Friday, February 15, 2013

In Good Company on the Last Rung of the Ladder

Are you doing well as a Christian?  It seems that, often, Christians are less concerned with the fact that they're a Christian than their proficiency at being one. Because of this, we envision our Christian lives as being like a ladder we have to climb. Sure, we think, Christ's great sacrifice for us was enough to get us on the ladder, but now it's up to us to move higher. We imagine Billy Graham and Mother Teresa as being very high on the ladder and those people who never read their Bibles or pray as being very low. This schema makes sense to us, and it allows us to do one of our favorite things in the world: compare ourselves and our progress to that of others.

So what, then, are we to make of the Great Christian Tumble? You know what I mean: when a great Christian (usually an evangelical leader, pastor of a giant church, or politically active preacher) is revealed to have been engaging in reprehensible behavior. We are immediately thrown into confusion; we don't know how to classify the event. Is this evidence that this person wasn't as high on the ladder as we had imagined? Perhaps they'd never really gotten on the ladder at all (i.e. they weren't really a Christian after all). The truth, though, is more profound, and right out of The Matrix: there is no ladder.

Check out this scene from the under-appreciated 2004 film In Good Company. Topher Grace has just gotten a big promotion at work, and he's in the mood to celebrate:

Isn't this just the way life works? Just when we feel we've gotten everything together, when everything seems to be going our way, it all falls apart. The same might be said of those Great Christian Tumblers. It's right when they're on top of the world that everything goes to hell.

I've said before that I'm ready to accept the ladder image of Christian growth as long as we can agree that the ladder is of infinite height (since we can never be perfect) and that, as we climb, each rung disappears beneath us (so that we're always on the last rung, hanging by our fingertips). This is the only way the Christian Ladder can be reconciled to human experience! But, like I said above, the truth is that there is no ladder.

Each of us are, as Martin Luther said, at the same time justified and sinner, or, in other words, we are both Christian and human. We live our lives in the glory of the Holy Spirit (Grace getting promoted) even while we are getting in accidents, getting called names, and getting abandoned by our loved ones. Our desperate need never goes away. The Book of Common Prayer, during the Ash Wednesday service, says that this nature of our lives puts us "in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith."

Truer words were never written. In ourselves, we are left in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the Christian ladder. In Christ, we are carried directly to the top, no work necessary on our part. Christ comes specifically for the accident prone, for the derided, and for the abandoned. That's a good thing, because that's where we live.

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