Creation and redemption

December 28, 2009

This week’s texts are striking for their marvelous intertwining of
themes that creedal Christians, in particular, often tend to keep
separate: creation and redemption. This appears especially when the
Gospel reading speaks of the word of creation as the Word-become-flesh
who reveals and reconciles us with the Father.

As always in
biblical studies, it would be sheer arrogance to claim originality for
any of the following points. But here’s what came to mind as I read and
re-read these texts.

Jeremiah 31:7-14

  • The reference to Israel/Ephraim recalls Hosea and especially the moving statement
    of God’s internal conflict between justice and mercy. Indeed, Jeremiah
    seems deeply influenced by the one writing prophet whom we know to be
    from the North.
  • Jeremiah’s repeated references to “ransom”
    and “redeem” call to mind one of the hottest topics in theology: models
    for understanding the atonement. One of the questions that regularly
    arises is, if one favors a “ransom” model (à la Irenaeus),
    to whom is the ransom paid and from whom is humanity redeemed? This is a
    legitimate question, but not necessarily one that we can answer with
    scriptural authority. The point of ransom/redeem language, at least in
    Jeremiah, appears to be that alienation from God was part of God’s
    judgment on Israel’s rebellion and that reconciliation (whether
    expressed as ransom or as redemption) is at God’s initiative and
    accomplished by God’s acts. Israel, according to Jeremiah, has only to
    accept that its circumstances vis-à-vis God have changed by God’s own
    doing and to rejoice therein.

Ephesians 1:3-14

  • This
    opening passage has a hymnic quality and coheres especially around the
    phrase that occurs in some variation at least eight times in these 12
    verses: “in Christ.”
  • The passage is replete with adoption language.
    The upshot is that, while the passage certainly makes it clear that it
    is Christ who accomplished our redemption, the emphasis in many respects
    lies on the result rather than the process. (So much for models of the
    atonement.)
  • The passage is also full of language that states
    implicitly or explicitly that our adoption is the free gift of God,
    beginning with the claim that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” that is, manifestly before our own creation.
  • Language
    like “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” as “the pledge
    of our inheritance” calls to mind (at least for those from more
    sacramentally minded traditions) both baptism and the anticipatory
    nature of the sacraments (e.g., the liturgy’s Eucharistic reference as
    “a foretaste of the feast to come”). With next Sunday’s focus on Jesus’ baptism, there is an opportunity here for some continuity.
  • Running
    throughout this text is an image of God as Planner Supreme. It is
    all-too-easy for us to wander off from this theme into fascinating
    theological and philosophical alleyways, including especially
    predestination (see also Romans 8:29-30).
    While I am well aware of my potential Lutheran bias here, I think it
    pastorally imperative to stress that language like this is intended
    solely for the purpose of good news and the “blessed assurance” of God’s
    people.

John 1:(1-9), 10-18

  • The
    first nine verses are listed as optional, but I would heartily urge
    their inclusion, as they provide essential context for verses 10-18
    (especially if one intends to pick up on the creation/redemption
    combination).
  • The passage offers a brilliant explanation of
    redemption in the light of creation. John takes the potentially distant
    fiat language of Genesis 1 and makes it personal in the extreme, by
    identifying that very language as the God who would become incarnate in
    Jesus Christ. (As many have observed, at least part of the linkage
    between the two is provided by the portrayal of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8.)
  • Similarly,
    redemption is described in terms of God’s very personal engagement with
    the world. Yet nothing comes easy, even for God: “his own people” do
    not know or accept him (a problem throughout the ages, not merely in
    late-first-century intra-Jewish polemics). But those who do receive and
    accept are adopted as God’s children—just as Ephesians said and even
    Jeremiah hints at as he hears God’s good news of reclamation proclaimed
    among nations and coastlands afar.

Additional lectionary columns by Heider appear in the December 29 issue of the Century—click here to subscribe.

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