The Embassy of Grace
On this edition of the White Horse Inn we’re talking about the embassy of grace as Paul lays that out in 2 Corinthians 5.
Like worn coins that have lost their embossing with much handling, key words in the Christian grammar have lost their original meaning. “Gospel” has become a modifier like “gospel-music.” It means basically anything that is good or true or at least that we like a lot. It used to be that the “gospel” meant “the good news concerning Jesus Christ,” now we talk about “living the gospel” or even “being the gospel” ourselves.
“Grace” has increasingly come to mean little more than divine indulgence, like you know, your dad winking as he sees you take an extra piece of candy after your mom said “no.” “Grace” is basically God saying, “You’re okay.... I’m okay... Okay?”
And now, gold standard words like “redeem” and “reconcile” are no longer defined by the biblical drama. In the biblical story the triune God is the redeemer who has reconciled sinners to himself through the life, death, resurrection of the incarnate Son. Redemption and reconciliation are done by Jesus, and they are completed events, as in Jesus’ last words on the cross – “It is finished.”
But today, we hear a lot of calls for us to participate with God in the work of redeeming and reconciling the world. Tony Jones explains, “Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world, to cooperate in the building of God’s kingdom.” He cites Anabaptist theologian, John Howard Yoder: “the visible church is not to be the bearer of Christ’s message, but to be the message.”
Similarly, Jones’ own church transforms the traditional service into a conversation. He says, “The point is to jettison the magisterial sermon which has ruled over much of Protestantism for five hundred years. Here, the sermon is deconstructed, turned on its head. The Bible is referred to as the member of the community with whom we are in conversation, and the communal interpretation of the text bubbles up from the life of the community.”
Just as the definition of the gospel widens to include our person and work, God’s reconciling action in Christ, not only motivates, but includes in its very definition our own acts of social justice. Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright, expresses this view. “The church,” he says, “is called to do the work of Christ, to be the means of his action in and for the world. Mission in its widest, as well as its more focused senses, is what the church is there for. God intends to put the world to rights. He has dramatically launched this project through Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus are called, here and now, in the power of the Spirit, to be agents of that putting to rights purpose.”
Though still central, and even essential, Jesus seems to be more like the person who gets the ball rolling, than the unique person whose saving work in his first and second advents is unrepeatable and inimitable. Jesus dramatically launches the project, so the kingdom of glory is present, unfolding by degrees. Elsewhere he writes, “God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so we can be part of his plan to remake the world.” However, it’s one thing to say that we’re partners with God in bringing the good news to the world, and loving our neighbors in our callings, and quite another to say that we’re partners with God in redeeming and reconciling the world.
Brian McLaren writes, “To say that Jesus is savior is to say in Jesus God is intervening as savior in all of these ways: judging, that is naming evil as evil; forgiving, breaking the vicious cycle of cause and effect making reconciliation possible; and teaching, showing how to set chain reactions of good in motion. Then, because we are so often ignorantly wrong and stupid, Jesus comes in saving teaching, profound, yet amazingly compact. What is this saving teaching? ‘Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,’ Jesus says, ‘and love your neighbor as yourself.’ And that is enough. That,” says McLaren, “is what it means to say that Jesus is saving the world.” Although Jesus called this the summary of the law, for McLaren it becomes the summary of the gospel.
When the vertical relationship, that is our relationship to God, is eclipsed by the horizontal effects, that is our relationship to fellow human beings and creation, an opposite reduction occurs. Sin is not so much a transgression of God’s covenant that brings God’s judgment, as it is brokenness in our own interpersonal relationships. “On Good Friday, Christ’s crucifixion became the impetus for healed and healing relationships in a world that desperately needs them,” and “the concentration on correct doctrine is a reflection of an earlier time.”
So, in addition to phrases, such as “living the gospel,” and calls to continue Christ’s incarnation and saving work, we often hear these appeals to participate in Christ’s reconciling work. Often these calls to cooperate with God in the redemption and reconciliation of the world, draw these points from Paul’s reference to the ministry of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5. What does Paul actually say there and does it support or contradict this idea of our being co-redeemers and co-reconcilers? That’s our subject in this edition of the White Horse Inn. (Originally Aired Aug 21, 2011)