FROM BONDAGE TO FREEDOM
Christ leads us from bondage to freedom through his death and resurrection. Captivity/Freedom is a major image of grace in the Epistles. We have been set free from the bondage of sin which changes our lives in personal and communal, private and public ways. Even while living in various kinds of bondages, we are no longer slaves, but free to serve. A less used, but significant image is illegal/legal. We do not need to pass God's laws. Neither are we now divided by human designations of law-abiding and "illegal" people. Sin/Forgiveness is one of the most frequently used images of grace, but not by any means, the only or major image. Forgiveness gives the power to live freely with God and one other.
Christ, as sacrifice and high priest, frees us from living under the old covenant to being part of a new covenant and for new opportunities for ministry. A minor image which may speak powerfully to some is fire/snatched from fire. Likewise being engulfed in human predicaments/having an advocate is the word of grace which will set people free from the oppressive complexities of life. Finally, bondage may feel like a weight which cannot be lifted. Christ has lifted that weight. This image, like the others, moves us from bondage to freedom. Let's begin!
"Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to set us free . . . " (Gal 1:3) We begin with a major image of grace in the Epistles: "captivity/freedom." One could isolate this image to past societal sins of slavery; however, that would be to ignore the fact that there may be more people enslaved today, e.g. sex trafficking, than at any time in history. In addition, there are many kinds of captivity in the human experience. The image of captive/free is found frequently in the Pauline epistles. In Eph 4:8, grace is expressed as Christ, when he ascended, making "captivity itself captive."
There are many references to the imprisonment of Paul and others. (Phil 1:12ff), often telling how they see their imprisonment as actually helping to spread the Gospel. In Colossians: "pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison . . . " (Col 4:3) We are to "remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them, you yourselves were being tortured." (Heb 13:3) Bondage is real and is deeply connected to the work of Christ.
[Malcolm's Letters from Prison
"Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I pray this finds you well and in very good health and Spirit." I have been blessed to have been corresponding from 1981-1991 and again from 1998 to the present with Malcolm who has been incarcerated all that time. (Our family has known him and his family since he was a young teenager.) I have pages and pages of hand-written letters, filling four file folders.
He began his letter of 7/25/98: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed is with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly place. I hope and pray that this letter arrives to find you in the very best of God's tender loving care. I am doing well. My wounds have just about all healed and I am dealing with forgiving those who tried to take my life for I know that my ministry will never reach its fullest potential without total forgiveness on my park. I lead a strong men's group here. The men are really hungry not only for the word but also to know God in a more personal and powerful way. I don't want to do any more incarcerated time, but I have to be strong. I look forward to your correspondence and words of encouragement.
Malcolm is repentant of his crime. His letter of l/12/00: "Our faith community is growing in here. God knows the restraints that we face. I've been taking a more active role in the services. I don't feel comfortable anymore just sitting back and observing. I haven't spoken at a service yet, but I stay prepared for when the opportunity arises. I know I have to live a life that is indicative of who I am inside and I hope that will lead others to Christ."
Through the years his letters tell of the real life struggles of the pain of absence from his family, particularly when he is suddenly moved from prison to prison. He is now some 400 miles away from home. But his letters are full of hope and Gospel. I consider him a kind of St. Paul sending Epistles. He is imprisoned but free to serve in his particular "ministry in daily life," proclaiming the Good News of Jesus to the men where he is, teaching, often counseling the younger men as they come in, offering guidance. In recent years he has been working with a program that prepares men for life beyond prison walls even though Malcolm's sentence may not end soon.
The Many Dimensions of Bondage
In the Book of Romans the captive/free image is prominent. "We know that our old self was crucified with him so the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin." (Rom 6:6-7) This concept is expanded in 6:17-23. It is repeated, "having once been slaves of sin..." (v. 17); "having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness." (v. 18) Also, "you once presented your members as slaves to impurity . . . so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification." (v. 19) "Freed from sin and enslaved to God." (Rom 6:22) We are not "dead to that which held us captive." (Rom 7:6). Paul says he was "sold into slavery under sin." (Rom 7:14) And although the freedom one has in Christ is now certain, the struggle goes on. "I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members." (Rom 7:23) The Good News for all these kinds of captivity is that, "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death." (Rom 8:2)
"Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law . . ." (Gal 3:23) We were, "enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world." (Gal 4:3) We are free from sin because Christ himself "bore our sin in his body on the cross so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness;" (1 Pet 2:24)
Being freed in Christ changes our lives and relationships, to God and to human beings in both private and public ways. Examples: "You are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child, then also an heir, through God." (Gal 4:7 "We ourselves were once . . . slaves to various passions and pleasures . . ." (Titus 3:3) "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ." (Col 2:8) "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." (Gal 5:13)
The letter of Paul to Philemon is about the change in relationship that comes to us through Christ. Onesimus is a slave, but Paul speaks of himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Onesimus has become a Christian; Paul sends him back to Philemon, but "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother." (vs. 16) In the New Testament world, slavery was an accepted reality; however freedom in Christ transcended institutional bondage, e.g. "we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slave or free." (Eph 5:8). Freedom in Christ transcends and transforms human bondage, oppression and divisions. ". . . there is no longer slave or free . . ." (Gal 3:28)
Being captive is broadened if one includes other words, e.g. being "trapped" by "many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction." (1 Tim 6:9) Likewise the Epistles use the image of enslavement in terms of false prophets who "promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption: for people are slaves to whatever masters them." (2 Pet 2:19) They may have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but "are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first." (2 Pet 2:20)
Freedom for Service
This new liberty is a gift and is to be used in service. Malcolm, while in prison, uses his liberty in service to fellow inmates. In a recent letter to him I wrote, "I liked hearing about your Weekend Walk with Jesus and the themes of discovery, spirituality and action. And 42 men taking the walk!"
Struggles continue, however. The outside world's entanglements with systemic injustice permeate prisons, too. His letter of 8/12/13: "I continue to be busy as ever here. With the George Zimmer verdict, racial tensions have been high. People talk about our country making huge leaps in terms of racial equality but nothing could be further from the truth. Especially in the criminal justice system. The New Jim Crow is in full effect. Young blacks (and us older men as well) are growing sick and tired of being the targets of murder and injustice. How do you teach these youngsters conflict resolution when every time you look around, one them is being murdered and no one is held accountable? We teach and expect them to resolve disputes in a peaceful manner, but that is not what is being done to them. In a letter 11/9/13: "Our country is quickly evolving into a have and have not society." He adds in the same letter, "I am able to teach some classes and in the process God will draw men to Jesus. Your words give me strength. I know that God is the God of justice and grace and love and compassion and hope. It is because of God's compassion that we are not consumed."
Malcolm's letters sometimes show his wit as well as his commitment to ministry within prison walls. He wrote in the Summer of 2012: "How's my sister doing this fine day? It's hot here. I can see on the weather it's even hotter where you are. I've been praying for those states hit with the fires. My heart goes out to them. I received your letter and the kind and encouraging words from by brothers and sisters, your students. They always seem to come at a time when I need them most. We have a saying here, "Every sentence must come to an end. I believe that is true, but this has been a long run-on sentence thus far. I keep coming to commas instead of a period. In spite of it my hope is in the Lord.
"I am in the 10th week of teaching my "Men Concerned with Youth, Family and Friends" class. Like you, I get my greatest joy and inspiration when I am in front of a classroom. The program in Chicago, "Ceasefire" and "Chance for Life" in Detroit use men who have been in prison who are trained in mediation and conflict resolution in neighborhoods to make a difference. I don't know where the Lord is taking me in all of this. I just continue to feel called and ask God to use me. I'm in a situation I can't do anything about so I pray every day that God will shape and use my life."
And in a recent letter: "Dear Norma, I pray that all is well with you and the rest of the family. It's been a while since I wrote. I honestly don't know where the time goes. As fast as it flies by it still doesn't go fast enough. I'm teaching cognitive thinking and that gives me the opportunity to still breathe on small groups at a time. It has become my mission to reach as many as I can. I know that it's because of God grace and strength that I keep moving forward. I read your letters and feel the connection that we are a part of the same body of Christ. Jesus is the tie that binds. Take care of yourself and give my love to the rest of the family. Malcolm."
How do we use our liberty, even while yet not totally free? "Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." (1 Cor 8:9) Paul, in chapter 1 Cor 9, talks about himself in asking rhetorically, "Am I not free?" (v.1) Do we not have rights? What are those rights resulting in being free in Christ? "Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them." (v. 19) He does all for the sake of the Gospel. (v. 23) The Gospel is the measure of how to use this freedom. "As servants of God, live as free people yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil." (1 Pet 2:16) Rather, "You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters . . . through love, become slaves to one another."4
The Letter to the Hebrews is explicit that through death Christ destroyed the one who had the power of death and might "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Heb 2:15) And, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." (2 Cor 3:17)
- Consider the many millions of people who have been and are enslaved throughout history and today. What is our calling to set the captive free?
- In what ways do you or people you love live in various forms of bondage? What does the freedom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ mean for your life now and forever?
- How does grace, freedom from bondage, have the power to transform relationships personally, communally, globally?
Freedom from bondage to the religious law, from being saved "by the law," was part of the previous image. Many Christians may say the word, "grace," or even, "We are saved by grace though faith," but cling to having to prove they are worthy enough to pass God's laws, or to "not break God's law." Grace in Christ means that we are now and always "legal."
In Colossians we hear, "Do not let anyone condemn you," and "Do you let anyone disqualify you . . ." (Col 2:16-18) God forgave us in Christ Jesus, "erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands." (Col 2:14) And in Romans we read, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom 8:1)
It is so convenient for people to define others as "law-abiding" or "law-breakers," even giving some the name "illegals." In Romans it is clear that God alone "through Jesus Christ will judge the secret thoughts of all." (Rom 2:16) God does not name some people "legals" and others "illegals." God has dealt with "the law" and all laws by sending Jesus Christ, condemning sin, "so that the just requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Rom 8:3-4) Does that mean that we should have no civil laws? Or course not, but they do not define a person in God's sight, nor should they define a person's humanity. "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes." (Rom l0:4) and "Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." (Rom 6:14) This transformation through Christ turns things around so that now "love is the fulfilling of the law." (Rom 13:10)
Maria the "Illegal"
The phone call to the United States brought good news. Maria's visa application had finally been accepted. She had been back in Mexico over six months, waiting, filling out papers and more papers, waiting longer, uncertain of the outcome. She had staked everything on it.
Twelve years before she and her husband at that time and their infant daughter had flown to the United States with passports and visas, but, like what happens with many, someone had figured out they were newly arrived and they were robbed for their passports. Unlike U.S. citizens, they were unlikely to go to local authorities to report the theft. They lived for nine years in the United States as undocumented. The minute you overstay your visa you are "illegal."
For all these years she had lived in Arizona, working, giving birth to a second child-a son-and then going through the break-up of her marriage. Her son and daughter thrived in this country, yet, being an illegal was not easy. Maria was drawn back to her family in Mexico where she would have a job, be free from questions about papers, and not have to worry about illegality. Finally she did go back to Mexico. She reported the theft of her passport there. She tried the schools in her Mexican city, but her children were miserable; they didn't fit into that culture now, particularly her son who was born in the United States. Maria was determined that her children needed a life in the United States. She sent her children ahead, her daughter with her Mexican passport and her son with his U.S. passport. Maria had no papers so this time she walked across illegally. It was not just an illegal act. She was "illegal."
Back in the United States, she gave birth to another daughter. Life was complex, but of one thing she was sure, she did not want to hide anymore. And she did not want to cross illegally again. She returned to Mexico with all three children. She would apply for legal status which would mean asking for a pardon, paying a fine and waiting. She had her children with her, and it would be tempting to keep them in Mexico with her while she waited. But as the months went on and fall came, she sent them back to the United States without her to go to school, in the care of their fathers . . . one father legal and one not. She sent her own Mexican mother along to help care for them. And so she waited, not knowing if they would ever be more than a border family of "legals" and "illegals." Until that letter came. She had been approved. She would receive a legal visa. She could come, this time not by foot across the desert, but by airplane legally, crossing with papers, not in the shadows.
Illegal has become a name for Maria, for whole families, for entire communities of people. Illegal immigrants. Illegal "aliens." Laws are laws. People are people. What is the Gospel here? Requirements of the law need to be met. Illegalities will not just magically disappear. They are in need of reform. The issues in individual lives, within extended and divided families are complex, as are contemporary issues of immigration. However, while one is yet "illegal" that one is legal in Christ, the one who bore the condemnation for us, for all, no matter what borders human beings erect.
- Do you or others you know continue to feel you or they are under God's law, being judged "good" or "bad," even a "good or bad Christian" by keeping or not keeping certain laws? What does grace really mean?
- How do we view people according to human-made laws? Who, including yourself, family, friends, has been a "law breaker," and excluded? How does living in God's grace have the potential to change human relationships and make us change-agents in society?
This, of course, is the most familiar and perhaps most widely used soteriological image; however, the number of passages that contain it is not overwhelming and certainly not the only image in the Epistles. In Ephesians we have "redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses" (Eph 1:7) and "redemption as God's own people." (Eph 1:14) Note the use of the plural. Forgiveness is not simply about personal salvation. In 1 Tim 2:3-4 we see that God, our Savior, "desires everyone to be saved." Titus and others show the sinful condition of humankind, e.g. Titus 3:1-3. In Col 1:14 we have the beloved Son "in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." And 1 Tim 1:15: "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am foremost." In Christ we have "forgiveness of our trespasses," according to the riches of God's grace. (Eph 1:7)
In 1 Cor 15:3-4 Christ's work is described: "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day." This work is once and for all, and also ongoing. It is the Good News, "through which also you are being saved." (1 Cor 15:2) According to Hebrews, where there is forgiveness of sins, "there is no longer any offering for sin." (Heb 10:18) This forgiveness is not simply a pronouncement for personal salvation in heaven. In 2 Cor 2:5-10, young Christians are urged to forgive when someone has caused pain. "Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ." (v. 10) An important verse is ". . . be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you." (Eph 4:32)
Romans, of course, has the most verses using this image. Guilt for sin is not just about bad actions. Both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin and guilt (Rom 3:9), but "Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered." (Rom 4:7) "There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God's grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." (Rom 3:22-23) Then we have the core verses of Rom 5: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Rom 5:1) and "while we still were sinners Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8) We see again the power of dominion of sin at the end of the chapter: "Trespass multiplied" when the law "came in" and where sin exercised dominion. But even more so, "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." Grace exercised "dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom 5:20-21). Therefore we are to let sin exercise no more dominion (Rom 6:12) "for sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace. (Rom 6:14)
If we know we have already been forgiven in Jesus Christ, we are more likely to be ready to confess our sins. ". . . Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another . . ." (Jas 5:15-16) Still we are tempted to say we have not been a sinner. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins . . ." (1 John 1:9) In Christ "there is no sin." (1 John 3:5) and "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name." (1 John 2:12). Sin is a significant image of the human predicament and particularly because of the power (dominion) it can have. Jesus Christ has brought forgiveness. The certainty and security is ours for living and serving.
Donald's Need for Forgiveness
"Donald told me about how drought had forced him to give up his family farm. He feels persecuted due to federal regulations; the corporate farms making it impossible to stay competitive. He took me for a tour of what used to be his land, and told me stories of growing up and of the importance of tradition, family time, and Sunday worship. He then took me to see his new occupation, driving truck to pick up glass bottles for a local company. He said that the pay was good, but being on the road all the time was tough. We then drove around the city and he pointed out businesses that had closed. Businesses his friends used to own. I asked him what had happened. He informed me that the little guy can't compete with big business. 'They move in and take over. We either work for them, or move,' he answered.
"After the tour, we went to his house where his wife, Kris, had lunch waiting for us. As we ate, I asked him to tell me about his family. He said it is really hard. 'I mean, everything has been the same around here since I was a boy. Heck, maybe even many years before that. The same neighbors, the same people I see at church every Sunday, and the same businesses handed down from father to son. But now it's all different.' He explained that the older generation is dying off, only now, they don't have anything to pass on to their kids. He believed that was the reason all the young people were leaving the church and the community. 'They don't have any reason to stay here because there is nothing left for them. So they look for something better.' He said he thought that was why his daughter left. There was no farm left to pass on. 'Now she lives so far away, I almost never get to see her. And I have spent more time talking with my granddaughter on Skype, then getting to have her sit on my lap or play house with.'
"We spent the better part of the afternoon with him telling stories. I told him that it is why his story matters. I pointed out that his life and traditions were formed by people that had gone before him and now he is the holder of the stories and history for those still to come.
"Donald was not only grieving but feeling guilty by blaming himself for the loss of his farm, his inability to hand the business on to his daughter, and her leaving to go to the city to find a better life. But he had found a measure of forgiveness through the sharing of story and tradition through his church and community. He is also starting to grasp that many of his friends had faced similar situations and that he may simply be holding on to his personal feeling of sin. His blaming federal regulations and big corporations keep him in bondage. He is still struggling, but I believe he is starting to understand that his daughter's leaving was out of his control.
"I believe there is a need here for Donald to feel God's love and forgiveness. He needs continued care from the community and to find joy in his new role in life. Through Christ's living word and the power of the cross and resurrection, Donald can find reconciliation with himself and those around him."
- How do you see sin, in all its complexity? How does the world view sin? Sinners?
- What does forgiveness in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ mean for you? For the world?
- How does forgiveness free us to acknowledge our sin and turn from it?
Old Covenant/New Covenant
In the Letter to the Hebrews Christ is the sacrifice and the high priest. He is the "mediator of a new covenant so that all who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant." (Heb 9:15)
The writer goes on to compare a covenant to a will, which takes effect only upon the death of the one who made it. In the first covenant there was blood involved, blood of calves and goats, sprinkled upon the scroll of the law, Moses saying, "This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you." (Heb 9:17-20) The writer points out that almost everything was purified with blood, and without it there was no forgiveness of sins. (Heb. 21-22)
This new covenant has made the first covenant "old" and "obsolete." Now, in the new covenant, Christ offered himself as the sacrifice, once for all to remove sin. He sacrificed himself to bear the sins of many and for the forgiveness of all, the final freedom from sin. (Heb 9:23-28) Jesus "became the guarantee of a better covenant. (Heb 7:22) "Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one." (Heb 8:6-7) "In speaking of 'a new covenant,' [God] has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear." (Heb 8:13)
This image is not entirely limited to Hebrews. In 2 Corinthians the "reading of the old covenant" is like a veil which is set aside only in Christ. (2 Cor 3:14) More significantly, knowing we are not competent in ourselves, we are assured our competence comes from God "who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit;" (2 Cor 3:5-6) This image is core to ministry and is present each time we partake of the Eucharist. This is a strong reminder of the Grace of God in Christ Jesus: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." (1 Cor 11:25)
Hebrews draws to a close with the blessing, "Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good . . ." (Heb 13:20)
- We make covenants and contracts and wills all the time. And we break them. We use lawyers to try to entangle them. How have such covenants been helpful or harmful in your life?
- How does being embraced by the grace of the new covenant in Christ Jesus ground us for making, keeping, and living in new covenantal relationships with God and with one another?
Larry Ministering in Covenantal Relationships
Walking with Larry: "Larry has been married to Debbie, his high school sweetheart, just under two years and they are expecting their first child in four months. This is his first year as a kindergarten teacher in the city across the river. They just moved into a larger rental house this week. Debbie's brother, Reggie, lives with them in a "bachelor pad" garage. And sometimes George, her father, a recovering and relapsing alcoholic, stays in the apartment, too, sleeping on the couch.
"I arrived at their home early, around 5:15 a.m., to meet up with Larry and Reggie. Since Reggie doesn't have a car, Larry takes on the responsibility of driving Reggie the 15 minutes to work each morning. All three of us piled into the car at 5:30 to make sure Reggie arrived at work by 5:45. I sat in the back. After a short conversation between Larry and Reggie about Sunday's pro football game, the car ride was steeped in silence.
"Upon dropping Reggie off, Larry turned to me and said, 'Here's the issue: I could now spend 15 minutes driving back home and attempt to fall back asleep for 30-45 minutes or I could go to the school where I teach, sleep in the parking lot, or sleep in the classroom. Normally I sleep in the classroom, but since you are here we will just sleep in the car.' Upon arriving at the school we slept for an hour, in the car, in the parking lot.
"Waking up to the sound of the cars of other teachers put a hop into Larry's step. We walked into Larry's classroom and I was immediately amazed by the wealth of artwork and projects that adorned the walls, ceiling, and floors. Larry explained that the children's favorite time of day is their craft time and that every child always receives a space to display their work.
"As the children arrived the demeanor of Larry changed completely. I saw an energetic, emotionally engaged, compassionate and playful Larry verses that of an overly tired, going-through-the-motions Larry that I was privy to earlier that morning. He was concerned about the well-being and happiness of every child and that was evident through his conversation and attentiveness to each child's needs. Larry's role is not without its challenges; three or four of the children consistently disrupt the learning environment of the other students. Larry has a tone and character that he embodies when dealing with these children. He is stern, yet not frightening, in such a manner that the children examine their own actions and offer solution or apologies depending upon the situation."
To "walk with Larry" beginning with the start of his day enabled Larry to be seen in the complexity of his vocation. While understanding his roles, he also sometimes feels captive. He, like so many others, is making sacrifices. He is "doing all he can," and needs to be assured that Christ offered himself as he sacrifice once for all. The Good News is that we do not live under the old covenant where blood sacrifices were necessary. We are not called to unending sacrifice. Our competence, even in the midst of pressures, comes from God who has made us ministers of a new covenant, freeing us, even in the midst of our many ministries to new covenantal relationship with God and with one another.
Fire/Snatched from Fire
The Epistle of James uses the image of fire: "How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire." Many have experienced the ravages of fire; some the horror of a forest fire, out of control. Is there an escape route? Who will put it out or bring it under control? But the Letter goes on: "And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, set on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell." (Jas 3:5-6) Ah, who of us has not experienced the human predicament of a community "on fire" because of envy and selfish ambition and false truth? The community itself is in a hellish situation.
I know of an elderly woman whose town was hit by an F5 tornado. Her home was crushed. She escaped only by huddling in the bathroom in the basement. She survived that tragedy, but a few years later the church of which she had been a member for decades experienced the fire of controversy which burned people and families deeply and finally ended in division. As she neared death, she shared that losing her church was more damaging to her even than losing her home. The tongue is a fire.
Later in James we have the image, "Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence again you, and it will eat your flesh like fire" (Jas 5:1-3) Again, a horrible image. And, "Our God is a consuming fire." (Heb 12:29) A strong image, not to be used lightly, nor thrown at people in a "fire and brimstone" sermon. However, if people have experienced or are experiencing the realities of fire, literally or as James uses it, the Good News that will meet them needs to be just as strong: God has snatched you from the fire in Jesus Christ.
Jude uses this term in writing about the last times. In the midst of divisions, he writes, "But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear . . ." (Jude 20-23)
- Fire is, of course, a good gift needed for heat, cooking food and more; however, when have you experienced, in a small way or on a grand scale, the ravages of fire out of control, damaging all around? Ponder or tell of your experience.
- How have you experienced or seen the damage the "tongue as a fire" can do in the midst of human community? What have you felt? Have you seen Christ at work snatching people from that fire? How might we be part of the working of grace in the midst of such fires?
Engulfed in Human Predicaments/Having an Advocate
"What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?" (Rom 8:31) Who of us does not need someone on our side? Who of us is not in need of an advocate at some time in the midst of our professional, public or personal life? Christ is not only savior and redeemer but also advocate. God is on our side. Paul goes on saying that if God did not withhold God's own Son, but gave Christ up for all of us, will not God also give us everything else? Who, therefore can bring-or prevail-in any charge against us? (Rom 8:32-33) We who are engulfed in sinning and in the human predicament of sin itself, have an advocate who intercedes for us: "Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us." (Rom 8:34)
First John uses these words to comfort: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;" (1 John 2:1) Hebrews uses this image of Christ as an ongoing advocate who intercedes, not only once, but continuously. Christ "is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." We have an advocate not just once, but someone advocating for our freedom again and again and again, so there is no possibility of our being engulfed in sin with no hope of escape.
This, of course, is not so for many people in this world whose lives are engulfed, sometimes in systemic sin not of their own doing, in poverty, addictions, the criminal justice system, or debt. We all participate in the bondage of being engulfed in this human predicament. Often people are left alone, with systems stacked against them. At just such times, to know that grace is having Jesus Christ as the sure, certain, and constant advocate makes all the difference in the world.
- When have you or someone you care about needed an advocate? What were the circumstances? What were the outcomes?
- Ponder Christ as your ongoing advocate. How does, or could, that make a difference in your daily life?
Natasha and Erin: Advocates for Each Other
Four months ago Natasha had a job at McDonalds, but for reasons beyond her control, she was asked to leave and has not been able to find another job since. She is a single mom of three-year-old Jason. At times feelings of desperation and helplessness seem to overcome her. Then she remembers she is not alone. For the last year Natasha and her son have been living with her friend, Erin and Erin's seven-year-old daughter Kristin. Erin has provided the home and Natasha has been a support and advocate since Erin's husband, Martin, died. Martin had been suffering from untreated depression. Erin had been concerned for his well-being, but Martin absolutely refused to seek professional help.
The day Martin disappeared, like every morning, Erin left home early for work. When she arrived home that evening, Martin was gone, but that wasn't surprising. As hours passed she became more worried. She tried his cell. No answer. She finally went to bed. When she awoke the next morning and saw he had not been home all night. She called his family and some close friends, but no one had seen him. Soon after, she found his cell phone, turned off, at home, along with his wallet, money, driver's license, and other documents. She reported his disappearance and an investigation began.
A month later, Erin received a call from an officer saying that a body with no documents had been found hanging from a tree in a field. Erin and Kristin were devastated.
Natasha doesn't fully realize how much support she has been to Erin, as well as an advocate when Erin has felt engulfed in a situation not of her own making. She has needed someone to intercede for her, to be an ongoing advocate in the midst of bondage. The grace of Christ is in the midst of Natasha's and Erin's friendship. Erin opened the door to Natasha when she had no place to go, due to a situation not of her own making. Then and now Natasha provides ongoing support and unconditional acceptance and care for Erin when she feels engulfed in her predicament. Grace! Mutual ministry.
Weight of Sin/Weight Lifted
For many people sin is experienced not as guilt or being illegal, or even as being in some particular bondage, but more as a weight that cannot ever be lifted. One is bogged down by burdens (its own kind of bondage), tired, unable to stand up straight, unable to reach out, even to God.
Our bodies can be weighed down, and so can our hearts. Sin is more than "bad actions." It is the burden of the complexity of human beings hurting one another. This results in being weighed down so that one cannot live freely. At times this weight is almost too hard to bear individually and even communally.
The image that can free us is that this weight, whatever it is, no matter how longstanding or how complex, has been lifted in the resurrection of Jesus. Millions of witnesses give us hope and life and freedom: "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely . . . (Heb 12:1) The word, "weight" is used another time in the Epistles, in a different way, "So we do not lose heart . . . For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure." (2 Cor 4:17) The weight is lifted and need never again hold us down.
The Airport Attendant
An airport attendant at Chicago O'Hare was pushing my wheel chair. She was behind, of course, so I couldn't see her face as she adeptly made sure I made it from one gate to my connecting flight. But we engaged in conversation so I began to "see" her as a person. She liked her job, she said. We talked some more. Then she moved beyond polite conversation and said that sometimes the weight was too heavy. She was small. When she needed to push a very large person with heavy bags, particularly up the jet bridge to the terminal, the weight was just too much for her. She added that sometimes another passenger exiting the plane would see how hard it was, and help her.
It's like that, isn't it? Sometimes we don't even see the face of someone who is bearing a weight that is too much for them to bear. The Gospel message for them is not, "You are forgiven." Rather, because the ultimate weight of sin has been lifted in Christ, we are freed to put gospel into action and see the need, and to help lift the weight for our neighbor, perhaps even the one serving us.
- What weight of sin lies heavy on your heart? Dwell on the reality that grace for you means that Christ has lifted that weight in the cross and resurrection. How does that change things even if the weight remains?
- How can we more clearly notice the weight that others bear? How can we together, in Christ, be of help to lift those burdens?
How can faith speak directly to people's real lives? How can conversation around Scripture make "all the difference" in the arenas of someone's daily world? People who have heard the Bible many times-or for the first time-want to know in the terms and images of their life situation. "When my world seems to be shaking all around me, why doesn't it help to hear 'You are forgiven?'?" And, "What can I say to someone who feels totally alienated from God?"
70 Images of Grace in the Epistles...that Make All the Difference in the World** **will help people make connections and empower them for their ministries in daily life. The book presents an interplay of stories of people's actual lives and Epistle images of Grace. Readers will begin to recognize the depth of the human predicament and the power of the Gospel, thereby becoming equipped for Christian discipleship and vocation, not from duty or guilt, but from freedom. "Guides for Engagement" will help turn the book into a learning event.
To order visit www.amazon.com, www.wipfandstock.com, local bookstores and other online booksellers.
Norma Cook Everist is Senior Distinguished Professor of Church and Ministry at Wartburg Theological Seminary (ELCA) in Dubuque, Iowa, where she has taught for many years. Previously she taught at Yale Divinity School. An author, columnist, and a widely-known lecturer, she has published over a dozen books including
- Transforming Leadership (co-authored with Craig Nessan) (Fortress);
- The Church as Learning Community (Abingdon);
- Open the Doors and See All the People: Stories of Congregational Identity and Vocation (Augsburg Fortress);
- Church Conflict: From Contention to Collaboration (Abingdon)
- Where in the World Are You? Connecting Faith and Daily Life (co-authored with Nelvin Vos) (Alban Institute)
- The Difficult But Indispensable Church, contributing editor (Fortress)
Everist is a regular blogger for the Huffington Post and publishes her own blog, "Conversations on the Church's Vocation in the Public World."
Q&A with Norma Cook Everist
1. You have written books on subjects such as ministry, congregational life, church conflict, and leadership. Why now a book on the Epistles?
The Epistles, Letters written by Paul, Peter, James, and others to young churches are often an under-utilized part of the New Testament. In them, besides stories of the struggles and growth of the early Christian communities, I discovered a variety of ways the writers spoke about the problems--the human predicaments--of life and life together and of God's grace. Not just "You are guilty" and "You are Forgiven," but "Darkness/Light," "Captivity/Freedom," "Alienation/Belonging." Those are major images. At first I found 23, and then more and more, some minor, but ones people could relate to such as a "Destruction/Rescue," Waterless Places/Life-Giving Waters," "Shamed/Unashamed." Soon I was up to 70. And I discovered no one had written a book such as this.
2. Besides exploration of these 70 images of grace in the Epistles, your book is full of stories. Tell me what the stories are about?
Dozens of stories are intertwined with the images, real stories of people's daily lives in the world. They are not about church people working inside the church building, but about Christians at work in the world, such as "Brenda on the Oncology Unit," "Matt the Bank Teller," or "John Feeling Deceived and Conflicted." Sometimes I begin with a story and move into the images as used in various Epistles. Sometimes the story follows an image of a combination of images and sometimes the story and image are intertwined. The stories are from a wide range of contexts: "Harry on His Forty Thousand Acre Ranch," to three young people who were in "The Earthquake in Haiti" to "Malcolm's Letters from Prison."
3. What's the connection for the reader?
Often people listen to a sermon and then feel they need to apply it to daily life, but making that connection is difficult. They may feel a gap between what they hear on Sunday and experience on a Tuesday morning or Thursday afternoon. This book helps the reader begin with where they are. By reading stories of real people-identities, and locations disguised as appropriate, of course-the reader begin to think of their own life situation. For example people thought "Rosemary," married to a banker, had a perfect life, but inside, a world of family secrets of mental illness, losses and tragedies left her feeling alienated and alone. The Good News for her when she felt alienated, even estranged from God, is that she belongs to Christ and that in Christ's cross and resurrection belonging God can never be taken from her.
4. Can you tell me about another image and how it is entwined with someone's story?
Perhaps surprisingly, a major image of grace in the Epistles is not Sins/Atoning Sacrifice but Meaninglessness/Call. Here I Intertwine St. Paul's call story with "Shirley Who Thinks She is Completely Boring"-an unlikely pairing I realize. However, one would be surprised how many people in this very busy world today think their lives are meaningless. Throughout the Epistles: Galatians, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Timothy, and more, we hear that members of Christ's church together are called to one calling, whatever our call stories. We are called to Christ, and are called to life together, mission and ministry. Sometimes we are turned around in our tracks, such as St. Paul; other times we are called simply in the midst of what we already are doing, like Shirley who was engaged in all sorts of ministry, but never recognized it.
5. How do you see readers using this book?
One can start from either direction: the stories of human lives and people hungering for the grace of God, or with a biblical image. If we begin with the human situation, we cannot simply look for an "answer" in Scripture, like opening the Bible and pointing your finger to a text. Nor should we take an image and project it onto someone like it was a kind of a personality test: "Joe is alienation/belonging; Melinda is darkness/light." The goal is to listen to people as we meet them on the road in daily life, just as Jesus did. We need to listen deeply to one another. One reader looking at the chapters of the pre-publication copy said, "Chapter Five! That's all about my life. I would begin there." Another said, "I'm going to begin at the beginning." Another place to begin is in someone's off-hand remark. A recently retired professional man said to me at a church pot-luck, "I'm glad spring is coming, so I can do yardwork. During this long winter I have felt so useless." The good news for him was not, "You are forgiven," but that in the human predicament of feeling useless, Christ continues to call him with his gifts. (Useless/Gifts is a major Epistle image.) On another day, a different image might be more helpful for him.
6. Is this book mostly for individuals or for groups of readers to use?
This book is intended for a broad readership, including ministerial leaders, for pastoral care or sermon preparation. It is written for all people in the Christian faith community. It can be read alone but it might be most useful in a group setting such as an adult forum, a Bible class, or a peer support group. In could be used in an introduction to Christian faith or as a reintroduction for people considering returning to church after being away for a number of years. In addition, it is suitable for formal education classes such as in colleges and seminaries-classes on connecting Scripture with the life of discipleship, faith formation, spiritual practices, and leadership for helping people make a difference in a complex world.
7. Are there questions for the readers or other ways to help people use this book with groups?
Yes. After each image there are questions for reflection or conversation. For example, for "Division/Unity": 1. What church divisions have you experienced-given you pain, caused whole communities to hurt one another, become dysfunctional and broken? 2. How is unity in Christ a gift of grace and salvation in Christ, even in the midst of the pain of conflict?
Additionally, at the back of the book are five "Guides for Engagement": 1. "Learning Together," ways to lead conversational discussion fruitfully in various settings and methods for teaching and learning; 2. "Using an Image," multiple ways to personally reflect on the images or to help relate the gospel to a person whose life situation cries out for grace; 3 "Walking With," suggestions on how to enter the real worlds of people, not through interviews or surveys, but by walking with them, listening to their stories, to the images they use, and to the challenges they face; 4. "Listening in the Language of the Other," helping people discover images that name their own experience and listening to their "languages" of pharmacy or farming, mechanics or medicine, etc., they use every day; 5. "Discerning Vocations," exploring ways of living out the faith throughout one's life and of supporting each other in order to make a difference in the world.
 Reference Ps 68:18.
 The opening of Malcolm's letter July 10, 2000.
 See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012) "We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it." 2.
 See Martin Luther, "A Treatise on Christian Liberty" in Three Treatises (Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1947) 251. "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."
 Quoting Ps 32:1