Nothing convicts me in my heart more than the contemplation of Jesus as a historical person.
All my decades of wrestling with spiritual paths and theologies are self-indulgence, compared with the blessèdness and horror of that man’s life. Every day’s news is full of the brutality and painful neediness of humankind. That Jesus walked compassionately into the midst of it all is reason enough to follow him—and to be dismayed whenever I fall short of doing so.
Last Sunday I wrote about the painful discrepancy we experience between our outwardly celebrative expectations, as we wave our branches on the road into Jerusalem, and our inwardly destructive disappointments, resentments, fears and betrayals.
We imagine that divine intervention, or at least some authoritative spiritual teacher or political leader, will “fix everything” in our day-to-day lives. Yet those lives continue into one “unfixed” moment after another.
More distressing, occasionally we manage to hear what Jesus actually says: “Here’s what to do. Here’s how to do it. Let me show you.”
I say distressing, because we normally are so far from feeling able to do as he did in any moment of the life our stories tell us about. Not only so far from feeling able to walk knowingly into brutal torture and crucifixion. So far from risking or surrendering material security to live with society’s outcasts. So far from reaching out to sooth the secret wounds which cause others to hurt us.
In my “Palm Sunday” post, I owned these failings, these ways in which I fall short of what Jesus shows me a human being can do. Yet I also owned something else: my rejection of the Augustinian doctrine of The Fall, caused by original sin and perpetuated through every generation of the human race.
“None of our failure is ‘fallenness’,” I wrote. “It is merely part of normal, finite, fallible, hardwired primate survival behavior. God knows.”
All those human traits which are bound up in the metaphor of fallenness are natural survival traits of social animals. As self-serving, hurtful and sometimes deadly as they may be, they all arise from innate biological responses to perceived threat to oneself or one’s kin. It seems pointless to me to claim that these traits represent fallenness from some primordially better state of being.
Even so, the metaphor does speak to something deep in human experience. Last Monday, a friend sent this in response to my post:
To me, our fallen-ness is separation from God and being less than what we can be when we are in close communion with God, as was Jesus. The importance of the gospel stories, to me, is in what they can teach us about our true nature and our relationship to God.
These words sing welcome counterpoint to mine.
The New Testament Greek word hamartia is usually translated as “sin.” However, it “is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein),” falling short of the target, the ideal, the moral (or divine) expectation.
So, instead of fallenness in the Augustinian sense, perhaps our challenge is fallen short-ness. Our natural survival responses usually block or distract us from the grace-filled life we sometimes glimpse. It is a life we sometimes even manage to live for a moment or so at a time. We long for it, strive for it…yet most of the time we fall short.
When we are momentarily successful at such living, we experience the unexpected grace of “our true nature and our relationship to God.” When we notice that we have fallen short once again, we feel as if we are separated from “our relationship with God.”
I do not believe that fallenness is separation from God. It is, rather, the illusory feeling of separation, the loss of conscious awareness, the denial, even, of our unending kinship with God.
Some years ago I discovered that, for me, the most important day in the Christian calendar is one not even traditionally noted, that strange, empty day between Good Friday and Easter.
Although I did not do so yesterday, some years I go out into the wilderness by myself and sit, watching and waiting. I have never physically seen or heard Jesus. In the material realm, all I have of him is the stories I have been told. Yet when I sit alone on the empty day, he is no less with me than on any other day.
It isn’t my reaching toward him, privately in meditation or longing, or publicly in Lutheran liturgical worship or Quaker waiting worship, that brings him into realness for me. And my fallenness, my fallen short-ness, doesn’t keep him from me.
He is just there. A historical person, demonstrating in the flesh, through the stories about him, all that a human being is capable of doing when in full relationship with God.
What, then, was so powerful for Jesus’ disciples—after their flight and betrayal and denial of him—that they could know him to be alive for them again?
That kinship was not broken, cannot be broken.
As I wrote last Sunday:
“Jesus knows, God knows. Just wake up and follow him again. That’s all we can do.”
And so it is.