Thursday, July 12, 2007

Good News -- the power of God for salvation

Today's reading, from the first chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans, tells us how proud Paul is of the gospel:
I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then to the Greek. For in it (in the gospel) a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."
Romans 1:16-17
Whatever salvation is, in Paul's mind it's inextricably connected to "righteousness from God."

About the time Paul wrote that, many infants, were dying because they were, well, girls. For these babies, salvation was an immediate, physical need; they needed to be saved from the elements, from the heartlessness of their parents and of the society that condoned -- even encouraged -- infanticide.

So what was salvation to these babies? What does righteousness have to do with it? And is it entirely different from what Paul is talking about?

One might claim that an earthly salvation is only temporary -- that Paul is talking about eternal salvation, but salvation for the baby girls was very limited and short-term (lasting 100 years or less). That might actually be the case, but really, what earthly good would the Good News have been to those Greek and Roman babies, cruelly left out to die?

Or, consider a more modern example -- a pregnant teenager, ejected from her home by irate parents. Such is the fate of the fictional "Victoria," who in Haruf's novel Plainsong moves in with two elderly brothers, bachelor farmers, themselves orphaned as teens. They give her their dead parents' room, feed her, buy a crib for the coming baby, and so on. By the start of Evensong, the next novel, Victoria is moving into her first apartment at college. Introducing the brothers to her new roommate, she says, "They saved me."

"Are they preachers?" the roommate asks.

I'm afraid that we evangelicals have not always had a great record when it comes to offering good news that sounds like it. Speaking for myself, I prefer to think about people looking for meaning in life, worried about their own sin -- those are questions that I know Jesus wants to answer, and I know how to at least begin describing the answer. But an abandoned baby or a homeless pregnant teen?

So rather than saying the salvation described in Romans 1 was irrelevant to a large swath of first-century Romans, or 21st century Americans, I propose this alternative: that the Good News is not only about how an individual can get righteousness from God through faith in Christ; it is fundamentally about the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is not strictly an individual phenomenon, though it does happen one person at a time. Instead, I'm going to say that as people care for the orphan and the widow and the homeless, they are part of the solution and thus have a part in the coming of God's kingdom.

When you and I meet the Lord Jesus by faith, receive forgiveness for our sins by faith, and start to walk with him by faith, he uses us (if we let him) to bring the kingdom to widows and orphans, to the homeless and unemployed, and yes, to middle-class people wondering about their eternal destiny and the meaning of their lives here and now.

Now what about the issue that Paul says the good news brings salvation to those who believe -- not "through" but "to" those who believe? I mean, it's not like the language of the time had a shortage of prepositions (and I don't know Greek better than the NIV translators do!) or anything. Here's what I think. The kingdom of God does come to an individual, but it also comes to societies, to tribes -- to nations.

And about righteousness: what those 1st century Christians did in rescuing those baby girls, and what Haruf's fictional bachelor farmers did for the fictional Victoria, and what many Christians do today for many pregnant girls who do not get abortions -- these acts of strength and compassion are part of what "righteousness" means. The word translated "righteousness" -- and it does sound rather musty to modern ears -- what it means is "like it's supposed to be." So a "righteous" knife is one that cuts well; a "righteous" wagon is one that rolls smoothly and is strong enough for the load. A righteous person is like God in being generous, compassionate, loving, honorable, and so on.

In particular, Paul says that the gospel, the good news, is about righteousness from God not connected to religious rituals.

So what would I say the essence of the gospel is? What is the good news, in other words? From Mark 1:15, it's this: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near. The kingdom is coming, and you and I can be part of it.

And when that happens, salvation comes -- not just the hope of eternal salvation that comes to you and to me individually when we believe it, but also the healing and blessing that comes to our community in and through us.

Sounds like really good news to me!

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