The defining political narrative of the moment is one of limits. We can only have so many people in this country or not. Guns must be limited or unlimited, depending on your political persuasion. Limits, boundaries, barriers, walls, regulations; dictate and define much of our discourse as a civilization. If we couldn’t talk about limiting people, things, or ideas; what would we talk about? Perhaps we would stare at one another and imagine ways to kill each other instead of actually doing it?
Separating ourselves on the basis of language, skin color, tribe, and various measures of economic progress seems to be the inevitable direction of human history. Many people, both in this country and in other parts of the world, have accepted a divided world as the only reality. Some have and some have not. Limits are a fact of life. Along the way we stopped asking questions about who decides the limits and standards which divide us; that is until incidents like last Wednesday. It takes a tragedy of unspeakable proportion for us to realize we’re all human; breathing the same air and bleeding the same blood.
The Old Testament reading for this week, the first Sunday of Lent, is a story of limits. It’s the first such one in the Bible, where we see God’s love meet the idea of human limitation head on. And by human limitation I don’t mean physical limits, as we see at the Olympics. In this story, there is a boundary, a border, a wall between life and death. A decision needs to be made; humanity working in conjunction with God about who lives and who die. Who will be allowed to cross that border and survive? What happens when no is allowed to cross over? What happens, when even in the earliest days of recorded history, our default setting is to say, everyone must die while others live? What does it tell us that from the beginning the message seems to be, “you come aboard, you get to die”?
Survival is a political decision. God needs a people or the story ends. Why read any further? Life, on the other hand, for those left to drown in God’s second attempt at creation, is personal. The political and personal merge as the boundaries between life and death are blurred. In an episode from scripture most churches ignore and Sunday School classes treat like a trip to the local zoo, we see a disturbing model for a relationship without limits. God’s “I will preserve all living things” covenant is as believable as the wife beater who returns home with a box chocolates and flowers promising to protect everyone in the house. The promise of “never again” with the sly “by water” caveat is a cop out. The Babylonian Exile, the Holocaust, you name it; God’s relationship to God’s chosen people is punctuated by cycles of violence, tragedy, and reconciliation. No one seems to learn from their past mistakes or the promises made to (or by) earlier generations.
How can we have an everlasting (universal) covenant (to save everyone) that began with the idea of excluding (i.e. killing) most of humanity? To be honest, you can’t. Scripture says, “This is between me and all the Earth.” It’s a nice sentiment, as the phrase “no living thing” is repeated six times, that indicates everybody has God’s GEICO wrath coverage. But I’m not sure the writer of Genesis means it. I say this because I’ve read this rest of the book. I know how angry God gets at the people who have no official connection to him whatsoever. Surely the Canaanites are covered “by the no harm to every living thing” clause, right? No they weren’t. Go read Joshua.
At this point, universal salvation is a side item, more of a footnote in Israel’s history. Ruth isn’t an Israelite, there’s the story of Syrian General who sees Elisha to be healed, and Jonah goes to Nineveh. That’s basically it. It’s not until we come to the resurrection and its premier interpreter that the limits of the past begin to disappear. There are hints that God is working beyond Israel, beyond the “tribe”, but this message isn’t amplified until Jesus ministry.
For Paul, salvation is complete, total, and unequivocal. It’s for the whole human race. God wants to save everyone, no matter where you’re from. What happened on the cross obliterated the limits of the past; the myths of animals riding two by two, our desires to exclude those we despise, and even those who don’t practice what we preach. In the New Testament, in each of the Gospels, everyone on the wrong side of the wall, boundary, and line are invited to the great supper Jesus is hosting. When we create a boundary, only two by two can come; Jesus says, “Invite the whole family in.” Jesus is a firm believer in chain migration. That’s how the church was built.
Paul brings this message home in nearly every letter he writes to the congregations he plants. Here are a couple of examples:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. —Colossians 1:19-20
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.—Philippians 2:9-11
The words “all” and “every” should jump right out at you. “All” was present throughout Genesis 9. Paul says it’s for real this time. God meant it then and the people entrusted with God’s word became too obsessed with their own boundaries and limits. That’s why I said the writer of Genesis. The people speaking for God didn’t live up to God’s expansive expectations. The “all” has never really changed. We, the people who call God’s presence home, haven’t had the heart to believe in God’s “all”. God’s idea of a “limitless” boundary free kingdom is frightening to our comfortable, well-ordered lives, and middle-class sensibilities. In that way, we’re not unlike our Israelite ancestors. We want to set the terms of our religious experience; who can come in and who can come out.
Paul says, through the work of Jesus on the cross, the limit setting, two by two selection process, you’re in and you’re out days are over. God’s love is now available to everyone. This is one of the most audacious claims in human history. A single life (not thousands or millions in a flood) makes peace with death. This is a message we need to hear this Sunday because as Paul reminds us, is universal.
The church isn’t called to be idle bystanders in the wake of senseless tragedies and massacres. Christians aren’t sent to lead people back to our arks of safety, two by two, while the world goes to hell around us. Generic niceness to those who look, think, feel, and act like us isn’t going to cut it. God has admitted the broken, the hurt, the outsider, the lonely, those who claim a religion, and those who know nothing of God. They are the ones standing with candles, praying, angry, and looking for answers. God loves the broken, the dead, the innocent, and everyone in between.
Our job is to not back down. We have one story to tell. Suffering is real. Death does not win. God’s love is universal. Tell this story to the Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Babylonians in your life. They may go by other names but I assure you, somewhere, they are there. Tell the one story only you can tell: God’s love knows no limits.
Richard Lowell Bryant