Big Salvation Words: “Redemption,” Pt. 1

giphyBeing a common word that is used frequently when we talk about salvation, it’s easy to forget that redeem is a fiscal term. It is first used to describe the Israelites salvation from slavery to the Egyptians (Ex. 6:6). In a normal slave transaction, humans are bought and sold. If a person wants to free a slave, it would be necessary to first purchase (redeem) the slave from the current owner and then set him or her free. This is the classic fiscal meaning of the term “redemption.”

Of course, that’s not at all what happened to the Israelites. At first Moses politely demanded that the Israelites be set free (Ex. 5:1). Egypt’s Pharaoh refused and a battle of wills and disaster ensued. Each time the Pharaoh refused, another plague came upon Egypt (Ex. 5-12). In the end, not only did the Israelites leave Egypt, the Egyptians gave them jewelry and gold on their way out (Ex. 3:21-22), lost their first born (Ex. 12:29) and their army (Ex. 14:26-30). This is not a redemption from slavery at all if we think of it in fiscal terms. The slave owners (the Egyptians) were plundered and utterly defeated, so if anyone paid, it was the Egyptians.

Israel’s redemption from slavery is therefore more ironic than literal. It might be better say that they were “redeemed” from Egypt, the double quotes not implying that it did not happen, but rather that the transaction went in the opposite direction, the Egyptians paying for the privilege of releasing the Israelites from slavery.

There’s another monetary term that’s used three times in the New Testament, once by Jesus (in Mk 10:45 and Mt 20:28, in parallel passages) and 1 Tim. 2:6. Mark 10:45 says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This phrase has led to a great deal of speculation about who was being paid the ransom. Among the ideas floated about is that it is either the Devil (more common in the Christian West) or Death itself (more common in the Christian East) that is on the other end of the transaction. In response, the rest of the commentators are a bit horrified by the idea that Christ was paying a ransom to Death or the Devil in order to buy us out of slavery. So this is a controversial topic.

But it doesn’t have to be if we keep in mind two things: first, that “ransom” is, in a sense, the noun form of the verb “to redeem,” and second, what actually happened when the Israelites were “redeemed.” In other words, if we maintain the ironic character of this ransom, it’s not a problem. The Pashcal Troparian (or hymn, if you want a more common term in English) that is sung throughout the Easter season in the Orthodox Church, and sung several dozen times during the Pascha service itself (with either the priest or the choir randomly breaking out in song during the service as a sort of celebratory exclamation point), says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” This hymn gets to the heart of the matter.

Like the Israelites “far down in Egypt land,” this is redemption language turned on its head. We are “ransomed” or “redeemed” from Death, but ironically, it is Death who ultimately pays – not Christ, not us – and is therefore ultimately defeated.

And then the Exodus imagery is extended even further. Death is not only defeated, Death becomes an important and even vital tool for Life. Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Colossians is even more specific. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (3:5). And then the text goes on to pick up another Big Salvation Word (see this post) in the next verse: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.”

So, in the beginning (that is, the three days Jesus is in the tomb), Death pays for the privilege of giving us life and releasing us. And then, Death keeps on paying by becoming the tool that we use “to work out our salvation” and ridding ourselves of the passions that would otherwise prevent us from becoming Christ-like in this life.

And this is the delicious irony of our redemption: It’s a “ransom” … It is God’s act of making Death work against itself in order to give us victory and life.

Life and Prosperity or Death and Adversity

Why is there a “second Law” (the meaning of the word “Deuteronomy”) in the Old Testament? The people of Israel have been desert nomads for 40 years. That is more than a generation of people, so only the old people remember the mighty acts of God: the plagues, the escape from Egypt, the terror of Mt. Sinai when God gave them the Law. For this new generation, life has been like that of the Bedouin, following the herds of sheep and goats as they search for grass and water.

But now they are on the brink of moving into a new territory that is fertile enough to allow them to settle down. The Law God gave them was designed for this new life. It addresses things like land ownership, dealing with permanent neighbors, a holy city and a temple, that were not a part of their life for the last forty years.

This is why it was necessary for the people to reaffirm their commitment to the Law that God gave them (thus, a so-called second Law). This week’s Old Testament text, Deut. 20:15-20, is the culmination of that exercise. They have gathered. They have heard the Law. They must now make a choice. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut. 30:15).

We don’t often think of God’s Law, or any law for that matter, in these terms. When we think of Law we think of an arbitrary rule. But God’s Law is a different sort of thing. It reflects fundamental reality. To oppose this Law is to try to fight reality itself. This is why Moses describes the choice as “life and prosperity” vs. “death and adversity.”

Moses warns the people that if they don’t obey, “I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (v. 18).

In a wonderful turn of phrase, Karl Barth describes the result of the sinful life in the following manner: “[The sinful one] stands under the wrath and judgment of God. He is broken and destroyed on God. It cannot be otherwise” (CD/IV:1, 175).

Moses’ words ring of arbitrary rules: If you don’t obey God, you will perish. Similarly, when we hear that Bible word “wrath,” we again think of arbitrariness and probably have a picture of an angry God. But Barth defines wrath in a completely different manner that fits perfectly with what Moses describes in Deuteronomy. Reality is thus and so. In the short term defying reality (by cheating your neighbors, not caring for the poor, etc.) may bring great reward, but in the long term, fighting against reality will only destroy you. As Barth says it, such a person ends up being broken and destroyed on God (note: not by God, but on God) like a race car that cuts a corner, ends up on the grass, and spins into the wall, the problem isn’t an angry wall, the problem is physics and bad driving.

Since we are not big enough to see the full sweep of reality and how it all works together, it is easy for us to see these rules of the road as arbitrary. (Don’t drive ont he grass at 200 mph; don’t cheat your neighbor.) Now that we have made the great turn and have set our faces toward the cross of Good Friday and the upcoming struggle of Lent, we are reminded that what we are about to do is try to align ourselves with reality so that we avoid the rocks in the midst of the storms of life.

This Deuteronomy text is not a call to just obey a bunch of rules, it is a call to be careful so that we can live.

What Is Death?

In the end death is one of those things we’ll never fully understand. It is inscrutable. From a theological perspective we can say that death is separation from God. This is one of the main points of the second creation narrative. God says, “If you eat of this tree you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17). Adam and Eve ate of the tree and they were sent out of the Garden (a picture of the presence of God) and thus separated from the Tree of Life. Since God is the source of life, to be separated from God is to be dead. In this sense, Adam and Eve were already dead.

From both a biblical and scientific perspective, death is corruption. Once we pass the prime child bearing age our bodies begin to break down. Many functions actually begin to break down long before that, but they are robust enough that they remain hardy and fully functional through the height of child-bearing age. Our telomeres become shortened. The gummy and elastic connectors of everything to everything begin to harden and dry up. Neurons begin misfire. Eventually all these tiny things begin to manifest themselves in a variety of ill health: sore joints, non-pliable skin, lengthened recovery time. Sometimes wires get crossed and things grow that ought not (cancer) or things that ought to be fully functional cease to function (brain function or cirrhosis).

These two things (separation and corruption) come together at an end point for living creatures when the corruption or destruction of the body becomes so extensive that the life force (the soul or spirit or just life) separate from the body. When that occurs corruption of the body (sans spirit) enters a radical new phase better described as decay. Microbes enter in and the dead body can no longer fend them off. They process the dead body and it eventually is turned back into earth.

But for everything we know about those processes, we still don’t really know what death is. We can postpone it, but we cannot prevent it. We don’t know know (on a scientific level) what happens to consciousness after death. If we’re honest there are far more questions than answers for the scientist when it comes to death.

This is also true on the theological side of things. Theologians have never come up with an adequate definition or understanding of death. Scripture often describes it as an active power, but none of us know precisely whether that is really true or only a metaphor.

The greatest of paschal hymns says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the grave.” That is a rousing hymn to sing on a black and cold Easter night marching around the outside of the church with candles burning against the gloom, but it doesn’t actually tell us much about death itself, although it tells us much about the Victor!

I suppose this next thing will tell you more about me and the fact that I am situated in the post-modern world than it will actually tell you about death, but it is Karl Barth’s description that speaks to me more deeply than anything else. He says death has no reality. It is “nothingness.” It is not merely the absence of light and life, it is the negation of light and life. That definition doesn’t actually tell me any more about death than the other descriptions I have offered, but it does speak to me at a very deep level.

It is therefore with a great deal of humility that I make the following observation: I believe that Martin Luther simply went too far in his description of death and how Christ relates to it. In my opinion he is wrong. (He certainly went beyond what the historic church has had to say, and that gives me some confidence in my critique.)

It is characteristic of the divine majesty to annihilate and to create. Therefore scripture says that Christ destroyed death and sin in himself and granted life. [Luther’s Works 40/1:44, 1-12. As quoted by Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith, p. 19.]

That I agree with. In Christ sin and death are destroyed. But Luther goes much farther than this:

Therefore where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world …” [Ibid., p. 45. p. 18 in Mannermaa]

Here and elsewhere in his Lectures on Galatians, Luther states that sin and death have been destroyed … no, annihilated … in the world. That’s a bridge too far. Death’s sting has been removed. Sin and death have been conquered. They have been destroyed in Christ, but that’s rather different than Luther’s idea that they are destroyed in the world.

So why do I bring this up? So what if a pastor-theologians some 600 years ago said something a bit off the mark? Why pick on Luther instead of Calvin or Melanchthon or Aquinas or Joel Osteen, for that matter? Well, first because Luther is Luther, the first Protestant reformer who’s reform efforts actually took hold in Europe. Second, because Luther doesn’t need to say this. His theology of justification by faith (as expressed in the Lectures on Galatians) does not require this radical proposal. Karl Barth really needed for sin and death to be nothingness in the larger scheme of his theology; he was compelled by logic to take that position. Luther, on the other hand, didn’t have to go this far.

Let’s return to our initial point. None do or can actually understand sin or death. They are inscrutable. Even with his remarkable insights, Luther did not understand them either. But he did understand that (1) Christ truly and actually defeated them, and (2) because we are in Christ – truly and actually in Christ just as he is in us – then sin and death no longer have any hold on us.

How do you explain (1) something that we can not understand and (2) and that utterly ravages creation, but (3) no longer has any hold on us? I proposed that Luther, in his exuberance over this amazing reality, simply overstated it. You have to admit that hearing him say that death and sin are already annihilated is pretty breathtaking. It is certainly an exclamation point on Christ’s utter victory on the cross, in the grave, and upon his ascension.

So, even though I want to say, “Now hold on just a minute, Pastor Martin! …” I think I’ll forgo that and simply revel along with him his his exuberance for the moment.

Why You Bury Me in the Cold, Cold Ground?

Actually, the title has little to do with this essay, but the Tasmanian Devil was always one of my favorite Bugs Bunny characters.

I have frequently heard in the last week or so the sentiment that this world is not my home. It is a reference to the old gospel song, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through …” I always thought it was a sort of Baptist thing, but I’ve been surprised by the number of Orthodox who hold the same sentiment. Wakes and internments are not the time to question well-meaning sentiments, so I mostly nodded noncommittally. It’s an idea that I have come to dislike, but I think this is a better forum for my thoughts than the back of funeral home, where the incense was still heavy in the air.

This theme is present in a couple of places in the New Testament, but always with a specific context. 1 Peter speaks of the readers as “sojourners” in this world. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of being citizens of a better country, a heavenly country. Both allusions have two things in common. First, the primary audience is Jewish Christians and second, it is a clear allusion to Israel’s forty years in the desert as they wandered before entering the Promised Land. What we see with these references is a metaphor based on a specific Old Testament event that speaks primarily to Jewish Christians.

In the Greek context (in which Paul, Luke and Mark, and to a certain extent, John, wrote) this is the “not yet” character of salvation. It is a common theme in the New Testament. Jesus tells the disciples that the Comforter will be given and he will reveal all things. Paul says we see in a mirror dimly but some day we will see God face to face.

One of my favorite descriptions of the living experience of this “not yet” theme comes from the life of Elder Sophrony (I think, I couldn’t quickly lay my hands on the specific story). Sophrony, as a young man, and then again repeatedly throughout his life, had experienced the Uncreated Light. For those of you unfamiliar with this terminology which is drawn from the writings of Gregory Palamas, it refers to the unmediated experience of the presence of God which some Christians have been blessed to receive. Sophrony was often found sitting alone crying. His broken heart was a result of the juxtaposition of the heavenly reality of the Uncreated Light with pale limitations of the created order as we experience it. He longed for the day when he would permanently perceive God’s presence in its fullness (face to face, as it were) because it was so far superior to life as we know it now.

But this “not yet” character of our life here-and-now is far different than the sentiment that “this world is not my home,” or the belief that the dead in Christ have finally gone home (or even worse, shed the mortal coil). It is a profound misunderstanding of where our home really is.

Our home is with God. That home is spoken about most sublimely in the language of marriage. We are the Bride of Christ and the wedding, the wedding feast, and establishment of our home with our Bridegroom, Jesus Christ is one of the goals of the consummation of all things. (The other goals of the consummation of all things include the final overthrow of sin and death and the renewal of the heavens and the earth.)

So it is true that our ultimate home will be with God. But where is God? Revelation 21:3 makes that quite clear.  “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.’”

The idea that “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through” gets the direction completely wrong. Ultimately, it is not we that go up to God, it is God who comes down to us.  The old gospel song misses the essence of the urgency of divine grace. It is God who longs to come to us in fullness. If we, in turn, long for that fullness, all the better, but grace is not contingent on my longing to get to God, it is contingent on God’s longing to come to us in fullness.

It must be said that this is not a one-way street. The Prodigal Son was indeed returning from a foreign land, making his way back home. But it was the Father who was watching from the house, and who, upon seeing his son, ran down the road in a most undignified manner to greet him, accepted him fully as a son, even though he was unworthy, and who simply didn’t let his son get a word in edgewise, as he heaped his love and mercy upon him.

The Russians, when they speak of their own deaths, often speak in terms of dying a good death.  I would argue that this is a far better description of a proper Christian death than death as “going away to my new and proper home.”

We don’t go away at all, in death we return to God’s good creation:  “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as the Anglican Service Book describes it so well. At death our remains are committed to the ground at the committal service precisely because God came down to us and made his home with us, not the other way around. “The home of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.”

Death is an inconvenience, an intrusion, an interruption of the life of the living. I was reminded of this at every funeral service at which I officiated over twenty plus years of ministry. I was reminded of this when my own father died. The last thing my father wanted to do was inconvenience his family. Because of this, when he made plans for his own death, he insisted that he be cremated so the family could gather at their convenience rather than having to drop everything and come together at the time of death.

It was indeed inconvenient. At the time of death all options were put on the table. The convenient thing would have been to scatter the ashes to the wind. Actually it wasn’t so much the convenience, it was the obscene charges and fees funeral directors love to heap on grieving families. (In my less-than Christian moments, I might call down a pox on that particular species of humanity!) I’m not sure how the rest of the family felt about scattering the ashes. Before anyone had a chance to discuss it, I insisted on committing his remains to God’s good earth rather than scattering them to the four winds. God is confident enough in his prodigal people and his creation (created good, although terribly messed up by sin, destruction, and all the other grievous evils of this world system) that he chose to come down and make his dwelling with us rather than making us abandon this place in order to go up to some utopian perfect place we blithely call “heaven.”

Because God came down to dwell on earth with us, we in turn commend our loved ones to the God-who-is-here and commit them to this place where God is: “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God, our brother Vincent, and commit his body to be returned to the ground. ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, says the Spirit. They rest from their labors and their works follow them. [Rev. 14:13]’”

And as the Orthodox are wont to sing lustily at times such as these, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” [from the Paschal Troparion.]