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By Rich Erickson
[Editor’s Note: This piece was previously published in Christ & Cascadia, the online publication of the Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture.]
What does it mean to imitate Christ in the Pacific Northwest? Tierra Nueva in Burlington, Washington, provides one interesting, creative, and challenging answer. Confronting both individual and institutional sin, Tierra Nueva serves amidst the Hispanic migrant communities of Skagit County. In homes, on the streets, in the fields and throughout the jails, Tierra Nueva comes alongside the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the detained, embodying Christ’s mercy and justice. All too many migrants become entrapped in the incomprehensible labyrinth of American legal processes, immigration enforcement, gang culture, prison life, drug addiction and deportation. Through its ministries Tierra Nueva demonstrates that Christ is not only a personal Savior, but a social liberator as well.
Visualize Jesus, selfless and compassionate even toward those whom society rejects and incarcerates. Christ comes alongside, touches, acknowledges, looks into the eyes and the souls of the entrapped, and sets them free to be what the God of mercy calls them to be, to experience a real foretaste of the New Heaven and the New Earth. Yet it costs him to do this; his healing a man’s withered hand leads to a plot on his life (Mark 3:5-6).
Nor does Tierra Nueva’s ministry come without bearing the weight of individual and social sin; it calls its members to die daily with and for these vessels of mercy. In a very real sense, Tierra Nueva is one of God’s chosen “sin-bearers,” just like the Savior. Jesus’ calling disciples to pick up their own crosses and to follow him is not simply a matter of disciples’ individual sins, but much more a matter of their giving their lives for others’ sake, just as Jesus himself does:
Along this line, I have recently come to a startling realization about Paul’s understanding of the mission of the church in the world. Until now, I have understood Paul’s phrase “vessels of mercy” as referring to God’s people, specifically to Christians, and his phrase “vessels of wrath” as referring to the lost (Rom 9:22-23).
But I’ve now come to see it the other way around: it is the lost, the rebellious, the marginalized, the unsaved—whatever we might want to call them—that God’s mercy is directed toward. But if that is the case, then it means that, like Jesus himself, the Church is called as vessels of wrath to bear the sin of the world. The usual first response I’ve had to this idea is skepticism or outright rejection, since of course only Jesus bears the sin of the world, including the sins of the Church. And the usual reply I offer is, “Yes. Exactly. That’s what I just said.” For the Church is the Body of Christ, the hands and feet of the Savior of the world. The ministry of Tierra Nueva is just one example of that truth working itself out in real life.
I used to have the vague idea that God chose or called Israel to be as nearly perfect as possible, and that the Law of Sinai was intended to make that happen. So I was surprised at certain odd statements Paul makes in Romans. For example, 5:20a: “But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied”; and 7:13: “Did what is good [i.e., the Law], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure” (my italics, obviously!). But if God’s intention in giving his people the law was what I used to think it was, then God must have been surprised with the actual result: that because of the law and through the law, his chosen people became characterized by increased trespass and by sin more sinful than ever.
What could these texts be saying? What would it have meant that God intentionally gave Israel, his chosen, elect people, an instrument that he knew full well would make them immeasurably sinful? What was he thinking!?
It would be absurd of me to say I know what God was thinking. But whereas I once thought of election as the expression of God’s special preference for a restricted class of people, I now see election as God’s choosing a people for a special task on his behalf, and on behalf of other, “unelect” people whom he wishes to bless.
A transformed humanity living in the New Heaven and the New Earth
Gradually I’ve noticed other texts, texts that have always “been there.” If as the Church we think about our current calling in terms of God’s eschatological promises, what do we see? I see a transformed humanity living in the New Heaven and the New Earth. This humanity (we!) will live free from sin and death, utterly without competitiveness and self-concern. According to Jesus, the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord God with our entire being and to love our fellow creatures as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). Paul expresses this idea as imitating Jesus by putting others’ interests ahead of our own (Phil 2:1-11), not just in future glory, but already here and now.
Imitating Jesus suggests another piece of the puzzle. Israel as Abraham’s family was called as the channel of God’s blessing all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). Losing the vision, Israel failed; but epitomized in their Messiah, Israel—as Jesus—utterly succeeded. Now Jesus’ followers, the Church, carry on his mission. The Church inherits Israel’s calling; ancient Israel and the Church, both as God’s people, share the same election and task. The Church is Jesus incarnate, just as Jesus—Israel’s epitome—is God incarnate. The Church is called to be and do what Jesus was and did, and it is for this calling that the Spirit of Jesus, God’s Spirit, indwells and empowers the Church.
And here’s the rub: Jesus was crucified. There are various theories of the Atonement, all of which probably express some element of the Truth. But the point I wish to highlight here is that in proclaiming the values and the very fact of God’s rule in the culture he “visited,” Jesus stirred up violent opposition, which gave him a choice: either desist or be killed. We know what he chose: with compassion for the world, for “others’ interests,” he denied his own interests. The Church is called to imitate Jesus, to be Jesus here and now.
This is why I now see the vessels of mercy as those on whom God wishes to shed mercy and the vessels of wrath as those who bear the “lethal” burden of making that mercy-shedding possible. Israel, Jesus, and the Church—together and now as one—play the role of vessels of wrath for the sake of the world. If Romans 9–11 demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises to Israel (see the bookends at 9:6; 11:29); then the point at 9:22-24 is that Israel’s suffering and rejection is not contrary to God’s intentions.
How does this work itself out today? First is what we are called to do in this role:
• to suffer the world’s frustration and anger at life not being what it should be.
• to share the world’s suffering from life’s deficiencies, and to contribute to relieving it.
• to suffer as a sin-offering, as Jesus did, when the world rejects and persecutes us for speaking truth to power.
The purpose for doing it:
• that the world might not feel abandoned.
• that the world’s suffering might be relieved.
• that the world might see the hope of things being made right.
• that the world might be encouraged to turn in repentance to the God of mercy.
Otherwise, as Isaiah said to God’s chosen people: “Because of you, my name is blasphemed among the nations” (Isa 52:5; cf. Rom 2:24). And we know it is.
It is in this sense that I’ve come to see the Church as called to bear the sin of the world. The ministry of Tierra Nueva is just one example of that truth working itself out in real life. The Pacific Northwest is not all sailing, sunsets, and salmon barbeques. There is real pain here. Real suffering. Real sin. The question of what it means to be a sin-bearer as a member of Christ’s body is one of local significance. This is the calling of the Church in the Pacific Northwest, as it is everywhere else, and always has been, and always will be, even in the New Heaven and the New Earth, la tierra nueva!
Rich Erickson serves as associate professor of New Testament for Fuller Online and at Fuller Seminary Northwest in Seattle, Washington. A faculty member since 1984, he played an active role in the development of Fuller’s first off-campus cohort-based MDiv program. In the fall of 2010, he received a Kern Family Foundation grant for developing online curriculum at Fuller.
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