Once upon a time, I sat in a wooden pew and listened to “the gospel story” told to me by the Southern Baptist pastor of a small country church about three hours north of here. The story I heard goes something like this:
Humans are sinful. Ever since Adam & Eve’s great act of disobedience in the garden, every human being is unable to keep God’s law, and so is hopelessly lost.
It was easy to hear the truth in this story. After all, I felt helpless to obey God’s law “clearly” written in the pages of my bible in six different places. I knew how the good Christians around me felt about my secret struggle, and I accepted their story: I was unclean.
God’s response to sinful humanity is disgust and anger. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness” (Rom. 1:18): this wrath leads God to give sinners up, and they will not inherit heaven after they die. A perfect and holy God cannot even look upon those stained with sin, and so they are destined for hell.
As I sat in that pew week after week, I came to dread my fate and desperately wondered – can anything be done?
Yes! The good news is that Jesus came to earth as a man, and because he perfectly kept God’s law, he was eligible to be sacrificed for your debt. The suffering and death you deserve, he took. If you say a prayer acknowledging him as the Son of God and ask him for forgiveness, he’ll stand between you and God. Then, when God looks at you, instead of seeing the horrible person you are, he’ll see perfect and holy Jesus. This way, when you die, you won’t burn forever separated from God. You can go to heaven.
So, as a 15 year old, I walked down that aisle to the sound of the congregation singing, “Just as I am, without one plea.” I prayed the sinner’s prayer and hoped with fear and trembling that God would rid my soul of its dark blot.
This is the story I lived in for a long time. Even during my years of biblical and theological studies, that story haunted me. I may have begun to see its cracks. I may have begun deconstructing it. Even after I started articulating a different theological narrative, that story lived in my gut. I knew better, but I lived with deep shame.
What stories shape our lives, our identities, our faith, our mission? The story I stepped into during my teenage years whispered the messages: You’ll never be good enough. You don’t deserve love and belonging. God thinks you’re so awful, he had to kill his own son to cover up your depravity.
As I’ve sat with the texts for this morning, I’ve reflected on my liberation from the oppression of that story. I’ve remembered the wilderness I wandered toward a new story. Today I feel praise well up from the core of my being: I now sing a new song.
In Psalm 98, the psalmist bursts into song, praising God as King who is both already and soon to be victorious. This God “has made it clear that He saves, and He has shown the nations that He does what is right” (Ps. 98:2). This God “is coming, and His judgment will be what is right for the world and just to all people” (Ps 98:9). Isaiah 40-66 echoes throughout this psalm: God’s people sit in exile with the promise that “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (Isa. 40:5) when God comes baring “his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isa. 52:10). What is the salvation this story anticipates? Justice. Setting all things right, in alignment with God’s dream for creation. For the original singers of this hymn, justice and rightness would look like an end to exile, a return to land and peoplehood where their lives might flourish under the care and provision of their King. Salvation includes liberation, a demonstration of God’s faithfulness to his covenant people and power over the nations and their gods.
The immediate focus of God’s victory is Israel’s liberation. They expect him to keep his promise, a promise rooted and remembered in another liberation story: “Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God’” (Exod. 6:6-7).
There has always been a larger focus of victory, however, in the story of God’s people. If we hear the Adam story as an exile story, we’re able to listen for two layers to the plot: in the first, Israel has been exiled from the land God gave them; in the second, all of humanity, all of creation even, has been exiled from the place where life is sustained. In exile, Israel cries out for salvation. So too does “the whole creation… groan inwardly” awaiting redemption (Rom. 8:22-23). When God called Abraham, he revealed these two layers when he promised to bless Abraham and to make him a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3). God’s salvation purposes include Israel; they also extend to all the nations of the earth.
This parallel plot is sometimes very difficult to accept. Our psalmist acknowledges that God’s “coming and… judgment will be what is right for the world and just to all people,” (Ps 98:9) but I suspect the psalmist imagines his oppressors will be defeated and destroyed. In Acts 10, Peter’s assumptions about who God is for and who God is against, who is in and who is out, are confronted. In the last part of the chapter, as Peter is sharing his newfound understanding of God’s impartiality, the Spirit falls upon those listening. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). Even on the Gentiles. Peter has these Gentiles baptized, thus including them in the church. Of course, if we follow Peter’s story, we’ll find that he did not always practice the inclusion he is convinced of in this passage. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that he confronted Peter in Antioch because Peter “drew back [from eating with the Gentiles] and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction” (Gal. 2:11-14). In what ways do we “draw back” from our theological convictions when we encounter pressure or conflict? When we protect our own privilege, do we recognize our abandonment of the marginalized? Are our lives telling the story we really want to be telling?
Last week, Valerie spoke about abiding in the vine: “It is not only about remaining united to Christ and obedient to his teachings, but about living in harmony with the other branches, the brothers and sisters on the vine. It is after all, one living plant.” The story I’ve found my way into is a story of God’s salvation purposes coming to fruition through the church for the whole world. Justice. Ordering all people and all things toward flourishing life. I imagine God’s kingdom, his reign established over all the earth as new creation, as a place where life is sustained eternally. Once upon a time I thought eternal life meant glittering mansions in the sky after dying. But Jesus has taught me to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
Today’s reading from John’s gospel continues with the language of abiding, or as the version we heard today says, making ourselves at home. How do we do this? What’s the connection that sustains the life and fruitfulness of the vine? Love. Jesus is at home in God’s love, and we are to make ourselves at home in Jesus’ love so that we may follow his example of love: “This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends” (Jn. 15:12-13).
Two weeks ago Stan reminded us that there is only one test of love – obedience, often through compassionate acts of healing. Stan challenged us to “trust God’s compassion and the spirit of Jesus to equip and inspire us with imagination, resistance, resilience and patience.” Love requires each of those characteristics because the oppressive powers around us actively try to force the world’s story in the direction of disconnection, indifference, hostility, violence, and, ultimately, death.
Jesus’ story uniquely reveals both God’s liberation plan for creation and humanity’s true image- bearing vocation, and invites us to enter into and abide in God’s grand drama. Our part is to join Jesus in acting out liberation: standing in solidarity with the oppressed, putting our life on the line for justice, offering healing and restorative care, practicing radical inclusion. These things make for peace, for harmony, for flourishing life.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ” – the Lord of all Creation who reigns not by way of dominating power but by self-giving love – “has been born of God” – born into a new creation story (1 Jn. 5:1). God, our Creator-King, is coming. He is coming in love for life. Will we sing this new song of victory? Will we be shaped by this story? Will our lives, rooted in love, bear fruit that brings good news to the poor, liberates the captive, heals the blind and frees the oppressed (Lk. 4:18)? May it be so.