© 2021 Evan D. Garner
Are we coming, or are we going—which is it? At what point on a journey do you stop leaving home and start heading somewhere new? The answer isn’t a mile marker but a mindset. Sometimes we go on a trip just to “get away,” and other times we embark on a journey toward something in particular. Usually, it’s a little of both. But what about right now? Are we coming or going?
Are we living, or are we dying—which is it? You remember that line from The Shawshank Redemption, first spoken by Brooks, the elderly prisoner, and then repeated by Red, the man who follows in his footsteps: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Which one is it? The answer probably has something to do with age, but surely it is more than that. What does “over the hill” really mean? Don’t some of us live our best life even in our final few years? Right now, are we living or dying?
Are we avoiding hell, or are we embracing heaven—which is it? A long time ago, I asked a mentor of mine, a devout Muslim whose faith I admired, why he went to such considerable lengths to practice his faith. “Because I don’t want to go to hell,” he replied. When he turned the same question around on me, I wasn’t prepared, so I repeated back to him the same answer he had given. Looking back, I wish that I had said, “Because I want to go to heaven.” On this faith journey we are on, what is our answer? Are we avoiding hell or embracing heaven?
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and, in so doing, we celebrate nothing less than the transformation of the whole human race—from the sin and death and destruction we know so well to the freedom and life and flourishing we find in union with God. But sometimes I think we forget that that’s the journey we are really on.
Many of us, I think, are like those disciples in Ephesus, who thought of themselves as Christians but who had never received the baptism of Jesus. They had received the baptism of John, the baptism of repentance, by which they were cleansed from the sins of their past, but still they were missing something. They knew what to leave behind but didn’t know where to go. Then, when they were baptized in the name of Jesus, and Paul had laid hands on them, a dramatic transformation took place. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. We tend to eschew such dramatic expressions of Spirit-fueled activity, but, as Moses said, “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Though we tend to forget it, we, too, were baptized not merely to escape the consequences of sin but to initiate in us the full manifestation of God’s power. We were baptized to become one with God.
In the western Christian tradition, when we talk about salvation, we tend to use the language of accounting. Our sins are debts that must be forgiven or paid off. Because we are enslaved to sin, our souls must be bought and paid for. In Christ, we are redeemed. That mindset leads us to look at salvation as if it were accomplished solely in the cross of Christ—that moment when the price of our sin was paid. We look to his death, therefore, in order to find forgiveness.
But the eastern tradition embraces a much bigger understanding of salvation. Instead of using the language of accounting, they use the language of being—that of our nature, of ontology. In the incarnation, the Word became flesh, and God united Godself to human nature. In the baptism of Jesus, the one who knew no sin took upon himself the fullness of our sin. In the death of Christ, therefore, that which is broken within all of us was itself put to death so that, in our own baptism, we might be raised with Christ to the new life of union with God. We are saved, therefore, not only at the cross but also in the womb of Mary, in the River Jordan, at the empty tomb, and in the waters of our own baptism.
We are baptized, therefore, not only to leave our particular sins behind but to enter into a new life of oneness between all of humanity and God. And, in weeks like this one, when the full brokenness of human nature manifests itself in a violent attack at the center of our national life, I need to know that that’s how God’s salvation is accomplished—not only through the innumerable individuals whose sins have been washed away in the waters of baptism but in the complete restoration of human nature that has been accomplished in Jesus Christ.
That is the journey we are on, and we are on it alongside the whole human race. That victory, that renewal, that restoration has already been achieved, even if, in this life, we can only see it in part—as St. Paul said, like looking through a glass dimly. Even in moments when evil and sin appear to be winning, we know that, in truth, they have already been defeated. That truth lives within us. It lives within our human nature, united through Christ to the very core of our human being.
Our hope, therefore, is not simply that the good people would outnumber the bad, for that would always leave us wondering and worrying that evil might one day triumph. Instead, our hope is that the full transformation of human nature, which has already been accomplished by Jesus Christ, would be completely realized in our lives. That is the life into which we have been baptized. That is the hope to which we cling. That is the truth into which we have been adopted. That is the reality we see unfolding in our lives when we look to Christ, whose victory over sin and death was not only accomplished on the cross but woven into our very nature by the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism.