Insecure church, secure salvation

February 21st, 2019

GC 2019 starts meeting this weekend. For many United Methodists, and particularly for those who have boarded the ship as a career, vocation or job in one way or another, this is a bit of a tense time. We’re right on one level to feel that our church is insecure.

In this post I want to speak a word into the center of our insecure feelings, our worries about the future, our vocational anxieties. In the center of our insecurity I want to sing, with these clattering keys and on this aging laptop, once again the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The eternal gospel is good news in and for each moment. In our insecure church we have a secure salvation. And, paradoxically but truly, that means that the church is secure.

All this is prefigured in God’s deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea. I want to dwell on that for a little bit before turning to the ethic we’re freed to live, with each other and with the world. This ethic is expressed in Luke 6, and it’s fittingly one of the lectionary passages for this Sunday.

The late, great Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson used to identify God this way. In response to the question, “Who is God?” he thought the definitive Christian answer should be something like this: “God is the one who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, having first raised Israel out of Egypt.”

And so the victory song sung by Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 15 is not just a declaration of a one time memory of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It is also a song and story the Jews remember again and again, often in times of turmoil, pain, suffering, and apparent defeat, right through the darkness they endured in the last century and into our present time. That’s to say, if we listen to the Pentateuch we notice how Israel is formed to constantly remember this deliverance from Egypt and slavery: it is always a present salvation. God has not saved only our mothers and fathers; God has delivered us from slavery in Egypt. That’s the Spirit of Jewish identity formation; it is renewed in the existential present in every generation.

And the salvation we declare in Jesus Christ is in absolute continuity with that. God’s particular deliverance of Israel  remembered as always presently true by Israel  points to God’s once for all, and for all people, cosmic salvation manifested in Jesus Christ’s resurrection. There’s a tension in the way Israel’s inspired writers have interpreted their deliverance  they sometimes remember their deliverance as a particular deliverance over against other peoples, over against their enemies. The revelation is clear in one essential aspect, and opaque and partial in another. So there’s a shadow side to the Exodus narrative. It would suck to be one of Pharaoh’s conscripted soldiers drowning in the Red Sea. Yet, even in Israel’s inspired writers’ understanding of their call and confirmation from God, there’s the sense that it’s aimed according to a universal trajectory. So in Genesis 12, when Abram is first called and when God first initiates and articulates the covenant, Abram’s told, “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.” So even as there’s a tension due to Israel’s understanding of their particular chosenness by God, there’s a universal aim to that particular chosenness right from the beginning. Yet in Jesus Christ the fullness and the universality of God’s desire to save and of God’s deliverance are revealed, flaunted, put on display. The deeper and true spiritual meaning of all the OT texts comes to light: Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s armies are revealed as the powers of Sin and Death who dog and snap at our heels, and corner us in our pilgrim’s flight to safety against the shores of an uncrossable, blood red sea. And God delivers us through the sea. Jesus Christ passes through the death and dissolution that are the results of our injustice and our sin, structural and personal. Jesus Christ is killed; and Jesus Christ is raised by God.

In and through Jesus Christ, you have already Passed Over to safety. In and through Jesus Christ, you’re already on the other side, beyond sin and death and injustice, even as we’re still also plagued by them. But we’re really in Christ, and Christ is really in us, and we touch Christ by our shared human nature that is made through him, we touch him at once spiritually and biologically, by nature and by grace, and all these things are represented as we pass through the waters of baptism ourselves and as we receive him in common human signs in the sacrament of holy communion. And so, as it boldly says in Ephesians, we’re already raised in Christ and seated in the heavenly places, above and beyond earthly strife, sin, struggle, suffering, division, death. Here’s what I’m saying: even in our present moment on the cusp of GC 2019, and no matter what happens, Moses’ and the Israelites’ song has become our song:

‘I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

The world’s ways of calculating power and victory success have all been relativized and, ultimately, cast down and overcome. The innocent victim, wrongly executed, is risen. Christ has been restored and vindicated, bringing salvation in himself for all.

What’s happening at GC 2019 may turn out to shape all of our lives a lot. It may have significant immediate or delayed consequences, for good and/or for bad. Or it may turn out not to matter much for the future of the UMC worldwide. But, in either case, before the eternal gospel it actually doesn’t matter that much. Here’s the gospel: Jesus Christ is risen. We’re all at the far shore, and the victory song is ours. No matter that many of our plans and projects in this life fail: the victory of the cosmos is assured in Jesus Christ.

That means you’re free.

That’s the key to getting Jesus’ ethic, as we hear more of it in the sermon on the plain from Luke 6. You’re free, and so you’re freed to live from deep kindness rather than from defensiveness and worry. May this shape those who take part in GC 2019, and all of us who speak or write about it on the internet or at church. May we be freed by Jesus’ resurrection so to live in the uncalculating and incalculable kindness of Jesus’ way.

How harsh such freedom feels when we’re walking in the flesh rather than walking in the spirit! I feel much more secure when I try to plan and defend and secure my future success; but that success isn’t even guaranteed. Yet Jesus comes with a gospel which really is good news for all, and reveals that God is caring for the world as a whole and each of our lives and souls in it; and it means we’re freed, like God, to engage in a kindness and a mercy which exceed all calculation.

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. 


We’ve really been freed to act and live in these crazy ways! The Exodus of our Lord Jesus Christ is complete; and in these turbulent times we’re just following him through his own Passover through death and into the kindness of eternity. We can do so with rest and peace in the midst of our pain and trials, though the earth and the church seem to quake and shake: for our destination is secure, and God’s power to save has already been shown. Our salvation is already an accomplished fact.

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