Posts Tagged ‘redemption’

EPHESIANS 4:1-16

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said,

“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
    he gave gifts to his people.”

(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

In our progression from childhood to maturity we move out of a period where the world and the circumstances of life bring our interests and energies to a focus. Through time we gradually awaken to the special talents and gifts with which God has blessed us. As we follow their lead, and still attentive to the opportunities that are opening to us along the way, our focus begins to lift from the foreground of this passing moment, to the transcendent aim of our life as a whole.

A purpose emerges – not a job or a career, necessarily, but an increasingly profound sense of why we exist – that begins to concentrate and channel the energies of our life along a single path. This is the “narrow gate” in the teachings of Jesus. Ideally we arrive at the point where we experience our life as a progression threshold in the evolutionary advance of creation itself – a place where the universe becomes conscious of itself, and where the Spiritual Presence within and beneath all things takes on flesh and personality in us.

The writer is reflecting on the redemptive accomplishment and heavenly ascent of Jesus Christ as though he were a victorious general returning home, distributing the spoils of war among his people. These “gifts” were liberated from captivity, where they had been held hostage by the infernal powers of the earth. If you’ve struggled with this question of your life’s purpose, and have wrestled against the forces of fear, inferiority, unworthiness and self-doubt, then you can understand that nothing short of redemption is needed in order to break free. Jesus showed us that fulfillment is well worth the risk.

EPHESIANS 2:11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

How did Christ make both groups, the Jews and the Gentiles, into one? How is it that “both of us,” Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), now have access in one Spirit to the Father? The writer believes that Jesus “in his flesh has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” What does that mean?

The “hostility between us” is a function of the dividing wall that separates the saints from the sinners, the “chosen people” from the damned heathen, the insiders from the outsiders. Before Christ, the insiders believed they were pure and set apart from the filth and sin of the world, and, further, that all outsiders were without the hope of salvation.

In his life, Jesus was already breaking down this wall of prejudice and delusional thinking, by reaching out to and confirming the precious value of every “sinner” as well as shaking awake as many of the puritans he could. He showed all of us by his example that ritual purity and Bible-based orthodoxy are not the path into life in its fullness, but that love is – pure, unconditional, and sacrificial love.

His death on the cross – “the blood of Christ” – reveals this divine love with such clarity and power, at least to those few who are open to its message, that all our claims to exclusive possession of truth or to the only way of salvation have been exposed for the “wall of hostility” that they are. This path of love transcends orthodoxy and even religion itself, as the way of redemption and peace and one communion under God.

JOHN 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

What is the primary task of the Holy Spirit according to the New Testament? Before we answer that, let’s back up to ask what the Holy Spirit is up to in the larger witness of the entire Bible. It was the Spirit of God that hovered over the primordial waters of Genesis. The Spirit of God was understood to be the vital principle active in the budding, leafing, flowering, fruiting, pulsing, breathing, and procreating diversity of living things.

On Sinai, it was the Spirit of God that descended in thick cloud and thunder with the commandments for political order and prosperity. Through the prophets this same Spirit spoke words of advocacy on behalf of the poor, orphaned, and outcast. We remember Joel, who envisioned the day when the Holy Spirit would be released upon all flesh, with hope born anew in the hearts of people everywhere regardless of age, sex, or social standing.

As revealed in Jesus, the Holy Spirit was shown to be earnestly searching for a deep and universal faith of the human which was also a fundamental faith in the human, in what the human can become and accomplish in the name of love.

In such broad strokes we can discern a kind of progression in the work of the Holy Spirit through the course of time. Creative energy, vibrant abundance, moral conscience, human compassion, universal salvation, and unconditional forgiveness – there is a clearly observable forward advance to this adventure of the Spirit.

The New Testament itself is ecstatic in the belief that with Jesus (Spirit = unconditional love and forgiveness) history has reached its fulfillment. And although a final and complete redemption is perhaps still a ways off, even now creation and we ourselves groan inwardly from the labor pains of a new day dawning.

ROMANS 8:22-27

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We might be tempted to dismiss Paul’s language as so much poetic flare – all this talk of creation as “groaning in labor pains.” To what end? we ask. Does he mean to suggest that the universe is a womb of sorts, and that something presently hidden from view is about to be delivered forth?

The birth event, what Paul calls “the redemption of our bodies,” must therefore not be interpreted along some modern-day evangelical lines to suggest that our salvation is a rescue out of the world – as if the infant is really being saved from the mother rather than given forth from and through her. Paul’s concept of redemption is more consistent with the theory of evolution, where life, mind, and soul emerge and are produced out of simpler and more primitive forms, than it is consistent with the popular Christian (Puritan-evangelical) notion.

Furthermore, the intimacy with which the Spirit of God is involved in our groanings, our hopes, and our weakness, challenges our orthodox beliefs concerning a deity who swoops down and spirits away repentant souls to heaven. In a real sense, religious orthodoxy is the womb within which the human spirit gestates and matures. All our assumptions and dogmatic beliefs must eventually open up to release us into an experience of mystic union with The Holy One.

ISAIAH 49:8-16a

Thus says the Lord:
In a time of favor I have answered you,
    on a day of salvation I have helped you;
I have kept you and given you
    as a covenant to the people,
to establish the land,
    to apportion the desolate heritages;
saying to the prisoners, “Come out,”
    to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.”
They shall feed along the ways,
    on all the bare heights shall be their pasture;
10 they shall not hunger or thirst,
    neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
    and by springs of water will guide them.
11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
    and my highways shall be raised up.
12 Lo, these shall come from far away,
    and lo, these from the north and from the west,
    and these from the land of Syene.

13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
    break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
    and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    my Lord has forgotten me.”
15 Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are continually before me.

The writer known as Second (Deutero-) Isaiah flourished in ministry during the Babylonian exile (587-538 BCE) and lived among the community of those who had been taken from their homes in Jerusalem. Defeat by the Babylonian army and deportation to a foreign land induced an identity crisis of the first order. When your monotheistic beliefs trace the causality of what befalls you to the will of God, every upset and loss begs the question: Why?

Especially when a respectable reputation and your honest efforts at living right still land you in a dark and painful place, this question of the relation of your suffering to God’s will can cut deep into your faith. There were many contemporaries left behind in Jerusalem (Zion, the mount on which the temple was built had become a synonym for Jerusalem itself) who felt compelled to conclude that God had simply forgotten his covenant with Israel. Divine amnesia was at least more theologically sustainable than the idea that God had deliberately abandoned them.

Away in Babylon, Isaiah was hearing similar cries among the exiles. God had promised a long and prosperous future to his people. What happened? Were they being punished for some unbeknownst sin – perhaps for the sins of their ancestors? This was one answer. But Second Isaiah (along with a fellow exile who adapted the story of Job) insisted on the innocence of his generation, and outright rejected the popular idea that God punishes children for the sins of their parents.

Following an insight that would later have revolutionary implications in the Christian era, Isaiah turned the crisis of exile into redemptive suffering on behalf of the entire nation. His generation, a collective taken as an individual, had served as the ratifying sacrifice of God’s renewed covenant of blessing. Their affliction and loss had opened a new future of hope and salvation for everyone.

ISAIAH 50:4-9a

4 The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.

7 The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8     he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
9 It is the Lord God who helps me;
    who will declare me guilty?

Chapters 40-55 are believed by scholars to have been written during the Babylonian Exile (587-538 BCE), after the southern kingdom of Judah was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army and a significant population of its capital city of Jerusalem were taken in chains to Babylon.

As the siege was about to befall Jerusalem, there had been a few prophets who assured the people that God would protect the holy city and its sacred temple. So when it actually came to pass, and now in the distant land of their captors, not a few were ready to assign blame – not to God for failing his people, but to the exiles themselves for sinning against God. Some even suggested that the catastrophe was God’s retribution on the sinful nation.

But others didn’t buy it. Jeremiah and Ezekiel did their best not to place blame, but instead looked to a future of resurrection (Ezek 37), return and restoration (Jer 31). For his part, the “Second Isaiah” (as this author is known) chose not to look outside the suffering of his generation for its possible meaning or purpose. Rather than interpret it as punishment for sin, however, he reframed the experience as redemptive in its own right.

                                                                                          

Every so often, a system in dynamic balance will begin to experience feedback in the form of “vibration,” “heat,” “wobble” or “noise.” At such times the system needs to be reset in order to recover its center and balance. If the feedback is allowed to persist unchecked, it can amplify to the point where the system cracks up and breaks down.

Second Isaiah didn’t dispute the theory that Jerusalem had fallen because the people had lost their center. The devastation and exile indeed represented a major breakdown of the system, precipitated by the amplifying feedback of false hope, lost focus, and moral indifference. Not this generation, born in exile, but those before it had allowed things to fall off course. 

His creative contribution was to see the generation in exile as bearing the consequence, absorbing the shock of the tragedy, and symbolically taking the nation’s guilt on its shoulders. His generation’s suffering was redemptive in the way it removed this guilt and recalibrated the system. Second Isaiah and his fellow captives were not suffering to pay for sin, but to restore righteousness (balance and wholeness). They were not the shame of their nation, but its hope!

Much later on, some followers of Jesus would use this metaphor of vicarious suffering through the bearing of a burden to understand his death as a turning-point in redemption history.

ISAIAH 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
    pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
    while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
    in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain,
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
    and my reward with my God.”

5 And now the Lord says,
    who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
    and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
6 he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

7 Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
    the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

The theme of vocation refers to the experience of being called to a purpose that transcends the daily round of wish-and-worry. The Bible’s metaphor of choice for exploring this idea of vocation is that of a servant. If it began as a somewhat exclusive reference for the exceptional man or woman who stepped out heroically on faith and risked everything in obedience to God’s will, eventually this metaphor of the servant of God came to be applied to a community, an entire nation, and even by extension to the whole species of humankind.

In the ideas of vocation and servant we have the issue of the call and submission to the call, the summons from God and the response of commitment. Of course this leaves open the possibility that the call may not be returned, that the voice might fall on deaf ears and the vocation never engaged.

Remembering that Second Isaiah is writing from within the situation of exile where he is trying to help his people see their tragedy in a new light, the prophet’s  first-person description of God’s servant is remarkable for its bold and far-reaching lines. “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”

If Isaiah is hoping to effect a radical shift in the self-concept of his people, he is certainly well on his way in declaring that God had this very moment in mind before this generation was even born. In other words, the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation of Jews to the foreign land of Babylonia were events now in the process of being redeemed.

                                                                                                

In addition to re-grounding the concept of vocation in the primordial intention of God (“before I was born”), Second Isaiah throws open the boundaries of space as well. Whereas earlier traditions had remained preoccupied with the welfare and destiny of God’s chosen people, the author reframed this status of privilege into a purpose of universal scope.

“It is too light a thing,” says God concerning the special vocation of the generation of exiles, that the New Being coming to birth in them should be for the sake of Israel alone. The beneficiaries of this redemptive work would now become all nations of the earth.

This achievement in reframing eventually would provide the foundations for the renewal movement of Christianity in the first century CE. The two key insights of Second Isaiah to energize that renewal would be (1) that God’s grace and calling are given prior to, and are therefore essentially independent of, an individual’s moral effort; and (2) that God’s purpose for the individual is to reach out and share with the whole world this gift and its core message of hope, forgiveness, and peace.

It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus took so much of his inspiration and evangelistic vision from the writings of Isaiah.

ISAIAH 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out,
    who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
    and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
    I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
7     to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.

The topic of vocation has become increasingly important in the recent literature, both religious and secular, interested in the question of purpose or mission in life, business, and personal development. Since the word itself is identified in the popular mind with an individual’s profession or occupation, the general preference in this literature has been to recover the root meaning of the term vocation itself, which refers to one’s calling.

The difference between occupation and calling, just as far as literal definitions are concerned, is the difference between the role one occupies in the commercial fields of labor, manufacture, service, intelligence and trade, and the deeper human purpose to which one is being summoned by the evolutionary universe itself.

As our quest for fulfillment forces us to look beyond the relative rewards of professional success and economic value, more and more people today are being drawn to this question of human purpose. What is it that the supreme reality is calling us to become? What is the evolutionary goal of humanity?

In the middle section of the book of Isaiah, called Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), this question of human purpose is the driving focus of the author’s work. His answer to the question will reflect the actual conditions of his historical situation and that of his community, but his central metaphor of servanthood is something that has been proven to transcend time and circumstance altogether.

                                                                                             

While in exile, the author of Second Isaiah received a vision of his displaced community in terms of a corporate personality, with the entire generation caught up and unified in the image of God’s chosen servant. This image enabled him to look through their shared circumstance of captivity in order to discern the deeper hidden current of God’s purpose being worked out through their loss and adversity.

By definition, a servant is one whose principal task is to carry out the will and purpose of another. Different from a slave, a servant occupies a recognized social class, providing services in exchange for room, board, social protection, or a regular wage. When Second Isaiah fastened on this metaphor of servant as a way of conceptualizing the experience of his people, he opened the path toward incorporating their suffering into the purposes of God.

Significantly, however, his image did not simply assume the popular idea of suffering as punitive for sins. Instead of the Suffering Servant of God enduring hardship as punishment for the past, their – remembering that the title refers to the exiled community as a whole – travail is interpreted as birth pangs of a future reality.

Of course, the idea of God working out a purpose through a people had been around for some time. It was central to Abrahamic religion. But now, even suffering was seen as redemptive.