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My Frank Opinion about Union with Christ

Let me be frank. I have never really appreciated the talk about union with Christ—or at least, not until recently. I have blamed my aversion on Mr. Ashbaugh, my academy English teacher. At the time, many of my friends and I found him rather eccentric. He ran to school every day, a half-mile or so on a gravel road, carrying a leather briefcase, dressed in a suit. In winter, he added an overcoat and black-buckled, rubber overshoes, while wearing a stocking cap. But what I found eccentric was what he wrote on the blackboard, no matter how many times it was erased. It was a simple question. Not a Socratic question, but one that could easily trip up a person nonetheless. Four words: “What would Jesus do?”

Many of us in Mr. Ashbaugh’s class were quite sure we had no idea what Jesus would do. What was the equivalent career to an apprenticeship in a carpenter shop? Jesus obviously didn’t date, let alone get to first base, which we certainly didn’t wish to emulate. As for beards and sandals, or long straight hair, this was before the Beatles landed.

Years later, as a doctoral student, the question of union with Christ took on theological significance. Did union with Christ mean that Jesus was born with a sinful nature just like me, so that united with Christ I, too, could live without sin? Or did union with Christ mean that Jesus entered life like Adam, capable of sinning, yet perfect in mind and spirit? In this scenario, the issue was not my having to become perfectly like Jesus, but rather one of my accepting the victory Jesus achieved where Adam had failed. In Adam, I sinned. In Christ, I was given victory. My own solution was to say that Jesus was spiritually equal to Adam, but physically in the same straights as me, with the terrible disadvantage of possessing the power to live on his own apart from the Father. He was, after all, God himself. In this way, Jesus was more than a model, and he certainly never had it easy.

Truth be told, all of this theologizing was really just another way off putting off any serious question of union with Christ. It never really translated back into Mr. Ashbaugh’s question, “What would Jesus do?” In other words, the very question that union with Christ must surely imply, the very question I feared since high school, since it threatened to call me out of my everyday world.

I live in a real world that, on the one hand, amazes and surprises me every day. On the other hand, it contains so much real hurt and pain, that I am at times so stunned and dumbfounded I can hardly move on—and my life is a cakewalk compared to a lot of people.

Yet, it is in this real world, apart from any sort of religious or theological discourse, that I have come to appreciate not the idea, but the reality of union with Christ—taking very seriously Mr. Ashbaugh’s question, “What would Jesus do?” Living presently with no real income, on food stamps, and with piles of debt, I think on a daily basis of what would Jesus do. The picture that comes to mind is one that is not that much different from mine. I have an apartment; he didn’t. I am not sure how he ate, since I find nowhere that he earned a living or had access to food stamps. He was certainly not eating gourmet, except when invited out, and most of the banquets he attended seem more trouble than they worth.

He was ostracized by the religious establishment. He was never invited to any important conferences or meetings that I see. Yet, and this is where the unity thing takes place, Jesus was God. He was and is my higher power. My higher power is someone who “had not where to lay his head.” I used to resist the idea of unity, because I feared the very thing. But without much of my own, I am truly amazed to think that the God who walked on earth had nothing as well. In fact, he had less than I do. Suddenly, one feels very rich. Rich indeed.

I have now taken up some of things I know he said to do. I visit the prison regularly. I try to make a habit of giving things to other people. And when I really do want to run someone off the road, the image of Jesus comes to my mind, and I think, “No, he probably wouldn’t be doing what I just did.” I am hoping that someday soon, the image of what Jesus is so clear in my mind that I no longer blast my horn, or any of the less honorable things I do.

Nevertheless, I am seeing more and more of Jesus’ extreme wealth, rather than his poverty. I have not seen the Kingdom in a mustard seed, or a net thrown into the sea, or in a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old, but I have seen it in things akin to these. I always see the Kingdom in blue that has been sun-bleached and oxidized to a color neither gray nor blue, but is as deserving as any jewel to be set in the walls of the Jerusalem. This blue is the patina one can never paint, but only find when paint is old and weathered.

I have never lived by the sea, so I know nothing of nets. But I have sat and observed the stains and cracks in an old plastered wall, and Leonardo da Vinci was right, it is a wondrous thing. Although I own no real treasures, I do have things old and new that I pull out of my collection boxes and look at from time to time, and every time I come away feeling as rich as any king. And the list goes on and on. I can hardly look anywhere without seeing amazing treasures and wealth now days.

Christian aestheticism and mysticism are different, or so it seems to me, than those of the East. The final goal is not to move beyond all desire, but to have all desires filled. We are restless, as Augustine said, until we rest in thee. I don’t bet on some future kingdom and reward. I will be pleasantly happy if I receive one. My ideal vision, however, includes no gold streets and crystal palaces. I can only take so many palaces of Versailles or Buckingham Palaces without swearing that I will never visit a palace again.

No, my vision of a final reward is more that of an old street somewhere in a village of Dordogne, or a cross street, such as Prince or Spring, somewhere between Greenwich Village and Canal Street. These seem more like the streets Jesus would walk. At least that is my idea of what I think Jesus would do.

Glen Greenwalt is an artist who writes from Walla Walla, Washington.

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