I once heard Richard Rohr say that ancient Jewish Rabbi’s described their Scriptures to be like diamonds in that every time you turn them a different way or shine the light on them from a different angle or look at them from a different point of view, you see something new each and every time.
Something more beautiful.
Something that you didn’t see before.
And when you see those things or see the light reflected in a different way, it takes your breath away again and again and again just as it did the very first time that you ever laid eyes on it.
A new “a-ha” moment.
A new insight.
A new takeaway.
A new revelation.
I’ve become somewhat fascinated with this idea, the idea that the stories of the Bible don’t simply mean one, single thing.
That they can’t just mean anything that we want them to mean.
That they do mean everything that they mean — nothing more, nothing less.
This was Philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s idea and he called it ‘the surplus of meaning’, arguing that there are many different ways to understand the various pieces of a text and although we can’t just read into those texts whatever we want and make them say whatever we want them to say, they most certainly do have an abundance of meaning within themselves.
When we look at the passages of the Bible through the lens of 2018.
When we look at them through the lens of the time periods in which they were originally written.
When we look at them through the lens of war.
When we look at them through the lens of sickness.
When we look at them through the lens of loss or heartache.
When we look at them through the lens of surrounding verses and chapters and books.
… As we turn the diamond more and more and it reflects the light of God’s love more and more and the light of our experience more and more, we begin to see more and more meaning.
Anyways, I’ve been fascinated with the book of Romans lately (the 6th book of the New Testament, written by the Apostle Paul). I recently read N.T. Wright’s new book, “Paul: A Biography” and I’m just about finished with a book by Beverly Roberts Gaventa called “When In Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel According to Paul” and in the book she makes a point that I never saw before that ties in with few points that Wright made in his book.
She points out that …
“It may be useful to notice two words that have little or no place in Paul’s vocabulary in Romans: ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’. True, in Romans 2, Paul once declares that God’s mercy is intended to lead to repentance, but that statement is part of his move to destabilize those who think themselves without need of repentance and is a part of a larger argument undermining the categories of Jew and Gentile.” (pg. 43)
This is interesting because for the church the book of Romans is the chief cornerstone of what it means to be a Christian and according to most churches in the United States, being a Christian means that you …
Understand that you’re a sinner.
Repent of your sins.
Ask God for forgiveness.
Invite Jesus into your heart / life.
Realize that He died for your sin, took your place on the cross.
Receive eternal life.
Live for God now.
Go to heaven when you die.
Oddly, though, as Gaventa points out, these points aren’t really emphasized in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Along those lines, N.T. Wright, in his book, points out that one COULD easily read some of what Paul wrote and make a strong case for the above narrative or script of what it means to be a Christian for Paul’s words, he says, “can easily be fit into the going-to-heaven-when-you-die scheme of thought”; but both Wright and Gaventa would argue that reading Paul’s words strictly in this way would cause us to miss the bigger point that Paul is trying to make, mainly that salvation is more (much, much more) than what we might typically think. *
Gaventa goes on to say that …
“I think his peculiar silence occurs because Paul sees the human problem as larger than that of repentance and forgiveness of the individual. This is clear from the slavery language in Romans 6: slaves cannot repent their way out of slavery; neither can they be forgiven. They can only be delivered, which is the terminology Paul uses. Salvation, for Paul, doesn’t consist of simply being forgiven of sins; it is about being delivered from Sin’s power.” (pg. 43)
The other night Dana and I were watching an episode of Law and Order: SVU. It’s an hour long show that’s been running for like a thousand years and it’s about the lives of a group of police officers headed up by Sergeant Olivia Benson who take down the most dangerous criminals in New York City. The episodes usually revolve around a case involving someone who was kidnapped or raped or something like that.
The other night, though, the episode was about a guy who was kidnapping young girls and using them as sex slaves. Some of them would be trafficked off to other sick people for a ridiculous amount of money and others were locked in his cold basement with very little food and were brought out only to be prostituted to high paying executives and CEO’s of big companies.
They lived a terrible life and although they tried to escape and although they wanted to escape, they couldn’t.
Because they were slaves.
By the end of the show, though, they were free … and it was wonderful — NOT because they repented their way out and NOT because they were forgiven, BUT because Olivia Benson and her team of detectives found the guy who was responsible, hunted down the place where the girls were being held, and set them free.
They didn’t ask to be set free.
They didn’t beg Olivia.
They didn’t call the police and ask for help.
Instead, Olivia and her team showed up and did what they needed to do to bring freedom to the girls.
This is the illustration, says Gaventa, that Paul is painting for us in Romans. Sin, he says, is a powerful and dark entity that lords its power over humanity just as a slave driver would (see all of Romans 6); and it’s not a power that humans can be freed from by …
Saying a prayer.
Believing a set of doctrines.
Asking for forgiveness.
Freedom, instead, comes from Jesus who is our Liberator. Much like Olivia Benson, He has hunted down the Enemy who is responsible, has defeated him, and has (thus) released the power that sin has over the world — He did this for you, for me, for everyone … regardless of whether or not we asked for it.
Is saying a prayer part of it (salvation)?
Is it important to have a right set of beliefs?
To ask for and receive forgiveness?
I’m not (empahasis on not, so don’t send me hate mail) saying those things aren’t important or that they don’t play a role, but what I am saying is that the concept of salvation (according to Paul in Romans) is much, much bigger than those few things.
What I mean by that is that Paul’s understanding of salvation isn’t just for individuals or groups, but it’s so big that it’s cosmic — bigger and wider and greater than anything we could ever imagine.
Gaventa says that …
“Salvation concerns God’s powerful action in Jesus to reclaim humanity, individual and corporate, from the powers of Sin and Death. The human situation or problem is not simply that humans do bad things. The problem is that actual powers, prominent among them Sin and Death, hold humanity in their grasp. God has interceded in the death and resurrection of Jesus to break their power (Romans 8:3 — ‘God condemned Sin in the flesh of Jesus Christ’), but the struggle between God and the powers continues until God’s final triumph, the redemption of all creation.” (pg. 41)
I think we miss this in our teachings and in our readings of the Bible, which (I think) creates a gaping hole in how we understand God’s intentions for the world, the intentions that have been painted for us throughout the Bible (particularly in the writings of the Old Testament prophets).
Our Western North American culture is so obsessed with individualism that salvation has come to mean nothing more than having a “personal relationship with Jesus”.
This IS important, mind you — the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is (I believe) of the utmost importance.
The problem is that in our country we emphasize that part of salvation SO. MUCH. that it has pushed to the side this cosmic dimension of salvation that has always been pointed to by the prophets — the idea that in the Messiah God has opened up the gates of His Kingdom to everyone, everywhere and that when we align ourselves with the Person of Jesus, we become part of His circle of followers who are responsible to infiltrate the planet, point people to Jesus, and welcome them into His Kingdom, a work that He will one day complete in fullness when He returns, the day that (as Paul says) …
“Every knee shall bow.
And every tongue confess.
That Jesus Christ is Lord.”
… Every knee. Every tongue.
Not A FEW.
Not A HANDFUL.
Not THOSE WHO BELIEVED THE RIGHT THINGS.
Not THOSE WHO WERE BAPTIZED.
Not THOSE WHO WENT TO CHURCH.
Not THOSE WHO HAD A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS.
No — every knee, every tongue.
The day that all of creation will no longer groan in pain from violence and poverty and hate and bitterness and terror and murder and rape and guns and politics and sickness and disease and disabilities and everything else that causes pain and heartache, but will be restored — the day that heaven and earth will become one and all will come full circle back to God’s promise to Abraham that He would make him “a father of many nations” and that “through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed”. (Genesis 22)
That’s a lot to take in, I know, but here’s the takeaway:
As important as it is to have a “personal relationship with Jesus”, it’s equally if not more important to know what that personal relationship means.
It doesn’t make me judge and jury of other people of other beliefs or faiths or backgrounds.
It doesn’t make me better than someone else.
It doesn’t give me a ticket to heaven.
It doesn’t give me a pass from hell.
It doesn’t give me a security blanket.
It doesn’t mean God loves me more.
It doesn’t give me the right to say who is IN and who is OUT.
No. If you think salvation gives you any of those things, you’ve missed the whole point.
Rather, it places me in Jesus’ circle. It means that I recognize that Jesus is greater than any Caesar or ruler or power in the universe and that His way and the ways of His Kingdom are the best way:
Turning the other cheek.
Forgiving our enemies.
Going the extra mile.
And it means …
That I will join His circle of friends in infiltrating every part of my world (my family, my circle of friends, my community, my church, my school, my workplace) with these key elements of His Kingdom.
That I will bring a little more of heaven to earth with every move that I make.
That I will point people to Him with my words and actions.
That I will hold open the gates of heaven to welcome everyone in.
That I will eagerly await the day that Jesus will return to restore all of creation.
That I will model that for my offspring so that in case Jesus does not return in my lifetime or in the lifetime of my daughter or grandchildren or great-great-great grandchildren, that those generations will be able to look back to my generation and say, “YES. I want to join that circle of Jesus’ friends”, the team that’s working each and every day to ready this wonderful creation for the return of its Creator.
That, I think, is another way (and dare I say, better way) of understanding Paul’s thoughts about salvation.
* Wright 406 / Gaventa 48