Thursday, June 16, 2016

Higher Learning

The martyrdom of John Lambert came up in discussion with my fellow blogger IC last week. Lambert was burned at the stake in 1538 for refusing to retract his objection to the doctrine of transubstantiation. As he died, Lambert is reported to have cried out over and over again, “None but Christ! None but Christ!”

Subsequent to our conversation, IC sent me a link to a video clip of an episode from the otherwise-execrable TV series The Tudors, in which John Lambert meets his end. Interestingly, the show’s producers opted to change Lambert’s dying statement to “All for Christ! All for Christ!”

So what? Such minor tweaking of dialogue takes place all the time in the process of bringing real stories to big and small screens alike. It’s still a powerful scene, and the viewer’s sympathies are fully with Lambert, which is presumably the writers’ intent.

Still, there is a difference in meaning, and I think it’s one worth noting.

What’s the Distinction?

The cry “All for Christ” is a statement about the person being martyred. It tells us why he is willing to burn even as flames consume him. It’s a statement about his feelings and his will, and about what really matters to him more than anything in the world. It’s a perfectly valid statement, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but in the end it is a statement … about John Lambert.

The words “None but Christ”, on the other hand, are a statement about Christ himself; a claim of unique singularity and worth.

(Now of course Christ’s value may be legitimately inferred from the first cry: it’s “all for Christ” because Christ is so very worthy of anything and everything one might do in his name, no matter how costly, including offering one’s body to be burned. Still, this is only an inference we may or may not draw. The second statement explicitly draws attention to Christ himself, which I believe is precisely what Lambert intended. I’ll confirm that with him at the first opportunity ...)

Why Does it Matter?

The two versions of Lambert’s dying confession may serve to illustrate two common attitudes to worship. The first is very natural to most new Christians, and it is primarily worshiper-centred; summed up in sentiments like, “Thank you, Lord, for what you have done for me” (or, corporately, “what you have done for us”).

Nothing wrong with such thoughts, is there? In fact, we would consider it downright uncharitable to rush over to a Christian who expressed this sort of sentiment in prayer or from the platform to chastise him for being self-occupied. He is only doing what one should reasonably expect a forgiven sinner to do; he’s expressing thanks. Being thankful is infinitely preferable to being ungrateful, and we are wise never to forget it. We need more thankful Christians, not fewer.

On what legitimate basis might we imagine that an objective statement about the worth of Christ is somehow preferable to a subjective one about him; one that has as its focus my personal experience? And yet, I find myself feeling that disinterested statements about the Son of God, his work and his nature are somehow nobler, more appropriate (and ultimately, an evidence of greater spiritual maturity in the speaker or writer) than those expressions that merely reflect our own emotions about him. I am not alone in this.

Some thoughts and words about Christ seem to be “higher”. Perhaps I can explain why.

The Example of the Apostles

One reason is that such thoughts seem to be common among the apostles. For example, when confronted with opposition from the chief priests and elders of the Jews in Acts 4, the first thing they said when they opened their mouths to pray publicly was not “Help!” or even “Thank you for your help so far, Lord”. Rather, it was this:
“Sovereign Lord, you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.” 
It’s an objective statement about the glory of God in creation, and it is immediately followed by another objective declaration about the glory of God in revelation:
“You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David …”
and a statement about the glory of God in his ability to anticipate the feeble opposition of men:
“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.”
Sure, the apostles eventually get to some concerns that have to do with their own immediate danger, but only insofar as the threats of the Jews might affect their ability to speak boldly the truth entrusted to them. They are concerned entirely that Christ might be glorified. The Lord himself, and his purposes in exalting “his anointed one” are front and centre in the thinking of the apostles.

So we are not surprised to read that “the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly”.

Why should we expect anything else?

The ‘Higher’ Passages of the New Testament

All scripture is profitable, that is not in dispute. But some New Testament scriptures are primarily of significance to a small group of people or for a short period of time. Other scriptures have immeasurable significance; they are critical to the faith of believers and fundamental to the doctrine of Christ.

So permit me the digression of pointing to my own (admittedly subjective) response as a believer in Christ to passages like “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. John’s stunning revelation about Christ would still be just as glorious if I had never been born. It would be true if he had never saved me. He would still be as eternal, as astoundingly creative, as marvelous and as worthy of praise whether my atoms hold together in their present configuration or not, whether I live to praise him in glory or whether I go into the fire.

There are beautiful, compelling moments that add greatly to my knowledge of Christ in the other gospels but, my goodness, are there any on that level?

Or maybe it’s just me. How about:
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
Does that make you feel like you’re on the right side or what? But, all else aside, does it not seem to you just a little bit higher, a little grander and greater in some way, than “Jesus loves me, this I know”?

Not that there’s anything wrong with “Jesus loves me” …

The Example of Heaven

The twenty-four elders around the throne in heaven have this to say about its occupant:
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
But of course the glories of Christ do not end at creation. There is a new song to be sung, and it goes like this:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.”
But notice this is a song devoid of the words “me” or even “us”. It’s all about him. If such thoughts comprise the worship of heaven, would we not be wise to learn to think that way now?

Gratitude and Worship

Being grateful is great. We should never stop. But sometimes I think many Christians are a lot like I was on Christmas morning when I was eight or ten years old. I was all about the gift, whether it was GI Joe, Hot Wheels or a pair of skates. Christmas morning was incredibly exciting.

But I’m in my fifties now. I don’t have a single one of those gifts anymore, and I haven’t had them for years. And my memories — the ones that matter anyway — are not of what I got from my parents or how much fun I had playing with it. They are of what my parents put into my life, and what sort of character it took to love me continuously from before I was born right up to this morning, despite all the things I may have done that displeased them over those years. What really matters to me now is who they were and who they are, not just the way in which that has benefited me.

Can I suggest that if we are to mature as believers, we need to think about the Lord, his person and his work in just the same way.

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