Sunday, April 11, 2010
A New Exodus
He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
I grew up in Orange County within the conservative Evangelical tradition. I was taught, by pastors and teachers at the fundamentalist Christian school I attended from 4th to 7th grade, that everyone had a serious, universal problem: sin. The implications of this were estrangement from God and eternity in hell. The solution: Jesus the Savior who died to erase the sins of humanity. This formula required a response: inviting Jesus into my heart. That sealed the deal so that I could have a relationship with God and enjoy eternal bliss in heaven when I died.
For most of the first two decades of my Christian life this framework governed how I read Paul’s words in the introduction to his epistle to the small Christian community in the small village of Colosse in the Roman Empire sometime around 55AD. I believed the Bible self-evidently read that, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God rescued humanity from hell (the dominion of darkness) and gave us a ticket to heaven (the kingdom of his beloved Son). This sweet redemption, or forgiveness of sins, was what Paul offered in his message called “the gospel” as he trounced from town to town all over the Roman Empire.
However, about five years ago, my wife and I began a journey of reading, writing, praying and dialoguing that confronted the deepest issues of our lives. One aspect of this multi-disciplinary adventure has been the re-examining very nature of biblical interpretation. We discovered that "reading the Bible straight," or objectively, was not the best strategy because there was a historical context and back story that these writings were rooted in (this so-called “objectivity” is what Francis Chan, in fact, encourages his readers to pursue in his book Crazy Love: "…I attempted to do so from the perspective of a 12-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus. I wanted to rediscover what reasonable conclusions would come to while objectively reading the Bible for the first time"). One of the key concepts we have discovered is that the writers of the documents that eventually became the New Testament used “echoes” of the Hebrew Bible as they communicated the truth and beauty of what God did and is doing in the world through Jesus the crucified and risen Messiah. If we, like the sincere 12-year Bible reader, neglect the significance these echoes, we cannot really understand the depth of what the Apostle is attempting to convey to the original hearers of this Colossian letter.
How then would the Colossians hear these echoes? The “dominion of darkness” was an allusion to God's dramatic rescue of Israel out of Egyptian enslavement. The exodus story, of course, culminated in the eventual entry into the Promised Land of Israel--"the kingdom of the beloved Son"--where they lived out the way-of-life taught to them in the 40-year wilderness endeavor. Israel was, indeed, referred to as God’s Son throughout the Hebrew Bible (see Hosea 11:1). After the Israelites were “vomited” (Lev. 18:28; 20:22) out of this Promised Land, they lived in exile, captivity or second-class citizenship for centuries, awaiting the Day when their God, Yahweh, would return to reign forever and ever and restore Israel to her glory days (see Is 2:2-4; 40:3-5; 61:1-2).
This “Day” is what Paul believed had come about with the birth, life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. It was inaugurated partially, with the complete fulfillment coming with Jesus’ triumphant re-appearing in this world in the future. Jesus' proclamation that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:13-14) was a “new exodus,” a liberation from the old enslaving ways of humanity. Redemption and forgiveness come from the language of the marketplace. To redeem a person or a group of people was to buy them out of slavery and forgiving had to do with wiping out someone’s debt so that they would be free from that awful burden (think about our mortgages, student and car loans that bring intense anxiety and stifling budgetary provisions). These are apt metaphors for what God did to and for the nation of ex-slaves and what Jesus did in his teaching, ministry and obedience (unto death) to a way-of-life that leads to freedom and peace and contentment and fulfillment and humble service to humanity.
To pledge allegiance to the “kingdom of the beloved Son” was and is a commitment to following Jesus’ way towards personal transformation or healing. It is a “newness of life” characterized by “fruit of the Spirit” ("this same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead"--Romans 8:11): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control. This journey towards imitating Jesus in this life is tremendously diverse and particular to each disciple. In my own redemptive struggle, I am slowly being released from a sort of relational prostitution that says “yes” to others in order to secure their approval and admiration. This is an exhausting series of commitments and obligations, morphing to fit the identity that each person in my life understands me to be (or at least what I understand them to understand me to be).
My own enslavement is a web of lies, fears and anxieties. I consistently believe that I’m not doing enough for God or others. This fetishization of performance and achievement has manifested itself in all sorts of complex ways. I find myself being competitive, comparing myself to others in a way that glories in their deficiencies and wallows in their successes and gifts. Completion of my overwhelming "to do list" brings me satisfaction and identity, but until these social, spiritual, economic, political, marital and vocational tasks are fulfilled, I am restless. Furthermore, I find myself consumed with fear and anxiety over financial resources or losing my wife or my job or finding out what my friends and students and colleagues really think of me.
In addition to personal transformation, our citizenship to a redemptive kingdom leads us towards prophetic action. Just like Jesus, we strive to criticize the powers-that-be that continue to enslave pockets of humanity while we prod, pressure and provoke our society’s norms, mores and socio-economic policies that burden us. We work tirelessly to transform the systems that have shaped us in counterfeit ways. Our families, churches, schools, workplaces, political and economic systems and the media bring us order and fulfill important functions in life, but also have poisoned, abused, crippled and confused us into a life confined to a variety of enslavements. Our task is to creatively redeem these systems, identifying the precise ways that they have caused ruin in our own lives and the lives of others.
Like Jesus, we, too, are called to energize our world, inviting others to join us in communities that cast a vision of the redemptive kingdom. Our task is to authentically, honestly, critically and creatively be a sign and foretaste of the kingdom that will one day be a complete reality (I Cor 13:12). Jesus inaugurated this loving, accepting, healing, forgiving, serving kingdom in the midst of a broken and counterfeit world. We offer the world an alternative vision of what life can be, a rescue mission delivering people from the dominion of darkness and guiding them into the kingdom of the beloved Son.
Following Jesus in 2010 is both personal and prophetic, just as it was in 55AD. This is the yin and the yang of Christian faith, two sides of the same coin, both vitally important to walking in "newness of life." Most churches emphasize one side of the coin while neglecting the other. Many churches, in fact, neglect both, focusing solely on the prospects of an afterlife, giving up on this sin-stained planet and commissioning their congregations to a vocation of “saving as many as they can.” God, however, has always been about transforming systems while healing the dreaded symptoms they inevitably bring about. After all, the work of Christian redemption is not confined to a "spiritual life" in our hearts or a future eternity in heaven. God longs for all humanity to participate in a worldwide redemption, releasing all of creation from "the bondage to decay" (Romans 8:23) into everlasting freedom...starting now.