One of the goals of spiritual growth is union with God. The Orthodox call this theosis and our Finish sisters and brothers have shown us that this is part of Luther’s theology as well. He called it Union with Christ and these readings in the Gospel according to Matthew and the Letter to the Romans, show that the idea is not as whacky at it might at first seem.
In Matthew, Jesus points out that “no disciple is greater than (‘uper/above, more than) their teacher… it is enough that they become (ginomai to be, become) like their teacher” (personal translation). The point then is that while no one is greater than their teacher (Jesus in this case) it is enough, it is sufficient (sufficient is my grace unto you…) that the disciples (us) become like Jesus. So the goal of spiritual life is to become like Jesus.
Paul explores more of what that union means in Romans 6. We have been united with Jesus already through our baptism in him and that baptism, that union, leads to union in his resurrection. So somehow in the movement if grace that we know as baptism, we are gathered into a mystic union with Christ. This is a union which includes all of his life: all of his living, dying, and rising. In a larger sense, the creeds and councils remind us that Jesus is truly God as well as truly human so being united with him means being united with the fullness of God. And that is what the Orthodox call theosis.
The process involved is not so much a blurring of beings, a dissolution where one person melts into the other and ceases to exist in its own right. What is meant is more like what happened in the early days of my marriage. In quiet moments, my wife would put her hand on mine and say “I don’t even know where I end and you begin.”
Technically of course, she was quite aware of the boundary between us, there was no confusion of our beings. What she pointed to was the intimacy between us, the way we two limited and frail humans were reaching toward and experiencing the edges of the intimacy God desires to have with humanity. (Any question on God’s desire for intimacy can be referred to the Song of Songs and the continuous use of marital imagery to describe the relationship of faith throughout the Old Testament).
What we were experiencing was the way our human union echoes the divine union we have in Christ. And just like our human union required daily work and vulnerability, so too our union with Christ requires work and vulnerability. The fact that the union exists and we can point to a specific time in which it began does not mean that we already have the full and living union. Marriages require daily work, so does our spiritual life.
As a philosophical point, that sounds great; spiritual growth requires work and vulnerability. How do we make this a practical “look ma, no hands!” riding the bicycle moment? One tool I’m working with is the reality that if our lives are, through spiritual growth, united with Jesus then what is this life of union I’m living today.
Truly, if my life is united with him in a life like his, how is that reflected in my life? Am I living the same old way? Screaming at car drivers (who aren’t getting out of my majestic way). Snarking first and asking questions later (or not even questioning myself at all). Or any of the other and the infinite number of other ways I live as if Jesus hasn’t actually touched me at all? If I am then maybe it’s time to change (actually, it is definitely time to change).
If we’re going to accept the claim of God on our lives, that they are new in Christ, then we have to accept the freedom to break the chains of old habits. Because of our new life in Christ, we can choose to live in a way that is different from the one our family told us was right, we can choose to live into new traditions. We can take the lenten discipline of reviewing our life and habits and make it something we do all the time as we continue to let go of what no longer lives in us and reach toward what it is coming to be.
This is the work of spiritual growth, this dancing, turning, beautiful movement is the process by which our union with Christ grows deeper and more beautiful. It is what we were called to be and how we have been called to become.