By Brian Keepers
This summer I’ve been reading a gem of little book by Marilyn Chandler McEntrye titled Christ My Companion: Meditations on the Prayer of St. Patrick. McEntrye, a professer of English at Westmont College, takes the famous prayer attributed to St. Patrick (fifth century missionary to Ireland), known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” and offers insightful reflections on each of the prayer’s pithy lines.
My family and I are in a significant season of transition, having just finished a chapter of ministry with one congregation and about to begin a new chapter with another, and this little book has been like manna for my soul. McEntyre references words familiar to those of us who are part of the Reformed tradition–the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism. I love the way she introduces it: “The very first question in the Heidelberg Catechism, pulling no punches, shocks us into fully reckoning with our human condition before God: ‘What is thy only comfort in life and death?’’
Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least inoculates us against surprise and wonder, and McEntrye’s use of phrases like “pulling no punches” and “shocks us into fully reckoning” remind us of just how radical and potent these familiar words really are.
What helped me hear them afresh is the translation she chooses. Interestingly, McEntrye pulls out and dusts off this older version of the English translation:
That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all of my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
The word that most grips me seems so small, so easily lost in the theological density and poetic flow of all the other words: the preposition “unto.” But it shows up twice–in the first and last statements of the confession. “That I with body and soul, in life and death, am not my own but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…” And then: “By his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.”
I did some investigating and learned that “unto” is a word from Middle English, combining two prepositions into one: “until” and “to.” Today, essentially no one uses the word. The more modern English translation of the catechism replaces “belong unto” with “belong to” and “live unto” with “live for.”
Still, I’m taken with this old, vanishing word. Maybe it’s my unfamiliarity with it. The word “to” is so pedestrian, so common. Same thing with the word “for.” Tossed about like pennies. But “unto” carries with it a weight, an eloquence, almost a musicality. It’s a silver dollar word.
So I’ve been reflecting on what it might mean to belong and live unto Christ. “Unto” implies movement, a kind of dynamic quality. It signals direction, reference to or toward another person or place.
What strikes me about this is that it captures the dynamic quality of moving from a life marked as “my own” to one of being fully and utterly claimed by Christ. In the waters of baptism I’ve been claimed by this God of grace, given a new identity in Christ as a child of God. The rest of my life now, as one who belongs unto Christ and called to live unto him, is essentially a matter of becoming who I already am. “And now I become myself,” Kierkegaard famously said. So that what is ontologically true seeps into every nook and cranny of my lived experience. Unto.
Unto also means set apart, unique, something unlike anything else. It’s a world unto itself, we say. Which means it’s its own world, dissimilar from anything else. And that is true of this deep gospel assurance as well. To belong and live unto Christ is a recognition and confession that each of us, and the whole body of Christ, has been called out, set apart to be in the world but not of it. I am not a person unto myself; we are not a people unto ourselves. We belong unto Christ. This truth not only implies movement toward greater spiritual maturity, it is a claim that propels us out toward others and the world. To belong and live unto Christ is invariably a call to love our neighbor and participate in the Spirit’s restoration of the entire creation. Unto.
Sometimes an old, strange word can do this to you. Break you out of the familiar. Take something you thought you knew, were quite sure you believed, and help it move from the place of the intellect into the deeper recesses of the heart. In this season of being “in between,” it’s gifted me with the opportunity to learn once again what I thought I already knew. That I am not defined by my role as a pastor or the congregation I serve, that I am more than what I can produce or achieve, that the core of my identity and call and only comfort in life and death is not dull and static but this dynamic movement of becoming more fully who I already am in the One who has claimed me, saved me, and now sends me out.
What is thy only comfort in life and in death?
That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…
And therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.
Brian Keepers served as the lead pastor of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan from 2005 until recently. This month he begins his new role as the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.