees the shape of her love everywhere she looks, every time she sees the rain outside her bus window. But it’s also about a world and characters who are challenged and often fail to see the shape of the invisible God everywhere they look, in the lives of those all around them—even in the most unlikely faces.

In a lot of ways, we live in a very different age than the 1960s the film depicts, and yet this challenge persists. May God’s people today have eyes to see.