Preached at St.Andrew’s-by-the-lake (Turkey Point, ON).
“All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State… shall be – then, thenceforward, and forever free”.
These are the opening words of the Emancipation Proclamation, written by President Abraham Lincoln during the height of the American Civil War. There are four characteristics of the Emancipation Proclamation that are worth noting:
First, the Proclamation was immediate: The freedom of the slaves took effect at 12:00AM New Year’s Day 1863. Therefore, regardless of whether or not the newly freed slaves knew they were free, they were free at that exact moment.
Second, the Proclamation was unconditional: the freedom of the former slaves came freely. It was not something that was purchased; they were free because they were declared to be free.
Third, the Proclamation was permanent: the newly freed slaves were guaranteed that they would never be slaves again.
Fourth, the Proclamation freed all who were enslaved: all slaves, every single one, were free, no longer condemned to a life as someone else’s property.
In many ways, the Emancipation Proclamation brings to mind St. Paul’s description of the gospel.
In Romans chapters 5-7, Paul describes the way in which all people – every single person – find themselves caught in the web of sin, enslaved to our selfish desires.
However, in Romans 8, the climax of his argument, Paul makes a great reversal, signaled by the word ‘therefore’.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).
In one word Paul completely overturns everything in chapters 5-7. He moves from stating that everyone is under the condemnation wrought by sin to – “there is therefore now no condemnation of those who are in Christ Jesus”.
What is going on here? What does this mean?
Listen again to verse 2: “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set [us] free from the law of sin and death”.
We who were once condemned by our sin are now free because Christ “condemned sin in the flesh” (8:3).
In other words, through Jesus, God definitively says “No!” to sin and death and, therefore, definitively says “Yes!” to those caught in the web of sin.
This is the good news of Christ’s liberation.
Similar to the Emancipation Proclamation, there are four central characteristics of Paul’s description of the gospel in Romans:
First, the gospel is immediate: whereas we were previously caught in the web of sin, “there is therefore now no condemnation” (8:1). The ‘now’ indicates the present state of affairs. Our previous identity as slaves to sin no longer defines who we are because now we are in Christ Jesus; our identity is defined by him and him alone.
Second, the gospel is unconditional: There is nothing we can do or need to do in order to purchase our freedom; it is, as Paul describes, a “free gift” (Rom. 5:15) given to all people through Jesus Christ.
Third, the gospel is permanent: nothing can undo our liberation; Christ’s condemnation of sin and death is final. Moreover, we have the promise that “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). Never again will we be enslaved to sin.
Fourth, the gospel is for everyone: As Paul explains at the beginning of his argument in Romans 5:18: “Just as one man’s trespass [Adam’s] led to condemnation for all, so one’s mans act of righteousness [Christ’s] leads to justification and life for all”.
But wait a minute – the gospel is for everyone? Really?
What about those who, in Paul’s words in verse 9, do not “have the Spirit of Christ” and do not “belong to him”?
Does this mean that they are not chosen by God? Moreover, does it mean they are rejected by God?
Is Christ’s liberation limited to those whom God has chosen, to the so-called ‘elect’?
Doesn’t God love everyone?
The fact that God chooses particular individuals is undeniable. The question is: why?
Why did God choose Abraham?
Why did God choose Isaac over Ishmael? Jacob over Esau?
In the face of all the options, God’s choices seem arbitrary, and therefore scandalous.
Why did God choose the people he chose? Abraham frequently lied to save his skin, Jacob was deceptive, and the people of Israel had a penchant for worshipping false gods.
God’s election of particular individuals and people is for the purpose of fulfilling his redemptive project; the only way to make sense of God’s choice of particular people, is within the context of his promise to restore the cosmos to original shalom and to bring people back into perfect fellowship with him and each other.
God maintains and fulfils this promise through those whom he chooses; election – the doctrine of God’s choosing particular individuals and people – has nothing to do with who is going to heaven and who is not and everything to do with God’s redemptive project here and now. “God elects for the sake of bringing his plan to fulfillment; he does not elect in order to recognize or champion our efforts and projects” (Reno, 219).
As arbitrary and scandalous as God’s election may seem to us, it is good news precisely because God does not elect people on the basis of any “earthly measure”, “human standard” or “calculation of merit” (Reno, 219). God chooses whom he chooses according to the priority of his grace as “he works toward the consummation of all things” (Reno, 217).
God’s choice of particular individuals is good news because it emphasizes God’s love for humanity; God does not love us in a generic, purely transcendent way; he loves us in our particularity. Moreover, God’s election of particular people demonstrates God’s willingness to become deeply involved in human history; God does not leave us to fend for ourselves while he watches from a distance, hoping that things work out for the best.
Furthermore, like God’s election, God’s love defies all reason. It seems arbitrary and indiscriminate, but this is because it is not on the basis of any human standard. God’s perfect love is without limit or boundary; it is immediate, unconditional, permanent, and it is extended to all people.
So, God chose Abraham to be his covenant partner, to be the one from whom God would make a particular people called to be a blessing to all people (cf. Gen. 22:18). God chose Abraham’s descendants to be the particular family who would help bring God’s redemptive plan for the entire cosmos to fruition.
Therefore, the answer to the question: ‘why did God choose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?’ – is simply: ‘Jesus’.
God sent his Son to become incarnate, to become God with-us and God for-us, in a particular time and a particular place in a particular human body, to be a descendant of a particular family: Abraham’s.
Jesus is the one elected by God to be the representative of humanity, to bear the violence of sin and death, and to set us free through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Just as the logic of God’s electing love defies human logic, so too does the logic of how Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension achieves human freedom.
Therefore, attempts to figure these things out are exercises in futility; rather, our response should be awe and gratitude at God’s choice to emancipate humanity through his beloved Son.
What also defies human logic is Jesus’ choice about who would continue his ministry after his ascension.
Why did Jesus choose the disciples he did, uneducated working-class men who had a tendency to doubt and betray?
Why did Jesus choose Paul, a murderous fundamentalist (cf. Acts 9:1)?
Why did Jesus choose us, the Church, prone to division and distraction?
Once again, there is no human logic Jesus’ choice. But that is exactly the point! The good news is that God’s redemptive plan will unfold on God’s timeline according to God’s ways, despite the best efforts of humans to frustrate these plans.
Nevertheless, Jesus chose the disciples, Paul, and the Church to proclaim the gospel – the good news that Christ has freed us from the web of sin and death and offers us the freedom of life in him.
Jesus chose us, the Church, to recklessly sow the seeds of the gospel, the good news of the liberation of all people. Our task is simply to sow the seed. We need not worry about the soil for the soil remains God’s responsibility alone for God alone is the one who can turn rock into rich soil and uproot thorns (cf. John Chrysostom). God alone is the one who can and has already defeated the evil one who attempts to subvert the freedom of the gospel.
Yes, there will be those who will choose to reject the gospel. Nevertheless, this rejection does not negate the liberation Christ offers. In fact, nothing can annul this freedom.
The gift of Christ’s freedom remains for all people precisely because God’s love “does not depend on what we do or what we are like. He doesn’t care whether we are sinners or not. It makes no difference to him. He is [patiently] waiting to welcome us with joy and love” (McCabe, 157). It is in this embrace that we find true freedom and true humanity. Everyone is offered this freedom in Christ, a freedom that is immediate, unconditional, and permanent.
Today we celebrate Holy Communion, where Christ unites himself with us so that we may be united with him in freedom.
This is the freedom that Christ offers: healing and wholeness, life and peace in and through him.
Come let us taste our freedom in him.