One of my favorite Christian authors, writing about the Christianity of his day, said that popular faith is “like a farmer who needs a horse for his fields; he leaves the fiery stallion on one side, and buys the tame, broken-in horse. This is just the way men have tamed for themselves a usable Christianity, and it is only a matter of time and honest thought before they lose interest in their creation and get rid of it.”
The man who wrote those words was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Lutheran theologian. For Bonhoeffer, Scripture was not an academic discipline, or a personal hobby, or a collection of useful wisdom. It was the living Word of God, the furnace that powered his life. And it had a cost. It led him to oppose National Socialism, then to work against Adolf Hitler, then to his arrest, and finally to his execution.
There’s nothing tepid or routine about a real encounter with Sacred Scripture. In his Narnia tales, C.S. Lewis warned that Aslan is a good lion, but he is not a “tame” lion. Likewise, God’s Word is profoundly good, but it is never “tame.” Augustine thought Christian Scripture was vulgar, inelegant, and shallow—until he heard it preached by St. Ambrose; then it grabbed him by the soul, and turned his world and his life inside out. When Jesus said “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49) he spoke not as an interesting moral counselor, but as the restless, incarnate Word of God, the Scriptures in flesh and blood, on fire with his Father’s mission of salvation.
Scripture is passionate; it’s a love story, and it can only be absorbed by giving it everything we have: our mind, our heart and our will. It’s the one story that really matters; the story of God’s love for humanity. And like every great story, it has a structure. Talking about that structure and its meaning is my purpose here today.
A simple way of understanding God’s Word is to see that the beginning, middle and end of Scripture correspond to man’s creation, fall, and redemption. Creation opens Scripture, followed by the sin of Adam and the infidelity of Israel. This drama takes up the bulk of the biblical story until we reach a climax in the birth of Jesus and the redemption he brings. Thus, creation, fall, and redemption make up the three key acts of Scripture’s story, and they embody God’s plan for each of us.
Modern Christians often seem uneasy with the Bible’s account of creation. As a result, we miss the important truths embedded there. At the heart of the Christian story of creation is the fact that God is good, and the Maker of all things. Therefore, all of his creation has an inherent goodness. At the center of the creation account stand man and woman, made in God’s own image and likeness. In Genesis, humanity crowns the created world as a final, perfected expression of God’s love. In a sense, our love for each other, which is most obviously shown in the covenant of marriage, is a reflection of God’s own identity. God himself is a communion of love in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and this is the divine joy that God created us to share in.
At least that was the plan. Unfortunately, we know what happens next. Scripture moves pretty quickly from creation, to man’s temptation and Fall in Adam’s original sin.
Here we need to understand the Book of Genesis for what it is: a poetic account, not a newspaper report—but nonetheless a reliable expression of the truth about the history of humanity. God’s Word tells us that at some very early point in our past, our first parents freely chose to violate their original innocence. They turned away from God’s will. In doing so, they imprinted a wound and a weakness on all human generations that followed them, including our own. This is what the Church means by original sin. Every one of us is born a victim and carrier of that original wound. It separates us from God. It inclines us toward selfishness, weakness and evil. And we cannot heal that wound by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that.
We live in a time that treats science not simply with the respect we should feel for a useful tool, but with a kind of idolatry for the power it seems to promise us. Sin is an “unscientific” idea, an embarrassment to human pride. Therefore it’s out of fashion. But unfashionable does not mean untrue. The proof of original sin is written on every page of the record of the last 100 years: the bloodiest in human history, with the worst sort of barbarism done in the name of the highest sounding political idealism. Sin is real. And more to our point today, the fact of original sin is a foundation stone of the biblical narrative. The cross of Jesus Christ means nothing at all if original sin is unreal. A Gospel of “redemption” makes no sense if we have nothing—no captivity to sin and death—that we need to be redeemed from.
Sin makes us, as St. Paul says, “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). It defaces who God intended us to be. Sin quite literally “de-humanizes” us. This is its tragedy; but it’s also the context for understanding the mission of Jesus Christ.
To claim that Jesus “saves us from sin” is certainly true. But it also understates the grandeur of God’s plan for us, achieved through the blood of his Son. Jesus does more than erase our sins, like a debt canceled or a blot washed away. He goes far beyond that. Jesus does indeed free us from sin, but he also elevates us for sonship (Gal 4:3-7).
In his death and resurrection, Jesus restores each of us, to use the biblical language, to the glory of God. This is why the Church sings at the Easter Vigil the Exsultet, “O felix Culpa,” O happy fault of Adam. Adam’s sin is reversed and transformed in the redemption won by Jesus Christ. It’s a “happy fault,” a beautiful and Godly irony, because our freedom purchased with the blood of Jesus Christ has not only restored the dignity of humanity, but lifted all of us beyond our imagining.
Grace heals, perfects, and elevates nature. And therefore Jesus seeks more than just our healing or even our perfection, which would simply take us back to the original innocence of Adam and Eve. Jesus goes even farther, seeking to “elevate” us, desiring nothing less than to give men and women a share in God’s own nature. As St. Peter says in his second epistle, God has granted us his power so that we may become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).
At this point in Scripture, the biblical theme of a new creation begins to make sense. The New Testament tells us that the victory won in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not simply a new exodus from sin, but even more grandly, a new creation.
At the start of Jesus’ passion, we find him praying in agony in a garden (Jn 18:1). The early Church Fathers saw Gethsemane as an echo of Adam in the Garden of Eden, and St. John’s Gospel goes out of its way to stress that Jesus’ tomb is likewise in a garden (Jn 19:41). St. Luke may also be referring to Eden when he recounts the words of Jesus to the good thief, that he will be with him in paradise, using the same word in Greek that Scripture uses for the Garden of Eden (Lk 23:43). Luke’s Gospel also takes Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam, implying that Jesus is the new Adam (Lk 3:23-38).
The “new creation” images found throughout the work of St. John climax with the resurrected Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit upon the apostles (Jn 20:22), just as God breathed his Spirit into Adam in the first creation (Gen 2:7). And of course, the picture of a new Eden closes out Scripture’s story in the Apocalypse. The Heavenly Jerusalem that comes down to earth is described as having a river running through its midst with the tree of life beside it, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, and leaves for the healing of the nations (compare Gen 2:10 with Rev 22:1-2).
The resurrection of Jesus itself, however, is the central and most powerful scriptural image of a new reality. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 says that Jesus is the “first fruits” of God’s new creation. He goes on to contrast Adam with Jesus, referring to the latter as the “last Adam” saying that “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:49). In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians he stresses that Jesus’ resurrection ushers in a new creation, saying, “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).
Matthew, Luke and John all name the day of Jesus’ resurrection as the first day of the week. The early Christians saw this as signifying the first day of the new creation. The old creation came about through the symbolic six days of creation. Now, the new creation has only one day, what the Gospel narratives refer to as the “first day of the week.” This single day for the new creation, in contrast to the six days for the old, hints that the new creation has only just begun. God has begun the work of the new creation with the resurrection of his Son. And this Godly work, begun on the first day of the week, teaches us that a new age has begun. Those who believe in Jesus Christ, and conform their lives to him, take part in this new creation.
Early Christian converts studied the faith in the catechumenate for up to three years to prepare for baptism. This time of study focused on the story of God’s plan as recorded in Sacred Scripture. They immersed themselves in the Bible’s story so that they could see God’s story as their own story. After their time of study, which intensified during the weeks of Lent, they would then come to the Easter Vigil where they would be baptized.
Many ruins of ancient Christian churches have a baptistery, often with three steps that lead into a small pool, and three more steps going out on the opposite side. Catechumens would strip off their old clothes before descending into the water. Then, after being baptized, they would robe in a white linen garment. The disrobing signified the putting off of Adam, and the enrobing the putting on of Christ. In another tradition mentioned by St. Augustine, the persons seeking baptism would stand on animal skins and furs, a symbol of discarding the robes that Adam and Eve made for themselves when they hid from God. And after they were baptized, they would put on cloth sandals so that their feet wouldn’t touch the earth, indicating they were no longer of this world but of the new creation.
The baptismal rite showed that not only do we die to Adam and our old sinful nature, but also that we’re now clothed in Jesus Christ; partakers in his resurrection and in the life of this new man. In baptism we become, to use Paul’s words, a “new creation in Christ.” But equally important for Paul is whether or not we’re now actually living as a “new creation” and being true to our new identity; at least that is what he says in his closing words to the Galatians (Gal 6:15). Paul even goes on to give a blessing to “those who walk by this rule” (Gal 6:16).
Sharing in God’s blessed life Now if this is God’s plan for us—to walk by this new rule, living as a new creation; or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, sharing in God’s own blessed life (CCC, 1)—just how are we supposed to do that?
In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul spells out how Christians are to “walk,” which is a Hebrew metaphor for the moral life: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). The Holy Spirit is the key to the new creation. In baptism the Christian is healed, her sins are washed away, and in receiving the Holy Spirit she has divine life imparted to her. And just as God’s Spirit hovered over the waters at the creation of the world in Genesis, so too since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has poured out upon Christians, pointing to the truth that God is once again pursuing his creative ways, bringing about a regeneration and renewal—in effect, a new creation (Titus 3:5-6).
The Holy Spirit is the engine of the new creation, but we need to freely choose to cooperate with God’s work. We need to “walk” by the Spirit and be “led by the Spirit” (Gal 5:18; Rom 8:14). Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:22-24). For St. Paul, we must choose between two roads, the way of the flesh that surrenders to the disordered passions we inherit in our wounded human nature; or the way of obedience to the Holy Spirit, which allows God to take root in us and bear the fruits of love, joy and peace.
Paul uses that metaphor of “fruit” as a characteristic of God’s new creation. And this is very deliberate. Fruit must be carefully cultivated. We can’t just plant seeds and sit back expecting a big harvest. Likewise, in baptism the Holy Spirit is planted in our souls, but we can’t be passive or tepid about our faith. The farmer labors over his fields. The gardener cultivates her garden. This takes time. So too, the extent to which God’s new creation takes root in us depends upon our efforts, sustained over time, to help it grow.
On our own, of course, we’re unable to achieve anything—much less live the life of God; the life of heroic love and goodness implied in Jesus’ new creation. We succeed as Christians only in the degree to which we allow God to graft us into the life of his Son. Each of us has a unique and unrepeatable role in the drama of salvation history. But God is author of the story, and its main actor. Therefore we succeed as disciples and as genuinely “human” beings only if we live in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ works through us for our own salvation and the salvation of others.
We do that by creating in our daily lives a time for prayer, silence, and for reading and studying the Word of God. We do it by worshipping together in the community of God’s people. And we do it by submitting our pride and our lives to our mater et magistra—the Church who is our “mother and teacher,” precisely because she is also ecclesiam suam, “his Church,” the Church Jesus Christ founded, guides and loves for the salvation of his people.
More than 15 centuries ago, St. Leo the Great said, “Christian, recognize your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning.” His words are equally true today. The story of Scripture is the greatest story ever told—a story of God’s creative power, man’s betrayal, God’s redemptive love; and a new destiny for humanity greater and more beautiful than anything any of us can imagine. What man has violated—including himself—God makes new and better.
A friend of mine recently took the train from Chicago to Denver, and during the journey he met about a dozen Amish families with children and young adults of all ages. They were traveling together, all of them in their distinctive clothing, to a vacation Bible camp in the Rockies. The Amish live a radical version of New Testament Christianity shaped by family, community, humility and separation from the world. Many avoid the use of electricity. Many will not ride in automobiles. But what struck my friend in his conversations with these families wasn’t their strangeness, but their joy, their lack of fear and their trust in each other.
Here’s the lesson. The Amish have plenty of problems, just like everyone else. Life without an SUV doesn’t keep the devil away. But the Amish do, radically and communally, what Bonhoeffer did in the difficult circumstances of his time, and what God calls each of us to do in our own daily actions: to order our lives wholly and zealously to the Word of God, trusting that his Word is the source of all justice, peace and truth. It’s also the source of an extraordinary joy (see Rom 5:2, Phil 4:4-7, and Jn 14:27).
God created us because he loves us with a tenderness and a passion written across the stars and woven into the beauty of the world around us; and his mercy, his loving kindness, endures forever. Our destiny is joy and glory in God’s new creation. That’s God’s plan for each of us. So be agents of that new creation. “Put on Christ” and “walk in the newness of life,” steeped in God’s Word and eager for God’s grace in the Liturgy. Live the life God calls you to right now, this weekend, in this conference—and in your witness, God will renew the face of the earth.
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is archbishop of Denver.