The Lutheran, November 2008
A monthly column by Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson
Dying, rising with Christ no heroic individual quest
My father was raised in a small town in South Dakota where the railroad tracks came to an end. A whistle blew when a train arrived and men came to the railroad yard to unhook the engine from the cars and move it onto a large round platform. They inserted long poles into the platform and worked together to turn the engine so it could travel in the right direction. I think often of their communal act of turning and have pondered what we might learn from it.
What does it mean to be a church whose life is a repentant dying and rising with Jesus Christ? What does it mean in the wider public life of our nation?
The Lutheran tradition originated with a call to repentance. The 95 Theses, which Martin Luther composed nearly 500 years ago, begin: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17
) he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." I am convinced this repentance must be a lived reality in the entirety of our relationships with others. To be so, it must include our communal relationships in public life as well as those in private life.
What does communal repentance look like when it is more than a collection of individual repentant lives? What does it look like when it is a shared
, common dying and rising with Christ?
It begins when the community is brought together by God’s call and gathered by the word. The modern emphasis on individual experience often obscures the clear scriptural witness that God’s call to repentance always is made in the public life of the community and nation. Repeatedly God sent prophets to call the whole nation of Israel to repentance. John, baptizing in the wilderness, and Jesus, preaching throughout Galilee, publicly called God’s people to a common repentance. After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the apostles preached repentance in public assemblies throughout the Mediterranean world. Dying with Christ is most certainly personal, but it is also just as certainly an event in the public life of the world.
Repentance means to be turned around. Again, the modern emphasis on private experience leads some to think that repentance results from the application of individually targeted persuasion, often using Scripture as a weapon, against those who are perceived as straying. True dying and rising with Christ, however, turns around the whole community. Just as the long poles were used in concerted effort to turn the engine on the platform, this communal repentance happens when engagement with Scripture results in a dying and rising in Christ that is shared by all.
We experience a shared rising to new life in Jesus Christ rather than either a private renewal that happens in isolation or a partisan uprising that divides Christ’s one body. As we share communal repentance, we also share relationships that are both truthful and reconciled.
Before addressing the Ecumenical Preconference on HIV and AIDS
in Mexico City this past summer, I washed the feet of two women living with HIV. I engaged in this public act of humility and repentance to acknowledge the truth that too often we people of faith have shunned and shamed those living with HIV/AIDS. Rather than engaging in acts of healing and reconciliation, we often have stigmatized and marginalized those living with HIV/AIDS. Through this act of repentance I was speaking the truth for the sake of healing and reconciliation: in dying and rising with Christ, one’s neighbors—those in our home, in the local community and around the globe—are neither feared competitors nor rejected outcasts. They are the fulfillment of daily life.
Dying and rising with Christ is no heroic individual quest. It is a common journey for the life of the whole world.