God saves us because of God’s immutable love for us
One of the things that brings me the most hope as a follower of Jesus, and expands my faith to do daring and risky things (like what I’ve been doing for the last eight years), is that Jesus saves me and sanctifies me, redeems and completes me, transforms and remakes me, not because of how the world sees me, but because of how Jesus sees me: his beloved.. The endless grace of Jesus that he has given to the world because of how much God loves is a result of the character of God, not the virtue of human beings. And any good that humans beings do, regardless of having faith or not, is the result of that unavoidable grace that surrounds and fills the whole world.
The job of the church is to extend and reveal that grace to the whole world because of how God has extended it in us, because of who we are in Christ.. Our cells and Sunday meetings are designed to do that very thing. We aren’t creating something new out of our own virtue, or making the world better because we are so good; we are employing God’s grace, our main fuel, and revealing the kingdom to the whole world.
This piece of theology, the idea that God saves us because of how God sees us, regardless of who we are and who the world says we are, is critical in our time and place because the world around us indeed telling and selling us who we are. When I listen, it seems to me that the world is saying that sum of salvation is in making sure the state recognizes us and provides for us. That individual rights are the most important thing to achieve. Unfortunately, liberty and individuality, while making sense and are good within a time and place, are still largely captured by the neoliberal order with which the powers are attempting to invade our minds. If we are not committed to having the mind of Christ, it is easy for our minds to be colonized into thinking that all we need is liberty to be free. This is the fruit of the American project, which is the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment.
God saves the whole earth, plus the individual
The grace of God is given to the whole cosmos; for God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, as the familiar verse goes. Paul in Galatians addresses this idea. God is giving everyone and everything God’s grace. He’ll say, “the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love.” And in one of the most radical statements to be penned in that century, Paul says that it doesn’t matter what the world calls you, the class you were born into, the gender you have, the race you are: we are all one-in-Christ.
Our oneness in Christ is all about God’s redemption of us. And the incredible thing about it is that God’s grace is granted to all of us, regardless of who we are. The reason this point is so radical isn’t just because the Greco-Roman world is so stratified (much like ours currently is and another reason why this statement remains radical), it’s because God had a particularist covenant with Israel in the Old Testament. God created a nation out of the people he freed from Egypt. They were in an intimate relationship with God. In my reading of the Old Testament, that particularist covenant does not imply superiority, but it certainly has resuledin superiority and gave Paul the problem he had in Romans and Galatians, where there was a sense of cultural and religious superiority among the people.
Paul, when speaking of being one-in-Christ, is speaking to those who think they are superior from others. That’s why I began with this idea that God saves us because of how God sees us and not how the world sees us. God loves you, you are God’s beloved, regardless of how you are.
We need to contextualize Galatians 3
There are things that need to be said about identity in the U.S. in order to live out the Gospel in our time in place. Paul wrote his radical statement in Galatians 3 also in a time and place.. First, we should note that gender, sexuality, class, and race are all areas that are radically stratified in the United States. The value and meaning assigned to them is largely arbitrary. The names and status given to them are assigned to us by the world, and too often informed by the state, sometimes even codified into law. I’m not very involved in statecraft, and Christians should be cautious when they are. However, there is a more equitable direction for the state to take when it comes to how it sorts through rights and equality for the groups of people it has separated by arbitrary measures and with changing labels for identity.
The fact that those identities have gained prominence, both by the state, by the dominators, and even by those who are relegated to them can complicate how we apply Galatians 3. We still do not have access to God’s grace because of those identities, but the characteristics that make up those identities, whether it’s your skin color, your education level, your gender, or how you are attracted, are still a part of us but they are not why God loves us. We need to be careful not to use the sorting mechanisms of the world, the ones imposed on us, to stereotype or categorize or identify us, because our fundamental identity is in Christ, without doing violence to or whitewashing the differences that we hold.
The most radical thing about God’s enduring grace and Paul’s vision for the Galatian church is that we are united despite of our differences, and we are saved with them intact, too. I believe the age to come will include all of the diversity that we see now, but without the connotation, meaning, and power assigned to it.
So what does it look like to bring heaven to earth?
I acknowledged above that the earthly categories that the powers file us into (like we are a folder in a filing cabinet), or the ones that we claim in our effort to find identity and tribe, have a lot of limitations. But it is easy to deconstruct the idea of them, if we are the ruling party. Calls to be one-in-Christ and reconciliation come too often from the dominators. The proverbs in Circle of Hope, discerned through the Spirit, actually hold the dominators accountable for these vast power differentials. One of those proverbs: “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable.”
The answer is in dismantling the power associated with some of these categories, instead of ensuring the equal ability to dominate. That is the ministry of reconciliation that Jesus brings forth. Liberation looks like dismantling power structures that oppress, reconciliation looks like moving us all toward a common identity and a common love, one that truly does acknowledge differences, without whitewashing them, while also not giving them the power to segregate us and oppress us.
Our territory is colonized by powers greater than us. We need not fear it because Jesus is greater than our hearts and knows all things. We also need to acknowledge the limitedness of those categorical descriptions, but while also acknowledging how powerful they are. To put an example to it, we can say that race is a social construct, or that labels around sexuality and orientation are insufficient, without acknowledging that the world uses them to oppress. We don’t get rid of the oppression just by getting rid of the labels or ignoring that they are real. At the same time, we don’t have to name them as God-given either, even if the characteristics of those labels are from God. Naming my skin as brown and from God and beautiful is one thing, and though it’s not individually virtuous, it is redeemable because of who God is. God made those things beautiful, and God saves me because of how God’s grace surpasses. The name that I assign to them is a representation of that beauty, but is not fundamentally virtuous. The freedom we receive from God in Jesus gives us the freedom to extend and enact the Lord’s Kingdom of grace in radical ways without being worried that our success or virtue is what saves us.It frees us to rest in Jesus, knowing that even though the world hates us, Jesus loves it. It frees us to work for justice. The work Jesus has done in our lives and in the world is what saves us, not our fundamentalist purity.
Here’s the thing, you will oppress someone today. You’ll isolate someone today. Some of you have an entire system behind backing up your implicit and complicit oppression, some of us don’t. But we don’t do it perfectly. We need to interrogate that in ourselves, but not because that’s how we’re saved and known. God frees us to do that, because God’s character and virtue is what saves us, not our own piety or how the world names you.