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~ Giving Up and Giving In to Him ~

Last week’s Reflection included this paragraph: “While humility and holiness can be consciously practiced, and while they can be imitated, they cannot be achieved. Humility and holiness are not driven by the will anymore than we can will ourselves into a resurrected state of renewed being. As with the resurrection, they happen to us. Like a drizzling rain saturating the earth, they are graces that infuse us in response to love...The love of God for us; our love for Him.” Let’s take this week’s Reflection from there.

After we experience a conversion, a rebirth, and profess to be a Christian, a “Christ-one,” we typically strive to bear witness to our lives in Him. One expression of this striving is presenting a “good testimony” or “example” to others. One of the results has been the perception of non-Christians of Christianity being a code of behavior of “do and don’t.” Do make sure people see you in church, do talk about Christ to your associates, do present a consistent happy demeanor, do dress nicely and modestly; don’t gamble, smoke, drink or associate with those that do, don’t cultivate friendships with “worldly” people, don’t study non-Christian religions, don’t engage in demonstrations of civil disobedience, don’t watch R-rated movies (except for The Passion of the Christ of course).

As mentioned in other Weekly Reflections, morality and good character are not unique hallmarks of a Christian. Many people of all religions, including paganism and atheism, are just as or more moral and ethical in their practices than many Christians.

So what are the distinguishing features of a Christian? Naturally, we must gaze at Jesus for the answer. He was problematic to the moral people of His days on earth. Jesus was seen in our modern equivalent to cocktail parties with the rich and infamous. He even miraculously produced wine at a wedding reception to spare the host the shame of not anticipating how much the guests would drink and running out (both guests and wine), which meant, as it often still does today, the party is over.

Jesus allowed Himself to be tenderly cared for by a bold party-crashing prostitute at a formal dinner for distinguished guests of the community elite. (Imagine that happening to you at a church banquet. Most of us would probably tell her to get lost and profusely apologize to the pastor and guests, along with having some explaining to do afterward.)

In Jesus’ inner circle was a former sell-out to the occupying Roman Empire who collected exorbitant taxes in Caesar’s name that kept his fellow Jews in poverty and often in debtor’s prison or worse. Also included were women of ill-repute, a double social faux pas since even honorable women were second class property of men. It was to one such woman that Jesus first appeared after His resurrection, just as God chose the despised, derelict, immoral shepherds to first announce Jesus’ birth by the most awesome demonstration of angelic power and majesty of all time.

Some readers may be feeling offended that I should observe these things about the Christ. I am not, however, implying that Jesus was like these people. I marvel at how He could associate with them, breaking all the rules of the respectable practice of a rabbi, forgiving their ways, transforming their lives, and inviting them to be holy agents in proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God in their midst and within them.

Such interactions produced nasty rumors. Christ Himself first spoke of these observations I write here: “John [the baptizer] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Matthew 11:18-19, NIV).

So how are we to practice the Christian distinctions? Acting like Jesus may well bring upon us the same accusations He suffered: drunk, glutton, criminal, blasphemer, friend of harlots and low-lifes. We want to avoid that like a disease, yet Jesus touched the lepers and deliberately and publicly make Himself “unclean,” like them. And He did all that without sinning, though to the moralists of His day He was continually breaking God’s laws and challenging the common folk to follow in His way.

How are we to follow such a way? The answer rests in a sentence rapidly skipped over, written by no one less than the great apostle Paul who called himself the chief of sinners. In Colossians 2:6, he wrote, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him...”

The first part of this partial sentence merits a reminder of how salvific rebirth is “achieved.” In John’s record, chapter 3, Jesus attempts to explain to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council and teacher of Judaic law, that our first birth is a matter of grace. I cannot boast to anyone of the grace of my birth to my parents. I cannot take credit to having chosen such wondrous people, precisely the two in the world I needed to raise and nurture me in the ways of the world and the Kingdom of God. My sister is also a gift of grace for which I cannot take any credit. Not all have been as blessed as I have in physical birth. But all have been or can be as blessed in spiritual birth, which is aptly called “redemptive grace.”

We are not reborn or blessed by spiritual conversion by our efforts anymore than our physical birth was brought by our will or striving. Our birth into the Kingdom of God did not come by years of ascetic practices, meditations, vision questing or recitation of mantras or psalms. I value these practices for growth, just as I value good food and physical activity for my body’s growth, but birth must come first.

Now we ponder Paul’s second remark, “continue to live in him...[just as you received him].” Is he not saying that our walk in rebirth continues by the same grace that caused it? Personally, it’s great news to me. I am giving up on striving to be holy, to be Christlike, to be a good Christian. There were times, even years, when I thought I was doing a good job being a Christian. And others told me I was. But Christ knocked me off my horse of pride in accomplishments, as He did Paul, as He does so many of us. Hitting the ground hurts, but is liberating. It’s good I don’t need to strive with my own frail will or weak human effort toward the divine. I don’t need to (and can’t) practice Christlikeness on my own power to present myself as a self-made example of what mainstream Christians think all Christians should be like.

In the same way I was converted and made an adopted son of God and brother of Jesus, I can relax and yield to His grace to take me from there onward through my earthly pilgrimage into eternity.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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