To be an American is to be, in some way or another, defined by our uniqueness, separateness, our individualism.
But, to be a follower of Christ is, in a very real way, to emphasize instead our connectedness, our inextricable linkage, and our unity with Jesus Christ. As His followers, our destinies, our aspirations, our dreams, as well as the righteousness he gives us, the sanctification we experience, and our future glorification are all bound up inextricably with Him. Theologians call this union with Christ.
Romans 6:5 says: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” This verse, and others like it, points to two realities. First, his experience provides the arc of our experience, so that we interpret our defeats or brokenness in light of our union with Him in His death. We can also interpret our greatest joys and satisfactions and unexpected breakthroughs in light of our union with Him in resurrection. So, our union with Him illuminates the meaning of our painful failures, as I and many of us have known in marriage, jobs, school, politics, and other institutions. Our union with Him also gives us the meaning of our successes, whether the highlights of public acclaim and applause or the secret pleasures that come from a well-ordered life.
But, there is a second and equally important aspect to our union with Christ as His followers. Not only does His life provide the interpretive framework for our own life experiences, but He is also the fuel, the flames, the fumes that form us and sustain us moment by moment, as Francis Schaeffer would often say. The highly organic nature of our relationship to Him makes us unable to be the kind of persons we want to be, apart from him. John 15:5 says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
The fuel that makes our aspirations for a more holy, disciplined life possible is our union with Christ. But, it’s not about occasional fill-ups at divine gas stations---which is the way some of us falsely think about church life. As humans, we did not come equipped with some sort of spiritual fuel tank that holds enough to get us through the week. If that were the case, our relationship with Jesus would be no different from the relationship between our car and the local gas station: A transactional relationship where one sells what the other needs, nothing more.
We were not designed for that kind of spirituality. Rather, we were designed for a permanent, untethered relationship, where the very life of Jesus courses into and through our veins. Thus, as the very life of Jesus courses through us, we discover our ways of thinking becoming more like His so that His joys are becoming ours. We also discover the emptiness and fragility of life when we try to foreground some other identity than our deepest identity in Christ. Finally, as His life courses through our veins, our goals in life become slowly more aligned with His kingdom and less with ours.
Union with Christ: First, a framework for interpreting life’s experiences. Secondly, the fuel that courses through our veins and slowly conforms us to be more like Jesus.