By Kathleen Staudt
In his book A Generous Orthodoxy–the chapter on “Why I am Missional”–Brian McLaren, makes a point that opened up for me the whole tangled question of what it means to be “called and chosen” as the People of God. Crediting the theology of Leslie Newbigin, he reminds us that when God calls Abraham and promises to make of him a great nation, God’s purpose is that Abraham and his descendants will be a blessing to the world.
Though God’s language in this story is still very rooted in a tribal ethos, the promise is that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3) . They are called out from among the nations, not for special privileges, but so that God can work through them. And at its best, the covenant that God eventually calls them into is, by the standards of the time and place, a new way for people to be together in society, where just distribution of wealth and resources are assumed, family relationships honored, and right relationship between creatures and Creator is valued. At least that’s what the overall narrative reaches for, with its ongoing pattern of embracing and falling away from the covenant that God offers and keeps offering again. I think we can learn a lot be reading Scripture with this pattern in mind.
Like McLaren, and like Verna Dozier, (both of whom, like me, started their careers as readers & teachers of literature), I see this theme of “chosen-ness” as a part of the “arc” of the Biblical story — perhaps of all the Abrahamic traditions in one way or another. The Biblical story is the story of a God who is engaged with and wants to work through human history. In Hebrew Scripture God does this through the Torah, and the narrative tells of the waxing and waning of the people’s faithfulness, and all the consequences of that. It goes all the way through the story of exile and return, when the people, repentant and redeemed, see themselves again as being called to be “a light to the nations.” And then for Christians, the New Testament offers another take on Hebrew Scripture, through the lens of our call to follow the Way of the Risen Christ. (*Just a note that I hope may avoid some detour in the comment threads: I honestly think that it is possible to embrace this reading without being supersessionist, i.e., without arguing that the call of Christ somehow displaces or negates the call of the Israelites to be the people of God. I hope that the way of reading I propose does not necessarily makes us complicit with the damage this misreading of scripture has done through history. Rather, I think it helps us toward faithfulness to read Scripture at least in part as the story of a God who calls people into covenant and acts in human history. It is a particular and radical theology and it is at the heart of the Biblical story. The New Testament may be our chapter of that story, as Christians, but we need to embrace the whole story.)
In the gospels, we also have stories of calling and again the call is not to special privileges but to participation in a mission – the bringing in of the kingdom, the reign of God. The fishermen become “fishers of men” in Mark and Matthew. When Jesus is bidding farewell to his disciples in the fourth gospel, he says “you did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another.” (John 15:16-17). This is not the conferring of special privilege or magical powers, but a commissioning to a new way of life that will touch and transform human communities.
Obviously I’m picking and choosing passages here – (I hope it isn’t “proof-texting: — just suggesting some themes that thread through the Biblical story and help to make it our own). When there’s language about God’s call in Scripture, we may want to resist our contemporary inclination to read everything individualistically and consider that in the context of the story, being called and chosen is usually about becoming part of ( or even leading) a new kind of human community, bearing the cost of this, and becoming in some way an example to the world on God’s behalf. True, Christians as a body have not always been a blessing to the world — we’ve certainly been known to appropriate and distort the language of chosen-ness in destructive ways. But I think it’s important to revisit the idea and try to understand it in a fresh way, rather than to throw it out as contaminated by our past. Just because we’ve failed to live up to it doesn’t mean that the call to become God’s people and to be a blessing has gone away.
Most of us cringe at language about chosen-ness because of all the attention that has been given in theological discussions to more individualist questions about who is and is not chosen and what it might mean not to be chosen. Paul struggles over this himself – and comes to a ringing, hopeful conclusion when he says that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus .” (Galatians 3:28) It may just be “human nature” to turn a story that it mainly about what it means to be called “the people of God” , , into a story about us and them, who’s in and who’s out. It happens within the story itself, many times. Nevertheless, I think we’re meant to pay more attention to what we’re called for and to, if we see ourselves as part of the Biblical story, than to worry much about who is in and who is out and how God makes that choice, questions which have occupied us perhaps too much in Christian theologizing. . “Your way of life must be different from that of others,” writes that early Christian reformer St. Benedict, “the love of Christ must come before all else.” That is still a Biblically- based reading, related to this understanding of being called and chosen. McLaren’s take on the call to “be a blessing” as the basis for a missional theology offers us a liberating way to read Scripture as a story that is in some sense our story. He uses it as the basis for his claim that the church’s call is “to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ, in community, and for the sake of the world.” And so this way of reading Scripture provides a fresh lens for asking what the Church is called and chosen to be, as the people of God in the real world of the 21st century.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.