Tuesday, April 18, 2017

what is salvation?


Why is Easter important? It is arguably the high point of the Christian calendar, celebrating Jesus' victory over death and sin. It is also a time of fulfillment in which darkness gives way to light, death gives way to life, the kingdom of earth gives way to the kingdom of God, and the final sacrifice for sin is offered. But what exactly happened when Jesus died and was resurrected?

The Christian church has many ways of explaining or illustrating the saving work of Christ. The Orthodox Icon of the Resurrection pictured above (there are several versions) is one of the most celebrated icons in the church. Icons, in addition to being invitations to prayer, are meant to be instructive. Here we see the risen Christ descending to Hades, grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists, and raising them from their tombs. The position of Christ's hands denotes that the two being raised have no active part in the process; the work is all Christ's. The doors (gates), chains, and keys underneath Christ's feet represent him freeing those held captive to sin and death. The figures to each side of Christ include John the Baptist and Moses, and stand for all those awaiting the coming of the Messiah.

Another pictorial representation of salvation is found in the diagram below. Here we see a great chasm between a holy God and sinful humanity and Christ acting as a bridge between the two.
Image from preceptaustin.org
Note that the human figure is about to walk over the Jesus-bridge to the holy God. This is a bit of a problem, theologically, because God in Christ is the one who comes to us, even while we are in our sinful state. God is not distant and immovable on his holy throne as this diagram suggests, and we are not the ones trying to get to God as this figure is doing. Instead, God is the one seeking us out. One of the names of the Messiah reveals the divine character as "God with us."

Over the centuries, there have been many models of salvation put forth by theologians seeking to explain what happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As with any models or metaphors, they all break down at some point. It is also important to note that most of the models reflect a specific historical context and, because of this, some prove more helpful to us than others. While no one model can adequately depict salvation, I hope that by looking at a variety of them we will develop a better understanding of what happened when Jesus died on the cross and rose again the third day.

Redemption: When something is redeemed, it is bought back. In theological terms, we were slaves to death and sin and Jesus paid the purchase price for our freedom (see Galatians 4:5, Titus 2:14). This model was particularly meaningful to those living in a context of slavery (the first century followers of Jesus). If you were a slave, your life was not your own. However, if someone paid the required price to redeem you, you became a free person, no longer indentured to a master. The metaphor of redemption is about gaining freedom and entering a whole new way of life as a result. If we try to push the metaphor too far by asking, "Whom did Jesus pay? Was it the devil? Was it a just God?" we start to lose the beauty and significance of the word picture. The point of the redemption metaphor is not the transaction, but the freedom that is offered.

Satisfaction: This model of salvation is primarily associated with Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). Anselm said that we owe God a debt of honour which we are incapable of giving him, but through Jesus, God is honoured and our debt is fulfilled or satisfied (see John 5:22-24). The context for this model was the 11th century when a derivative of tribal law based on a stratified society was in force. In other words, there were various castes (nobility, peasant, serfs) with varying degrees of authority, rights, and freedoms. Loyalty was due to the king and, by default, those who represented the king (nobility). To dishonour the king was akin to treason. Thus, Anselm's model posits God as having the highest demand on human loyalty, a debt of fealty which we are incapable of honouring. This model echoes the political nature of the phrase uttered by the early believers, "Jesus is Lord," which directly confronted the authority of Caesar. Today, it would be similar to saying Jesus is President or Jesus is Prime Minister. The satisfaction model does not have much traction in the Protestant tradition, perhaps because sin and guilt do not feature prominently. Interestingly, Anselm was exiled for resisting King William II and King Henry I on issues having to do with the authority of the monarch over church matters. The point of this model is that "Jesus is Lord" has significant ramifications in the life of the believer.

Penal Substitution: In this model, Jesus is punished in our place in order to satisfy God's justice and holiness. God as judge can justly declare a person righteous by imputing the righteousness of Jesus to the believer (see Romans 4:5, 8:30-33). This view is common among evangelicals and has its roots in the Protestant Reformation. John Calvin (1509-1564), a trained lawyer, believed that a juridical setting was helpful to explain the workings of salvation. This model has its weaknesses theologically, mainly because everything centres around a justice system which even God seems subject to. It is also problematic to make judgment the prime motivation behind Jesus' sacrifice instead of love (see John 3:16-17). We do find judicial language in the scriptures to describe salvation, but the law is only one of many metaphors used to illuminate the mystery of salvation through Christ. Pushing the metaphor too far results in mercy, love, and grace being virtually eliminated due to the view that salvation is a dispassionate court transaction. The point of this model is that the status of the believer changes from condemned to righteous.

Reconciliation: This model focuses on bringing an estranged people back into relationship with God (see Romans 5:10-11, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). The context here is the Old Covenant giving way to the next chapter in the story, the New Covenant. When Jesus died, the tearing of the temple curtain signaled that the way to God was open. Instead of the Holy of Holies being the locus of God's presence, the people of God were to be the house of God, carrying his presence through the Spirit of Jesus. This model has some similarity to the diagram above where Christ is the bridge to God, but we must be careful not to push the separation of God and humanity too far. The Psalmist reminds us that we cannot flee from the presence of God. We must also be careful not to dismiss the ongoing reconciling initiative of God or assume that God turns his back on sinners. Even when we were in sin, God showed his love for us (see Romans 5:8). The point of this model is the generous offer of reconciliation which God never withdraws.

Rescue: The language of rescue is common in our talk of salvation. Jesus rescues or saves us from sin and death (see Romans 5:9, 1 Timothy 1:15, 2 Timothy 1:9). It is important to remember that the Jews of Jesus' time were under oppressive Roman rule. They were desperate for a Saviour because their religion, their liberty, and their safety were under constant threat. They longed to be free in their own land, free to worship their own God and work for the well-being of their own families. The oppressed respond to the story of Jesus quite differently than those who enjoy the privileges of freedom, safety, and plenty. Instead of viewing the suffering and death of Jesus as a blip on the way to a grand and victorious resurrection, our brothers and sisters who suffer see the solidarity of God in the agony of the cross. Jesus not only knows what they endure but endures it with them. He does not turn his back on the undesirables but joins them as one of the despised, one of the outcasts. One possible weakness of this model is that we can see salvation as a one-time, dramatic event instead of an ongoing process of transformation. The point of this model is moving from a life under threat to a life of shalom.

Though the language of all the above models (and this list is by no means exhaustive) can be found in the biblical texts, no one model manages to capture the depth and mystery of the saving work of Christ. However, there is one model which I believe is highly resonant for our time and context, and that is the model of participation. 

Participation: In this model of salvation, the emphasis is not on a debt to be paid or justice being served, but on receiving a gift from a loving and generous God. The starting point is not God (or the devil) demanding payment or punishment. Instead, we begin with a good Creator inviting all of creation to participate in loving relationship with the Creator and with the rest of creation. Throughout history, in one way or another, humanity refuses this generous offer of participation and we find ourselves separated from God. This means we are separated from life, from love, from peace, from goodness. It seems like God has forsaken us, left us to suffer and die, but the God of life never stops offering participation in his life. At the cross, Christ entered fully into humanity (pain, suffering, death) so that we, in turn, might share in the light and life and holiness and righteousness of Christ. Christ's participation in our life invites our participation in his so that we no longer have to live separated from God but can receive the gift of Emmanuel, God with us (see John 15:1-17).

In this model, resurrection is not seen as an act of power (good triumphs over evil) but of love. Love goes to the deepest and darkest corners of life, love finds the lowest places, love suffers and endures it all, but love cannot be kept down, cannot be killed. I find it helpful to think of a trampoline. Love comes tumbling down from the sky like a giant ball. It hits the fabric of life's trampoline and goes down, down, down, all the way to the bottom where suffering and death lurk, and when the giant ball of love has touched the very lowest point, crushing the ugly netherworld, it rises. This is what love was made to do. Love was made to go down low and come back up. You could call resurrection a giant love bounce. 

When we think of salvation, let us think in terms of gift, not transaction. In terms of love, not power or victory. It is interesting to note that after Jesus rose from the dead, he did not greet his disciples with exclamations of victory or proclamations of power. He said, "Peace (wholeness, completeness, security, flourishing, contentment, friendship, harmony) be with you." That peace sustained the disciples through persecution, hardship, and martyrdom. They said Yes to Jesus' invitation to participate in his life of love and sacrifice.

What Jesus did, what God did, what the Spirit does are all birthed out of love. Justice and judgment are aspects of love, not counterbalances to love. Love defines justice. Love is what makes justice just. Love never fails.

Thanks be to God for the gift of love through Jesus Christ.
In death, in life, Jesus is present with us.
Sin cannot snuff out love.
Love always burns bright.
Even death cannot destroy love.
Love always remains. 
For God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life. Here’s the point. God didn’t send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction. (John 3:16-17, The Voice) 
Love is here.
Let love have his way in us today.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

when words fail...

Image from sundayisforlovers.wordpress.com
Words. Words. Words.
Sometimes I tire of them.
Well... that's not exactly true.
I do not tire of them as much as I lose my grip on them.
And then they tumble down, untethered from significance and meaning and emotion.
They become husks without seeds.
Clothes without a warm body.
Balloons without breath.
Sounds without intelligibility.

I am writing words right now.
This morning I have probably read more words than some will read all day.
I live in the world of words, a world I love.
But for many days now -
Perhaps weeks or months, if I am truthful -
When it comes time to pray, I have few words.
If I am alone, I will sit in silence at my table.
Perhaps light a candle.
Aside from the occasional Thank you 
Or God, you know
Or What  are we doing? 
Not much is said or thought.
If I am with others, I hesitate.
Because anything I might say in the way of prayer seems weak at best and untrue at worst.
I can ask that someone will know that God is with them.
I can say, Help!
And often, that is all I can muster (in honesty) in the public prayer department.
I sit or stand beside people as a form of prayer.
I touch people if that seems appropriate.
I say their name and lift my hands to the sky.
God, you know.

The daily Jewish prayer found in Deuteronomy 6:4-6 begins with the word shema.
It means listen.
Turn your attention to.
Focus on.
Hear and do.
Listening is active.
It requires care-ful and mind-ful devotion.
We turn our bodies and faces and eyes and ears and hearts and minds toward another.
We listen with our whole being...while saying nothing.
We cannot be wordy people and listen well.
And that is perhaps why I have a word shortage right now.
I am learning to listen.
To lean in and hear the divine Lover's breath exhaling and inhaling.
To participate in the unhurried patience of the Longsuffering One.
To hold my breath so I can catch another's hopeful whisper or stifled groan.
To sit still in the midst of trouble and frenzy.
Not cluttering the air with senseless platitudes or advice which is wise only in my own ears.

Listen.
It is an imperative.
A command.
A discipline.
A blessing.
A respite.
A surrender.
A repentance.
An undoing and a doing all in one.
Listen.

-----------------------

Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God. The Lord is the only God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words that I give you today.
(Deuteronomy 6:4-6, God's Word Translation)