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Bestriding Beauty | First Baptist Church at Conshohocken, Pennsylvania

Bestriding Beauty



God called me when I was three-and-one-half years of age.  I didn’t really understand what that meant until I turned fourteen, at which point the nature of my calling was made stunningly clear when Jesus Christ was revealed to me in the privacy of my bedroom.

I am now thirty-seven years’ removed from that blessed encounter, having served over twenty-four of those years as an ordained minister of the Gospel.  I am more convinced than ever that the Gospel is the answer to our human predicament.

Catholic writer Henri de Lubac wrote an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed entitled The Christian Faith, within which he writes of “all those who … are entrusted with this most beautiful of all roles:  Handing on the faith received from the apostles, always and infinitely fruitful even as it was when they themselves received it from Jesus Christ.”

I am struck by the phrase, “this most beautiful of all roles.”  It resonates with me as I share Christ in whatever way is presented by circumstances, from preaching on a Sunday morning to offering scripture booklets to acquaintances as I go about my day.    

Our sin-infested world needs this Gospel; the beauty of Christ is the perfect therapy for a troubled and traumatized planet and people.  There is healing by which to be healed, forgiveness by which to be forgiven and transformation by which to be transformed - from sinners to saints, from sick to well, from corrupted to pure, from ugly to beautiful.

Our blessed Savior performed a unique, one-off expression of what psychologists call “role-play”:  He became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God.  It is a role for which He was singularly suited.  No one else could have pulled it off.

Shakespeare “shakepearized” magnificently when he postulated:  

“All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances,/ And one man in his time plays many parts,/ His acts being seven stages.  At first, the infant,/ Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. / Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/ And shining morning face, creeping like snail/ Unwilling to school.  And then the lover,/ Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.  Then a soldier,/ Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,/ Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,/ Seeking his bubble reputation/
Even in the cannon’s mouth.  And then justice,/ In fair round belly with good capon lined,/ With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,/ Full of wise saws and modern instances;/ And so he plays his part.  The sixth age shifts/ Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,/ With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;/ His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide/ For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,/ Turning again toward childish treble, pipes/ And whistles in his sound.  Last scene of all,/ That ends this strange eventful history,/ Is second childishness and mere oblivion,/ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII).

Jesus was born a beautiful baby, grew from infancy through childhood to ripe maturity though never to “second childhood,” and even died, though never to “mere oblivion,” though at the end without the sense of His Father’s fellowship and approval - “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” put the agonizing wrench to that infinite blessing.

Holy Week is nigh.  My little fellowship will, in our own ecclesiastical digs (however temporary still), share communion by candlelight on Holy Thursday, reflect upon our Lord’s trauma on the cross during our Good Friday Observance and rejoice on Easter Sunday morning that our Lord is risen – It will be beautiful!

It will be beautiful because it will be truly clarifying, let alone emotionally moving.  Our Christianity begins upon “mere oblivion,” as God has called us to die to ourselves.  There is no place for our flesh in our lives as Christians.  Paul celebrated when he wrote:  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  It is beautiful is this new life that God has given to us.

Our upbringing, our place in this world, our thoughts and feelings and desires must all give way to the wisdom and way of God.  We will be taken through a process during which our lives exist “sans (i.e. without) teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”  Everything must come under the light and scrutiny of God’s Word and Spirit.  Think of a close-out sale at a store that is going out-of-business:  “Everything Must Go!”  

God has given to us new life, and we begin as spiritual babies, to speak organically, or as blank slates, to speak philosophically, upon which the Spirit of God will draft our lives and write our histories.  It will take time, a lifetime even; painful, to be sure it will be, but it will be ever so beautiful!

But what will be even more beautiful is the witness that God’s people project, let alone perform, as the reality of the risen Christ takes deeper root and clearer shape in our lives.  “How beautiful,” waxed the prophet Isaiah, “are the feet of those who share good news” (Isaiah 52:7).

It takes time for a beautiful work of art to be completed.  It must first be conceived by the artist.  God conceived us before the world’s creation; it was there and then, Scripture reports, that we were chosen “to be holy and blameless in His sight” (Ephesians 1:4).

We were brought forth into the world in a beautiful way, as a baby is brought forth from maternal labor, bringing refreshment and joy wake of pain and struggle:  “In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3).    

And it is intended that we will grow up in our salvation so that we might fully reflect God’s beauty:  “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (I Peter 2:3).

Conception, birth and maturation are all at play in the lives of God’s people.  God gave us the pleasures of sex in order for children to be conceived.  A child’s birth brings joy of a miraculous kind.  Growing up may be painful, but it is necessary and rewarding.

It is similar with the growth of our Christianity.  We start out as spiritual babies.  It is a consummate privilege to be used by God to lead someone to Christ and into new life.  It is sweet to be warmly received into a new family, the household of God.  It is a special time when we are consummately aware of God and His love.

We enter a time of spiritual adolescence which, like natural adolescence, can be extraordinarily painful, both to the adolescent and to those around him or her.  We have all kinds of questions, intense yearnings to utilize the gifts that God has given us, though perhaps not yet the wisdom with which to so use them.  We can also be the bane of others’ existence, as we flex our spiritual muscles before fellow believers and strive to drive home to others just how much they need Jesus.  It is an ardent time, one during which we are vitally aware of our place in Christ and of our role in His Kingdom.

But it is a period of grooming during which we are ripening and moving towards maturity, where the light and beauty of Christ can brightly and beautifully shine.  Maturity, or completion, even perfection (for they all effectively mean the same) are worth the growing pains.  It is a time concerning which we become very much aware of how God works through us and of how others discern Him in us.

It is a season of life that brings together the manifold pleasures of childhood with the finely-tuned seasoning of age, a spiritual cocktail that has crystallized amidst fermenting adolescence.  Professor John Lukacs observed of the 19th Century Philadelphian essayist Agnes Reppelier that “It was not her genius which was precocious; it was her maturity.”  Our maturity in Christ makes all of the difference to our witness, far more than merely our gifts and talents or even our ardor for spiritual things.

Lots of Christians make Christianity appear quite ugly to non-believers.  One could argue that we are the ugliest people alive when we are not being true to our Savior, as we know better, and have been enabled to be better.  Spiritual maturity is the key – It is beautiful!  
God has richly provided for us to grow up into mature and fruitful Christians who may live spiritually beautiful lives.  We are not left to wander and drift as we grow.  We have been adequately and properly equipped.  

First, He has provided us with the Holy Spirit, of whom Paul speaks when he writes: “We proclaim Him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.  To this end I labor, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:28, 29).

Second, He has given to us His Word by which we may be suffused and guided:  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God maybe thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
Third, He has afforded us the gift of prayer.  Prayer is our altar, before which we go in order to stand before God so that, amongst other things, we may “gaze upon the beauty of God” (Psalm 27:4).

Fourth, He has, however much we are loth to acknowledge and to appropriate, provided us with trials and sufferings in order for us to grow in grace and beauty.  James writes:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4).

The beauty of spiritual maturity, fifth, is that we can distinguish betwixt good and evil (Hebrews 5:14), no mean feat in this day of apostasy, spiritual chaos and moral murkiness; certainly, too, a quality of urgent necessity for the welfare of God’s people.

As is the capacity to deal with people who think differently than do we.  God has called us to put the past behind and to strive for our place in His beautiful Presence; all else is dross, and “All of us who are mature should take such a view of things.  And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.  Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (Philippians 3:15, 16).

And it would all amount to nothing of any qualitative difference from the corruption of this world if not for the beauty of His love:  “God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.  In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like Him.  There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:16-18).

How very sober and sound.  How very wise and thoughtful.  How very mature – How very beautiful!  

I hate to see beauty wasted.  There is a popular actress who is stunningly beautiful when she is first beheld, but the moment that she opens her mouth she is denuded of her feminine splendor, as she proves to be nothing more than a common tart in her attitude.  

Christians are called to transcend mere fleshly appetites and attitudes.  We have found something better and more beautiful and more meaningful.  Our lives were designed by God to be graced by a beauty that both defies yet commands the attention of the world.

We live in a world that is so often cheap and tawdry and banal.  We also live in a world that is dangerous and corrupt and corrupting.  And, thank God, we live in a world that is replete with intimations of divine beauty.  God’s people should know and embody this.

“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the One who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  You were once not a people, but now you are God’s people.  You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy” (I Peter 2:9, 10; NET).
That’s quite an ennobling description!  One can imagine a royal entourage traveling through a town during the Middle Ages, with the impoverished and ragged citizenry staring wide-eyed at the royal persons draped in beauteous finery.  What a sight!

Peter spoke of us as being a “holy nation”; it’s about holiness.  Doesn’t the Word tell us to “worship the Lord in the splendor of His holiness?” (I Chronicles 16:29 and Psalm 29:2 and 96:9).  Are we ready for the “splendor of His coming,” (2 Thessalonians 2:8) when the Antichrist will be revealed and overthrown?   

 Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  “Perfect” is also translated as “mature,” or as “holy,” but could arguably be translated “beautiful,” for God’s holiness is beautiful; indeed, the two are synonymous.  

It is a winsome thought to think that such maturity actually brings forth a kind of childlike demeanor.  We aren’t called to be adults, for nowhere in Scripture are we told that we must be like adults in order to enter the Kingdom of God.  God forbid!

We are awash in a pseudo-sophisticated society wherein our children are now being deprived of their childhood, whether by sexual abuse or spoliation.  We either love them too much or we love them too little; either way, it breeds destruction.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14, 15).

Do you think that Jesus was onto something here?  Definitely!  We all tend to frown upon anyone around you who gives forth airs of being someone or something other than he or she is.  Such presumptions are nauseating to an extreme.  It is all so distasteful.

G.K. Chesterton observes:  “The most simple people have the most subtle ideas.  Everybody ought to know that, for everybody has been a child.  Ignorant as a child is, he knows more than he can say and feels not only atmospheres but fine shades…”

The child is often more astute than the adult.  I observe my granddaughter’s countenance and her body-language when she works through an issue.  It is a holistic work, encompassing her entire being.  Nothing escapes her notice or her reflection.  She is like a little adult, similar to the way that we are to be like little children.  It can be intimidating, but is always very beautiful.

But she is still a child.  We are asking her, in her own time, to grow up into an adult but God is asking her to grow into a child; that is, a child of the living God.  

Irish novelist Iris Murdoch remarked that if we raise up a child to think that he is an angel, then he will become, neither an angel nor an adult, but a demon.  Look around:  It is obvious that something has gone deadly wrong with much of our youth.  There is so much grimness and arrogance and futility to them.  They need a whiff of fresh air.  
Christians are likened to spiritual aroma, one that is beautiful to the nostrils of God and to those who are being saved, though obnoxious and distasteful to those who are perishing:

“Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and who makes known through us the fragrance that consists of the knowledge of Him in every place.  For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing – to the latter an odor from death to death, but to the former a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16; NET).

I am intrigued by the act of smell, as the experience of smell, for the most part, is lost on me; it is an abstraction, as my olfactory nerves aren’t exactly spiffy, but when, for instance, I watch a lady smelling flowers, I can only imagine how lovely the fragrance is.

I want others to know the loveliness of Christ, as they will know if only they will “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4).  I want them to know how beautiful it is to know Him and to live in Him, as I want them to know the beauty of His Kingdom, flavored as it is by righteousness, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:14).  

I do my best, by God’s grace to let them know, as I have been afforded (to quote de Lubac again) “this most beautiful of all roles.”  But I don’t just mean my pastoral assignment, or my “job” as a preacher, so much as my calling to ambassadorial service.

Paul was an ambassador for Christ.  All Christians are called to be ambassadors for Christ:  It is the role that we are called to play upon the world’s stage.

“We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His plea through us.  We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God!’  God made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20, 21; NET).

Translation:  Beauty became ugliness, so that ugliness could become beautiful!  Our ambassadorial service should be replete with ambassadorial splendor if we are to reflect and embody the beauty of Jesus; if, as Carl Sandburg has observed, true beauty is compassion for ugliness, then ugliness should be given every reason to take note.

May the beauty of the light that shines in our hearts give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6) to shine forth from our lives and before our world.  May Christ’s beauty bestride our sin-marred world so that, whatever others think or say about us, even falsehoods, they may see our good deeds and give glory to God on the day that He visits us in Christ Jesus (1 Peter 2:12).

It will not always be easy.  It will be odious to some yet fresh air for many, as it will be ennobling for Christians and something extraordinarily beautiful for God.  

Bradley E. Lacey
March 24, 2013





    





The glory of the Resurrection was subsequent to the agony of the Cross, where the beauty of God’s love shone brightly amidst the immediate backdrop of human depravity.  Love itself was nailed to the cross where, transfixed in a moment of time, Love was transposed across time and space in a beauteous way