On Maundy Thursday 500 years ago (1521), the Pope issued a Papal Bull listing Martin Luther and his followers for the first time as heretics. They had already been excommunicated, but now they were singled out as beyond redemption even in the afterlife. No indulgence could spring them. No, in fact, their only hope for escape from torment was a word from the Pope himself.
Fairly convenient, wouldn’t you say?
In his inimitable way, Luther scoffed, reprinted the bull with his own retorts written in the margins, and charged the Pope with being a drunk. As one does.
At the heart of the theological scrum was this: who damns and who saves? The Pope sets up himself as the arbiter, or, at least, Christ through himself. Luther says it is Christ alone.
It can be a fuzzy thing, this eternal life business. Who is in? Who is out? How do we know? What compels one in? What propels one out? We are veiled from what eternity looks like despite living in it right now. That second that just past is a pixel in eternity. The moment you pull the covers up to your chest in bed tonight is another. The moment still to come when you stop breathing is yet another.
What holds all this together? What connects all dots, accounts for all willed actions, foresees and forestalls? Jesus the exalted Christ, who upholds the world by the mere word of his power. When life appears frayed at the edges, when all of life feels as though spread too thin like butter on bread (HT: Bilbo Baggins), Christ brings into stark clarity all necessities for all of life. He is the necessity for all of life. He encompasses all the complexities in the simplicity of incarnate humanity and the wonder of exalted deity.
Have I lost you?
All I mean to say is, Jesus Christ is the apex of human existence, having been raised up on a cross and raised up out of the grave at the fulcrum of all of history. So when popes issue bulls to keep certain people out, citing all manner of disagreements and offenses, we may claim allegiance with Jesus Christ, who makes the matter quite simple, because he alone is the matter.
Paul gets much better at what I’m trying to get at here when he talks about “mystery.” For Paul, mystery is not something unsolved. It is something that was once unsolved but is now available and visible. But it’s still a mystery. It doesn’t cease being a mystery. This is because we cannot grasp Christ; Christ grasps us. When Paul speaks of mystery (as in Romans 16), he is talking about something we’ve been enlightened about but which is perhaps still too big for the container of our enlightenment. It is a light we can see and which fills us up, but is not limited to our filling.
Here is a good example from his words in 1 Timothy 3:16:
“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.”
“Beyond all question” just refers to the fact that this hymn (if that’s what it is) is a confessional piece. It is theological and something to believe, to stake our life on. (The ESV in fact uses the word “confess” here, but I confess I like the NIV’s “beyond all question” better.) And then this: “the mystery of godliness.”
What is the mystery of godliness? What is the mystery of how God’s glory is manifested and spread? It is not a mystery in the sense that your favorite true crime case is a mystery or Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is a mystery.
This mystery is grasp-able because it itself comes near and grasps. A body that serves and heals and teaches and dies and is brought back to life by the Spirit and returns to the angelic abode. A body that is proclaimed far and wide. A body that is believed upon. A body that ascended to the God-dimension, where it sits presently at the Father’s right hand.
The mystery is that the fullness of deity was pleased to dwell in the fullness of humanity.
Christians, press further into the mystery unfolding before you every second: That no Pope or other papal personality (be it devil or man) holds your soul in his hand. Christ alone does, and since he has gone before you, the way is secure. It is secure because “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” I don’t want you to be ignorant of this mystery! (HT: Romans 11:25)
And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—-to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.