Beyond Eros and Icons of the Age to Come: Lenten Anthropology

Drs. Cherith Fee-Nordling and Scot McKnight have graced the Missio Alliance community with excellent reflections on theological anthropology and the embodied nature of human identity and destiny. Along with the groundbreaking works of N.T. Wright, there are rich resources for healthy eschatology and ethics in the light of the Cross and resurrection.

We are privileged recipients of wisdom through many authors contributing peacemaking works that contrast the gospel with the violence of this present age. Added to this are Lenten reflections on transformation that go past deprivation to fulfillment, opening vistas of understanding that connect our destiny with current disciplines.

The Season of Lent is one of preparation for the Passion and Resurrection, self-denial in anticipation of Easter’s power and promise of new life now and forever. As women and men of God’s kingdom, how do we live faithfully from the inside out, with our affections, affirmations and actions glorifying God, bringing good to others and fostering deep inner contentment?

The Triune Lord we adore is concomitantly our Creator, Redeemer and Transformer. The divine design of Genesis ends with the destiny of Revelation and a God that dwells with us forever. In between these chapters of the Missio Dei is the cruciform and risen life of disciples of Jesus, already declared new creations and learning to live the future now in the power of the Spirit. The texts of Genesis, the transforming reflections of Galatians and breathtaking images of Revelation can inspire holistic fidelity and an antidote to the narcissisms and self-destructive ideologies of our age.

The accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, paraphrasing Dorothy Sayers, reveal that we are human beings, made in the image of God, with a job to do. In a world awash with arguments over erotic feelings, this order is vital for restoring sanity and offering dignity to each person. Men and women equally bear God’s image and are given the commission to steward creation. Before the wedding at the end of chapter 2, we have worship and work defining the uniqueness of humankind. In other words, married or single, female or male, every person possesses the imago dei and a vocation to fulfill.

Revelation 7, 11, 19-22 unveil a beautiful future of worship and work, as God dwells with his people in a transformed cosmos and earth. The wedding of chapter 19 united the entirety of God’s elect with the Bridegroom Jesus Christ. What begins with two innocents in a Garden ends with multitudes of the mature in a City.

In between this inspiring beginning and almost incomprehensible ending is the “already and not yet” of current Kingdom life for followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul the Apostle summarizes the new reality of the church in Galatians 3:28-4:6 (as well as Romans 8 and Colossians 3) as he declares that in Christ, all are children of God, regardless of gender, race or religious background.

Female or male, married or single, we are called to worship and work in the Spirit, with time for play and rest, reflection and resolution as well as labor and sacrifice. Within this holy and holistic framework we find the realities of a fallen-and-being redeemed world.

Genesis 2 ends with a wedding; a final scene resolving the observation humankind is not an individualistic existence, but a being-in-communion with God and another. The exclamation of praise from Adam’s lips and the divine sanction of covenantal marriage is a fitting climax to these formative narratives, containing the promise of future generations.

Alas, Genesis 3 intrudes and we are still aligning with God in the “putting to rights” (N.T. Wright) of a world awash in evil and sin. Married and single humankind betray and rebel, and find us in desperate need of divine grace. As the Lord God reveals his gracious plan for humankind, from the protoevangelium of Genesis 3 to promises to Abraham in Genesis 12-22, to the full unveiled mystery of the Christ-Event in Ephesians 1-3, he also reveals his holy love in the moral laws given to Israel and reinforces by the teachings of Jesus and Apostles. These laws do not save; however, they are the imperatives of a redeemed person and community called as heralds of the righteousness, peace and joy to come.

God’s commands include proper sexual conduct. Covenantal heterosexual monogamy is the ideal from Creation (Gen. 2 and Mt. 19), with divorce permitted (not promoted) because of human hardness of heart and weakness. All of other forms of sexual intimacy are prohibited; for it is only in the boundaries of marriage that such union has its full delight and meaning (Prov. 5, Song of Songs 4).

This strict standard is renewed in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, with added emphases on avoiding depersonalizing/objectifying the other through lust and defrauding/enticing others through actions and attitudes that awaken desires that cannot be justly satisfied (Mt. 5; I Th. 4-5). These holy ideals are not a negation of the sexual passions, but a call to agape discipline that thinks first of God’s glory and the good of others before attending to self-gratification.

Celibacy for single persons and covenantal fidelity in monogamous marriage are the Christian norms – and norms that are challenging for all. Throughout history, the church has been subject to legalistic and licentious subversions of these ideals. Extreme monasticism creates a two- and three-tied Christian community that stultifies growth among the “common” folks while placing asceticism on a pedestal. These challenges have been met by a variety of immoral accommodations, from brothels for bishops to concubines for kings, while the “common” folks are left to their own devices and often punished for violations.

The difficulties of obedience do not nullify the clear moral commands of our Savior. There is mercy for all through confession and repentance as we wrestle with thoughts, deeds and words that fall short (I John 1:9-2:2).

Living as moral and spiritual “exiles” in a world awash with rebellion and sin is the norm for true disciples (Phil. 2:12-16; I Pt. 1-2). There are serious implications of our anthropology that will place us in tension with ideological and political forces designed to pervert justice and love.

God’s commands are clear. The reasons particular persons have their erotic affections are complicated. The depth of desires in each person is a combination of nature and nurture, psychological and sociological forces and the spiritual powers impacting one’s life. As the church proclaims the gospel, calls for repentance/faith and offers baptism that incorporates the penitent into Christ and his community, the moral imperatives flowing from the indicatives of grace begin shaping discipleship.

A woman or man who comes to Christ comes to die and live again, to lose the old life of rebellion and gain a new one of freedom through submission to grace. All this includes sexual purity, aspiring for the ideals established by Moses and confirmed by Jesus. Beauty and brokenness are concomitant as the believer learns to rely on the power of the Spirit to purify the heart, change the mind and empower the will toward the freedom of obedience.

Great ideals, but what about the LGBT folks in our pews? And, if we are going to be fair, what about the frat boys and sorority girls coming to our meetings? (After all, sexual license includes all activities that the Bible declares out of bounds.) What about public policies? How do we affirm our ideals and show hospitality toward all people and navigate the minefields of public perception?

Three insights offer a way forward as we discover Lenten Anthropology consistent with Scripture, tradition and empirical observations. First, being human is so much more than current attractions. In other words, hetero-, bi- or homosexual feelings are not the most important thing about a human being! The Bible begins with our creation in the image of God, with a calling to worship and work, play and rest in the presence of God. It continues with our new creation in Christ and participation in the new community of the Spirit (2 Co. 5:17; Gal. 3:28ff; Eph. 2:10; 3:10). It ends with a wedding and redeemed people no longer bearing physical children (Rev. 19-22).

Second, the call to discipleship is a gift and a demand, a summons to surrender our sovereignty and allow the Word and Spirit full liberty in our lives, including our sexual affections and choices. ALL forms of promiscuity come to the cross, from one-night stands to Internet pornography. Followers of Jesus are liberated for friendship with brothers and sisters, affirming the dignity of each person they meet and seeking the welfare of their communities.

Third, we are called to prophetic actions and affirmations that shape our culture and society. We will be unpopular with all libertines as well as radicals from the LGBT advocacy groups. We cannot affirm the goodness of homo- or hetero-erotic attitudes and activities that violate the Word.  It is one thing to debate policies and permit diverse opinions in a pluralistic world. This is the essence of true toleration and living peaceably with our deepest differences (Os Guinness). It is quite another to be called upon to approve what are rebellious and self-destructive behaviors. All are welcome to our tables of friendship and worship. All are in process of deciding whether to declare the Lordship of Christ or go their own way. For baptized believers, there is accountability with affection, calls to holiness rooted in agape love. Before we disparage non-Christian behaviors, we must put our own homes in order and demonstrate what humility and grace look like in practice.

One more insight: Both married and single saints are icons of the Age to Come; therefore there is no place for placing one state above another. Single people are no “incomplete” and married folks are not together just to produce future baptismal candidates (an Augustinian notion most discard).

Lent is a season of consecration and sacrifice in gratitude to the One who sanctified himself (John 17) and sacrificed all to fulfill the holy demands of love and justice (Rom. 3:21-31). Let’s transcend the talk shows. Let’s place the polemics aside.

Let’s set our hearts on our Triune Lord and discover life in the love of our Creator and Savior.