by Arthur F. Glasser
When approached to disclose to this conference my inner wrestlings of heart and conscience rising from this fresh exposure to the Word of God, and to the voices and concerns of my brothers and sisters, my first instinct was to draw back.
When approached to disclose to this conference my inner wrestlings of heart and conscience rising from this fresh exposure to the Word of God, and to the voices and concerns of my brothers and sisters, my first instinct was to draw back. What could I possibly say? Whereas I am most grateful for the privilege of bearing witness, I am also painfully aware that we are still in mid-passage, insofar as our investigation of "Salvation Today" is concerned. However, upon learning of the emphases to be made shortly by the other two reflectors (Bethuel A. Kiplagat of the Sudan Council of Churches and Rubem Alves of Brazil), I felt that I should respond by bearing witness to the manner in which the biblical texts, to which we have all been exposed, have spoken to my heart.
I desire to be positive. Actually, I am constrained – although the comparison is invidious – to identify myself with the Apostle Paul and his confession of faith and hope in the midst of a stormy sea and impending shipwreck (Acts 27). How hopeless was his situation. How like our world today! Such a troubled sea! We look out to its horizons and see so much hatred and wrath, so much greed and misery, and such unwarranted racial pride. And the ecological crisis is mounting. We’ve polluted the air, defiled the water, and are squandering the resources of the world God has given us. When we reflect on the City of Man which we have built, we want to weep even as Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But let me attempt to sound a note of hope. As Paul confessed his faith in God and in God’s superintending providence, so I would call you to lie of good cheer. In the midst of our powerlessness, God is! And He is at work!
Liberation in Egypt
Recall the Exodus event. We began our study with the covenant people of God, their lives made bitter by economic exploitation, political oppression and cultural disintegration. I am afraid we were directed to focus overmuch on peripheral agents of liberation: the civil disobedience of the midwives and the violent protest of Moses, who in his passionate advocacy of justice, slew an Egyptian and hid his body in the sand.
What impressed me in a new way were not the acts of men nor even the plagues with which God shattered the economic structure of the Egyptians. Deliverance did riot come through acts of personal courage or spectacular displays of power. Rather, victory came through powerlessness. I saw in a new way the centrality of the slain lamb, its blood splattered on doorposts and lintel, and the angel of the Lord separating by judgment the people of God from their oppressors. Here was the mystery of powerlessness overcoming power through the suffering of death. There was the triumph of appropriating faith.
Now, what abiding symbol comes to us from that dramatic record of "salvation yesterday?" The clenched fist? The bandoleer over the shoulder and the upraised rifle? Not at all! Rather, the symbol of a lamb that had been slain. This was what caught the imagination of the Apostle Paul. Recall what he said: "Christ our Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5: 7).
The Sufferer in the Psalms
Together, we studied Palm 22. We confronted its unknown sufferer. In his powerlessness he plumbed the depths of physical, social and spiritual anguish. Tortured, friendless, surrounded by enemies and apparently forgotten by God, he cried out again and again for help. He remembered past deliverances and looked for God’s salvation once again. But the heavens were as brass. He heard no comforting voice and experienced no divine intervention on his behalf.
And we were all struck by the abrupt` transition in the text. Weeping suddenly gave way to rejoicing. Dr. Weber raised the question: "What delivered the helpless sufferer? What so disoriented him from his misery that he could reach out to his people and the nations beyond in loving concern?" Obviously, his physical anguish remained. Men still rejected him, but somehow he was made free in his spirit. Apparently, in his powerlessness, he reached out in faith and grasped his God. "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him." And that made all the difference.
We were specifically challenged to think of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion. We were reminded that only he adumbrates the unidentified sufferer of this psalm. We reflected on his powerlessness in his "hour of darkness" when he took to his innocency all human guilt and shame, and received in himself, on our behalf, the righteous wrath of hod against sin. All was powerlessness. And yet, in its mystery we recalled his triumphant cry of faith, "It is finished." Although crucified through weakness, he triumphantly embraced death. And his resurrection affirms the triumphant power of God.
We also examined Amos 5 and Isaiah 58. What searching words! What an indictment of all introverted pietism! How this message spoke to my heart! I had to accept the possibility that my most specific acts of worship and service in the name of Christ may be so wrongly based as to keep me from God’s presence and separate me from his purpose touching God’s mission in the world today. Shades of Matthew 7:22, 23! Not everyone who cries, "Lord, Lord," or who boasts of much service in his name will be accepted.
I cannot polarize worship from service. I cannot have one without the other. Both must be vocalized and demonstrated as acknowledgements that God is my Father and that I am caught up in Christ’s purpose for the nations. I am called to be a pilgrim always moving outward from my worship of God in the closet and sanctuary to my worship of God in the service of the community. Only thereby can a man truly know salvation and "then . . . take delight in the Lord" (Isa. 58:14).
It was a high moment when in plenary session we reviewed together the details of the sublime vision of God in the book of the Revelation (chapters 5-7). Glorious beings surrounded ‘his lofty throne. They yang of his holiness and gloried in the truth that salvation belonged to him alone. The vast company of the redeemed gazed on the scene with grateful wonder.
Then the focus narrowed to a sealed scroll, the title deed to this world. But no creature was found worthy to take the scroll and establish God’s authority over this soiled world. No one could be found to bring an end to all its evil. No one to rule in righteousness as King of kings and Lord of lords. No possibility of salvation tomorrow! John wept as we too have wept over the utter inability of human forces and churchly institutions to ameliorate even the rawest nerves of the human condition.
But one was found worthy. He was the Lion of the tribe of Judah. But this lion was revealed as a lamb slain, yet alive again. Again the mystery of powerlessness. But now the result of Christ’s obedience unto death: all power in heaven and on earth had been given to him. He came forward. He took the scroll and began to break its seals. Swiftly the rapid sequence of judgment and deliverance commenced to unfold, to culminate in the final triumph of God in history. Salvation tomorrow? It is assured. God has spoken in his Word.
We read those familiar lines in Luke 4 that described Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth, when he identified himself as the Servant of whom Isaiah prophesied. His messianic signs of deeds and words would confirm that the Kingdom of God was in their midst. And he looked for the response of faith of his townsmen. But he was rejected. His salvation did not come to the people and community that knew him best.
However, in other places he found those who would respond. He received them and they began to enter into his salvation. His own life style was to be their pattern. They were not to reduce his salvation to mere participation with the Sadducees and Herodians in playing the power game, although political action would become part of their total responsibility. He didn’t encourage them to withdraw with the Essenes from the hard concerns of life and wait in the wilderness for the Last Day. Nor did he enroll them among the Zealots to advance his kingdom by fire and sword. And he warned them against the orthodox Pharisees who reduced the service of a loving God to an oppressive, compassionless legalism.
Jesus didn’t identify "walking humbly with God" with an individualistic inwardness. His Kingdom represented the fullest integration of worship and service. The blind received their sight, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed, the deaf heard, the dead were raised, and the poor – materially and spiritually had the good news of salvation preached to them (Luke 7:22). His kingdom was not in word only, but in power. As he preached he served and reconciled. Wherever he went he was as powerlessness to the unbelieving. But to those who believed, his power was graciously displayed.
And yet, at this conference we have become impatient!
Salvation yesterday? Yes! Salvation tomorrow? Yes! But what about salvation today? True, the Christ of history is the powerful Christ of tomorrow, but is there a living, powerful Christ today? My friends, we dare not forget Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and upon the people of God. Great things have happened when in the past he was not a grieved and forgotten presence in the midst of the people of God. I trust we shall learn much more of him before this conference ends.
Actually, we’ve already been reminded of his presence and his power, bringing salvation today. Recall the sermon preached by the Rev. Wichean Watakeecharoen, the General Secretary of the Church of Christ in Thailand, at our communion service this past Sunday. He sought to remind us of the joy and victory of the Spirit by speaking of what he as doing in Thailand today, where less than one person in 1000 acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Things are happening here. He told of "reports from many parts of the country bringing the news that youth and older people in large numbers are making the decision to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior."
In recent years I’ve traversed back and forth across this land in river boats, by bus, train and bicycle. I’ve been in Thailand’s Malay mosques, Chinese temples, Buddhist halls and within the spirit fences circling its tribal villages. Out in the countryside I’ve stood before the great images of Buddha and pondered the spiritual condition of their devotees. No personal God on whom to call. No divine purpose, no meaning or movement to history. Nothing save the inexorable law of cause and effect; the iron law of retribution. And in the midst of this darkness the little Thai church has seemed so powerless.
But we were reminded that God is at work by his Spirit. His people are going out to their neighbors as never before in loving service. They respect their fellow-citizens, for all men bear the image and likeness of God. They participate with them in serving the community and in the common struggle for justice among men. This church is increasingly becoming the salt of the earth. But more, Thai Christians are speaking of Jesus Christ and proclaiming his gospel. Not the dialogue that drifts downward from religious discussion to community problems and then to the plight of man. Rather, the dialogue that moves upward and finally focuses on all that God has done through Christ to provide the elements which Buddhism lacks: linkage with the living God, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Friends, much work is yet before us. Let us keep in mind an affirmation made by William Temple at an earlier international missionary convention. He said: "Our message is Jesus Christ. We dare not give less. We cannot give more."
This is salvation today.
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