A number of readers registered some strong reactions to my Screwtapian piece on stem cell research.
“Chilling reading” and “most disturbing” were a couple of responses. And they were not alone. I told one reader that it was disturbing to write as well. While putting it to pixels I had to keep reminding myself that “our God reigns!”
A hundred years ago, The Island of Doctor Moreau was a dystopian fantasy about a mad scientist who set about creating beings in his own image. Today, with the advances in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and cloning, the only thing separating fantasy from actuality, it seems, is money.
After a group of researchers recently cracked the DNA code of our evolutionary ancestor, Neanderthal, Dr. George Church of Harvard intoned that the only obstacle to bringing one to life is $30 million—and, if the funding is there, he’s the man for the job. This, not from a mad scientist on a remote island, mind you, but from a prominent researcher at a prestigious university.
As the juggernaut of human hubris smashes through every ethical and moral barrier, Christians can be tempted to retreat in their spiritual enclaves to await the coming Eschaton. But now, more than ever, we need to recall the vision and mission imparted by Jesus.
In his inauguration of the Church (Matthew 16:18-19), Jesus’ declaration that “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” depicted an advancing, not retreating or retiring, force. He went on to explain that the Church is given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” with the authority to “bind” and “loose.” These phrases signify engagement and action. But what are the keys? And what is this business of “binding” and “loosing”?
Keys open locks protecting things of value. They are given to those trusted with guarding and managing those things. The key to the “pearl of great price,” the kingdom, is the Cross. Standing at the intersection of space and time, the Cross slices through the barrier that has kept us at arm’s length from God.
This is symbolized in an astounding incident recorded in all three synoptic gospels: At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain of the Jewish temple was rent in two. This was the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place—the inner sanctuary where God dwelled among his people.
At 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, four inches thick, and an estimated weight of several tons, this was a massive barrier whose sudden rending must have created a heart-seizing sound for anyone in the vicinity. The tearing of the curtain, and the thunderous commotion it created, was an exclamation mark on the divine utterance, “It is finished!” With those words, something wholly new was announced on planet earth.
Before the Cross, only one person, the high priest, was privileged to pass through the temple veil and encounter the divine Presence; and that, only once a year on the Day of Atonement. But once the veil was torn, representing Christ’s nail-pierced body, access to the Presence was open to all regardless of religious caste, ethnicity, gender, or social standing. As the apostle Paul writes, “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free” (Colossians 3:11).
The Cross marks the entrance to unrestrained fellowship with God whose inexhaustible resources are available to all who call upon him. The author of Hebrews puts it this way “[now] we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” (Hebrews 10:19-20). Jesus indicated the same when, in a series of self-identifying statements, he announced, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9).
We pass through the Gate when, in heartfelt conviction, we confess with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” That is the good news, the “keys,” as it were, entrusted to the Church. And that is where loosing and binding come in.
By the Cross we are “loosed” in four ways. First, we are loosed from the judgment of sin. In our natural state we are “dead men walking,” marking out time with an unbroken string of distractions to avoid dealing with the unsettling thoughts of death and what lies beyond. In our redeemed state, we have been released from death row and freed from the angst that goes with it. Loosed from the bonds of mortal existence, having “passed from death to life,” we begin our adventure into eternity.
Second, we are being loosed from the habit of sin. In our natural state, we are powerless over the gravitational pull of our flesh; we are “slaves to sin,” as Paul puts it. In our redeemed state, while we are still subject to the carnal pull of this world, its hold over us is increasingly diminished as we turn to the Lord and submit to the transforming power of his Spirit. No longer enslaved, we are, in Paul’s words, “being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Third, we will be loosed from the consequences of sin in a fallen world. As the earth staggers along its sin-gutted course, each rotation carves out a deeper rut of brokenness, want, hurt, disease and decay; with the sting “felt” not only by sentient life. In a section of bracing prose, Paul writes, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). This reveals something about the inanimate world that is not-so inanimate. Jesus indicated the same when he announced that “the stones will cry out” if people are silenced in the joy of his presence.
But the good news is that those groans and cries will be answered. Behind the long shadow of the Cross is the day when all things will be made new, the former things but a cosmic memory. It is the day that mankind, and all of creation, yearns for.
And finally, we have been loosed to broadcast that message far and wide.
By the Cross we are also “bound”—united to God and to each other.
Jesus said that if we would follow Him, we must take up our cross. This is not the cross of hardship and affliction, as commonly thought by some; it is the cross of discipleship, dying daily to self to become more like Him. By crucifying self, as Paul says, we enter into a new relationship that Paul describes with his most-used term, “in Christ.”
Being “in Christ” signifies two things: Christ as our armor and Christ as the image we bear. As our armor, Christ Crucified protects us from the accusations of Satan and the condemnation of sin. As the image we bear, Christ Glorified is our identity. Jesus is whom people see (or should see!) when they see us.
Heady stuff. Yet even more arresting is what Jesus had to say about our new relationship. After informing the disciples about His impending death and resurrection, Jesus went on, “Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:19-20).
The disclosure of our Lord adds yet another layer of intimacy to our communion. “I am in you” signifies that Jesus is our onboard source of power, faith, and comfort. Nowhere is that more vividly and poignantly portrayed than in Paul’s words, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
The Cross binds us vertically with God, but it also binds us horizontally with other believers. For all who converge upon the Cross become united in his Church, the mystical body of individuals indwelt by the Holy Spirit, empowered by Christ, gifted by God, and given the charge to “storm the gates” with the steeling promise “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
It is not the picture of an idle or huddling community, but one that is on the move, building kingdom outposts and penetrating deep into enemy-occupied territory to demolish enemy strongholds, liberate captives, and advance the kingdom one person at a time. For 2,000 years that has been the mission of the Church. And with the gravity of current affairs on earth, the urgency of that mission has never been greater.