Holy Saturday Christians

I don’t remember how it started, but just a few blocks into the walk to our hotel the debate was on. Our conversation ranged wide—the scope and purpose of salvation, justification, sanctification, the sovereignty of God, the relationship of divine and human agency—never seeming to settle in on one thing. We argued as we walked one and a half miles of the city streets of Philadelphia, as we waited for lights to change at street crossings, as we took a wrong turn and had to retrace our steps; not even the check-in process at the hotel halted our conversation. As we settled into our hotel room for the night the crystallizing moment arrived when my friend said, “You’re a Good Friday Christian,” meaning that I did not adequately account for the victory and power of Christ’s resurrection. He would go so far as to (playfully) suggest that I was a fatalist.

While he charged me with an under-realized eschatology, I thought he was grasping for an over-realized eschatology that had more in common with Pelagianism and the twentieth century utopian progressives than the witness of Scripture. I argued that the desire to say that God’s power is so great that in the lives of Christians it must be evidenced in “growth” and “progress” actually defies the scriptural witness. What are we to do with a God that comes against us and wounds us as God wounded Jacob, giving him a limp? The text is silent on the possibility of healing, silent on evidence of growth and progress for Jacob. What are we do make of Paul and his unanswered prayer that the thorn in his flesh be removed?

At the core of our debate was what Luther helped to clarify in his 1518 Heidelberg Disputationa theologia crucis vs. a theologia gloriae. A theologia gloriae (theology of glory) assumes that the will is free—that we can choose the good—and that by our good works we can build ourselves up. A theology of glory assumes that we can look at our achievements, our worldly status, as indications of how we stand before God. Luther says, of this, that a theology of glory calls the good bad and the bad good. In other words, the goods of this world—worldly achievement and status—are not the goal of the Christian, but for those given to a theology of glory, they become confused and interpreted as the goal of the Christian life.

A theologia crucis (a theology of the cross) on the other hand, faces up to the reality and depth of human sin. We are not creatures of free will, but bound by sin and incapable of saving ourselves. A theology of the cross then looks to Christ alone for salvation, Christ alone who gave up his glory to become like a slave (Philippians 2), Christ who became a man of suffering and sorrows (Isaiah 53). Here all worldly glory, and the possibility that we can achieve salvation through good works, is taken from us. At the cross the possibility that glory and power might save us is swallowed up in the humiliation, shame, suffering, and weakness of Christ on the cross.

So what does this have to do with the debate I had with my friend that night? Much of the church in the U.S. subscribes to a theology of glory. Whether it be economic success and the “good life”, or political power and success when enough of one political party is elected to enact a “Christian” agenda, or whether it is the prosperity gospel, or whether it is the fascination with healing, much of the American church does not know what to do with suffering, with failure and loss—does not know what to do with woundedness—so it ignores the call to sacrifice. The American church, co-opted by the political narrative of the United States,  demands success and can not allow for anything less. The need for healing, for growth, for progress becomes an idol—a god itself—excluding those Christians who do not experience God in this way, labeling them as failures.

A theology of the cross does not deny the power of God, or the reality of the resurrection. But it holds the paradox at the heart of the Christian faith—that the power of God is made known in the humiliation, suffering, and death of Christ. God’s power is made known not by avoiding suffering but through it. At the cross all of our self-made do-goodery, all of our own power and possibility, come to their limit as we are left empty-handed before God.

It is true that some Christians experience the miraculous healing of God—sinful habits are taken away never to return, diseases cured—but this side of the second coming, even those who experience such healing remain sinners in decaying bodies, awaiting the full reality of the salvation and healing of God. A theology of the cross helps us to see that it is in our wounds that persist, in the thorns that are not removed, in the silence and absence of God, we begin to experience healing because we are brought to the end of ourselves and turn alone to God, the only one who can heal and save us. As Paul writes immediately after naming his unanswered prayer, “but[the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Scandalously for Paul even the lack of healing is to be celebrated as the occasion for the power and glory of Christ to be made known. God’s power is not made known in the overcoming of his weakness, in the absence or extraction out of his weakness, but in weakness.

Wesley Hill once wrote that for gay and celibate Christians like himself Holy Saturday names the longing, the groaning in hope of redemption that marks their lives. Holy Saturday, situated between the darkness and despair of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter, is filled with silence and fear, grief and longing, and yes, ultimately, hope. Reflecting on his own life before God he writes, “So much of my Christian life feels like what St. Paul describes as ‘groaning’ (Romans 8:23), as waiting, as living out my days on Holy Saturday, straining forward in hopes that Easter Sunday—the cosmic Easter Sunday, the great resurrection from the dead—will come sooner than I had hoped.”

Hill names for us that the Christian may never experience the healing he/she longs for this side of the second coming of Christ. Our wounds then, far from being healed and overcome, or labeled as signs of failure, only find their place in the wounds of Christ as we wait for the redemption of our bodies and the reconciliation of all things.

Hill closes his essay with this beautiful reflection when he writes,

On this Holy Saturday, it’s good for me to remember once again what [Richard] Hays wrote: that this groaning, this eager-tinged-with-aching, is an authentically Christian way to live. It’s not necessarily a sign of failure or defeatism or depression. Really, it’s where we all live, strung like a tension wire between our sharing in Christ’s death in our baptism and our sharing in his resurrection after we take our final breath.

My friend called me a Good Friday Christian with an under-realized eschatology—one given to fatalism, to despair. And I thought he possessed an over-realized eschatology that stressed the reality of Easter as if we were already living in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21), no longer struggling against the powers of darkness and spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12), walking around with hip sockets out of joint and thorns in our flesh.

But perhaps both I and my friend were wrong. Perhaps there are no Good Friday Christians or Easter Christians, but only Holy Saturday Christians working out their salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). Perhaps there are only Holy Saturday Christians whose wounds bear the fruit of patience, of throwing oneself time and again unto God, for “to whom shall we go?” (John 6:68). Perhaps there are only Holy Saturday Christians whose works righteousness is deprived of them as they are faced with the mysterious resistance of evil in the time between time. Perhaps there are only Holy Saturday Christians “strung like a tension wire” between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday Christians whose presumption and desire for glory is swallowed up in the wounds of Christ and the silence of God. Holy Saturday Christians whose tendency toward despair is given over to a hope that drives them toward promise of Easter. Perhaps there are no Good Friday Christians or Easter Christians but only Holy Saturday Christians wrestling with God in the darkness, filled with fear and hope, groaning and longing for the risen Christ.

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