Eugene Peterson is professor emeritus of spiritual theology at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia, and the author of many books, including Practice Resurrection, the fifth and final book in his award-winning series of “conversations” on spiritual theology.
The following is excerpted from Peterson’s introduction to the book, which is new in paperback this month.
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This is a conversation on becoming a mature Christian, Christian formation, growing up to the stature of Christ.
All of us are born. No exceptions. Birth brought us alive, kicking and crying, into a world that is vast, complex, damaged, demanding . . . and beautiful. In increments, day-by day, we begin to get the hang of it. We drink from our mother’s breast, go to sleep, and wake up. One day on waking up we stand upright and amaze everyone with our pedestrian acrobatics. It isn’t long before we’re old hands at language, using nouns and verbs with the best of them. We are growing up.
Jesus used the birth event as a metaphor for another kind of birth: becoming alive to God. Alive to God-alive. Life vast, complex, damaged, demanding . . . and beautiful. Alive to God’s holiness, God’s will, God’s kingdom, power, and glory. There is more to life after birth than mother’s milk, sleeping and waking, walking and talking. There is God.
Jesus introduced the birth metaphor in a conversation with rabbi Nicodemus one night in Jerusalem, telling him, “You must be born from above” (John 3:7). The metaphor can also be translated “born anew” (RSV) and “born again” (KJV). Nicodemus didn’t understand the metaphor, didn’t get it. Literalists, maybe especially religious literalists, have a difficult time with metaphors. A metaphor is a word that makes an organic connection from what you can see to what you can’t see. In any conversation involving God, whom we can’t see, metaphors are invaluable for keeping language vivid and immediate. Without metaphors we are left with colorless abstractions and vague generalities.
Jesus liked metaphors and used them a lot. “Born from above” is one of his most memorable. But as Jesus elaborated on his born-from above metaphor (John 3:5-21), we can be fairly certain that Nicodemus did eventually get it, for the next time he is mentioned, playing a major role along with Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of the crucified body of Jesus (John 19:38-40), it looks very much as if he had decided to participate in the way of Jesus. Despite, or more likely because of, the metaphor, Nicodemus was born from above. And not only born, but growing. His presence at the burial is evidence that ever since that conversation with Jesus he had been growing, growing in understanding and participation, on his way to maturity in the world of God alive.
So, birth. Then growth. The most significant growing up that any person does is to grow as a Christian. All other growing up is a preparation for or ancillary to this growing up. Biological and social, mental and emotional growing is all ultimately absorbed into growing up in Christ. Or not. The human task is to become mature, not only in our bodies and emotions and minds within ourselves, but also in our relationship with God and other persons.
Growing up involves the work of the Holy Spirit forming our born-again spirits into the likeness of Christ. It is the work anticipated by St. Luke’s sentence on John the Baptist. After the story of his birth we read: “the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly” (Luke 1:80). That is followed a page or so later by this sentence on Jesus, following the story of his birth: “and Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52). St. Paul uses a similar vocabulary in describing the agenda he sets out for Christians in the Ephesian letter: that we “come . . . to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ . . . grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:13, 15). Or, as I have translated it: “God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love — like Christ in everything . . . so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love” (The Message).
John grew up.
Jesus grew up.
Paul tells us, “Grow up.”
Click to order the paperback edition of Practice Resurrection, or click on the covers below to learn more about Eugene H. Peterson’s other insight-packed “conversations” on spiritual theology.