My last post was about headship within a family, recalling Paul’s charge that we be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. And we saw that headship has to do with virtue and difference. We become virtuous by imitating those who are further along in the art of being virtuous persons. Virtue is important because it is the way we say “Yes!” to God; indeed being virtuous persons is the natural path God has provided on our journey to eternal blessedness. And it is important to the Church because virtue is central to our being a community of character,; our being a community of character is the means by which we fulfill our vocation of drawing the world into God’s loving embrace. So there is a lot at stake in our becoming virtuous people together. And that means there is a lot at stake for each of us in the choice of the exemplars we imitate. Exemplars teach us how to make sense of our lives, to see the purpose of our lives. Exemplars teach us the paths to take so that our journey leads ultimately to God.
The hope that our journey leads ultimately to God introduces an important definition. What is a god? Theologians have often answered that a god is the object of our ultimate concern; the word god refers to the destination to which one hopes one’s life is ultimately leading. That means there are as many gods as there are ultimate destinations we can imagine. History is full of gods of great power: Zeus, Baal, Thor, the lesser gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons. But ideologies can be our gods: the Fatherland can become our god, as it was for Nazi Germany; Communism is a famous godless god. So is scientism. For some, free market capitalism functions like a god. And, for existentialists, the present is the ultimate concern. Of course, the Bible teaches that there are many gods in the world, but only one True God, the one we experience as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our Christian hope is that our journey is leading to a life of eternal blessedness with this God whom we know through grace.
Sometimes the present is so overwhelming that one doesn’t have time to think about where one is heading. That’s helpful to the extent it allows our minds to be emptied temporarily of concerns for the future. That complete life in the present moment probably explains why my favorite way to relax is thru outdoor activities, like whitewater canoeing, or backpacking, or trail running. On a whitewater canoe trip, one’s mind is almost always occupied by immediate challenges, like preparing one’s next meal, finding firewood or starting a campstove, creating shelter, and, of course, surviving the rapids ahead. And it’s the same on the trail. Yet inevitably we hit junctions at which we must choose a new course. There’s a fork in the trail. Which way are we to go? Which path are we to take? That’s when clarity about our destination becomes essential. For it’s easy to take the wrong path. For that reason, choosing the right guide, choosing the right exemplar, choosing the right god to follow on our journey, is the most important decision we will ever make in our lifetime.
But we need to thicken this metaphor a bit. For the truth is that life is rarely as simple as suggested by the image of a well-meaning pilgrim standing at a junction using her reason to choose the right path. For the common experience of every generation is that the world is filled with serpents who use their guile to tempt us to choose the wrong path. There are lots of ways to describe this experience of being tempted by gods who aren’t God. Paul describes it as a struggle against “the princes and principalities”, against “the rulers, the authorities,” against “the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Flip Wilson famously said, “The Devil made me do it.” And modern psychology has developed its own language of describing the many things that cause us to choose paths that prevent our flourishing. The theological term is sin. And, as Paul said, we don’t mean to, but we can’t help it. However we describe it, whether in biblical terms or modern psychological terms, the tragic truth is that the natural path to the eternal blessedness we seek is blocked. We want to go home, we want to rest in the loving arms of the Father who adores us, but we can’t navigate that path on our own. The natural path is blocked. We’re lost in the wilderness. The good news, however, is that God loves us so much that he’s provided what the Reformers described as a supernatural path. That path is the way of Jesus.
It would be easier for us if the way of Jesus was simply a matter of believing the right things. Some folks talk as though they believe that belief in the proposition that Jesus is Lord is the cause of our salvation. But that’s confusing the cause of something with its effect. Faith in Jesus does not cause our salvation. God is the only cause, by providing God’s Word to us in a form we can digest and understand, the Bread of Life that is Torah fulfilled – a Word of grace and the Way home into the Father’s arms. So faith is not the cause of our salvation, but rather a description of those who digest that Word, that manna in the wilderness of our lives. In other words, if someone was resting on the trail and saw from a distance a band of Christians hiking along the path of Christ, they would recognize them as Christian precisely because of the path they walked – for we are only Christian if we hike along Jesus’ way, that supernatural path God has provided. And they might say, “Yes, those must be Christians over there, because they trust in Jesus’ Way.” Faith is not the cause of our salvation, but such trust in Jesus’ is characteristic of anyone who finds the courage – in spite of their doubts – to hike along Jesus’ way.
Now if those observers got up close, they might notice some other tell-tell signs. For there are other characteristics of those who choose that supernatural homeward path, for it remains, like all paths in human life, a path along which one may encounter serpents who might attack us or lead us astray. What they might notice is that those Christian pilgrims are dressed for their journey in the white alb of baptism, which bears the weight for them of the whole armor of God, enabling them to stand firm along the way. They might notice the belt of truth fastened around their waists, and also the breastplate of righteousness across their chests. For Christians are empowered to walk the path of Jesus – which is the path of virtue – because they wear the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the very word of God.
Our world is full of gods that are alluring, and God has made us free to choose which god will be our ultimate concern, to choose which path we will follow as we seek to find our way home. We can believe in many things and serve many masters. The choice you make is the most important choice of your life. So, as Joshua said to all of Israel gathered before him, I say to you, “choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served [or others]; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”