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Credo 18 - ... for us men and for our salvation ...

Friday, July 27, 2007
For the first time those reciting the creed are incorporated into its subject matter: the identity and revelation of God in Jesus which we have been recalling in the previous section of the narrative is for us (for all humanity); God, in Jesus, is for life, you might say, not just for Christmas; is for our living out. But in what sense? From what are we saved, and how?

Chesterton once said something to the effect that original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith. What he meant by this is that we experience a disjunction between where we feel we are and where we could and should be. Rowan Williams has offered a useful metaphor in a recent series of reflections: we are not living in peace by one another’s generosity, in an “economy of gift”. Rather, we tend to turn into ourselves in self-absorption to escape the demands of the other, especially if another’s needs are complex, troubling and put us at a disadvantage. And as for our individual behaviour, so even more in the behaviour of the collective realities, the churches, nations, cultures in which we live. Inasmuch as we are born into a set of dysfunctional relationships, in forming our identities, in learning how to be human, to exist and act as a member of the human community, we inescapably learn destructive behaviours, the turning away from the God of gift to becoming dominated by the idols we have made for our security (wealth, power, market forces) - in Scriptural terms living in a state of slavery and fear.

And it was because humanity had become bogged down in such a morass that something beyond human action was needed to set it right. Or rather, only a human act of fearless love would heal the process of human history, as an example and precept of a new way of living – but humans had become dehumanised, were not human enough to perform it.

Jesus is the human event that brings divine freedom into play in our world. Jesus’ humanity embodies God the Son, embodies the mutual self-giving love of Son and Father. We can speak of him offering a divine gift of unrestricted love to the Father and to the world. And of course the reality of our sinful state, the effects of the self-destructiveness of humans, is shown in how we (collectively, in the religious and political powers of Jesus’ day) received that gift of unrestricted love – we crucified him. In the kind of world we’ve made or collude with this is what the price of unrestricted loving is.

But God had the last word in that particular dialogue, God’s loves for us persists, shown in and through the Resurrection of Jesus, offering us the possibility of being remade in the love of Jesus. According to John, Jesus ‘breathes into his disciples’ his spirit, the breath of his life; and contact with humans who have received the breath of Jesus’ life is contact with Jesus, is to be contemporary with Jesus. In the Spirit we are given the capacity to relate to the God the Father as Jesus did, to continue to be his body in the world.

Salvation then means both liberation from a negative condition (defined in the New Testament primarily in terms of slavery and fear) and the gift of a positive one (defined primarily by a freedom that revealed itself in states, dispositions, attitudes and behaviour). At root, the first Christians claimed the experience of power, which came not from themselves, but from another – God. Three phrases frequently occur in the New Testament speaking of this power – eternal life, expressing the quality of life they have been given, a share in some sense in God’s own life, even as they continue their earthly existence. The second was forgiveness of sins, the removal by God of everything that prevents full reconciliation between God and humans – just as no human can give a share in God’s life so no human can forgive sins – the point of the controversies in the three Synoptic Gospels. The third phrase is the ‘Holy Spirit’, which corresponds to their experience of God’s power, the life-giving presence of the risen Lord. Salvation is not then a rescue or restoration, but an elevation, opening up the possibility of our participating by gift or grace in the divine nature (cf 2 Pet 1:3-4).

And this is (or should be) happening now. It’s an unfortunately common mistake to assume that the action of our salvation refers only to a future condition. Admittedly, this strong sense of salvation as a participation in God’s life depends on or is validated by a strong experience of liberation and power, which might not be especially evident in our local Christian communities. This has never completely disappeared in the church, as the testimony of the saints shows us, but can be blunted or even suppressed in churches more concerned with institutional survival than communicating the living reality of salvation. Are our priorities maintenance rather than mission, security rather than the risk of self-giving?


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