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Redeeming the Time

By Azar Ajaj and Brent Neely

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.  (Eph. 5.15-16, NRSV)

The crisis

More than three years have passed since the beginning of what was known then as the “Arab Spring,” a term that symbolized hope for the people of the Middle East.  However, this hope rapidly evaporated as the “spring” morphed into a cruel and endless winter.  Running for their lives, millions sought shelter in neighboring countries while others moved to safer cities and towns in their own lands. Hoping for things to improve so that they could return to their homes, they waited with patience.  The hoped-for resolution has not materialized.  Part of the crisis we witness today in Europe is an indicator that many refugees in our region have lost hope and have decided to look for a future somewhere else.

Most of these desperate columns of people did not choose their fate, did not choose to be foreigners and aliens.  Before becoming strangers in other countries they first were forced to become strangers in their own homelands.  They flee the cruelty of their own brothers; they are escaping from people who only yesterday were their teachers, students, friends and neighbors.  Having lost faith in their own kin, they now look to strangers for shelter, food, and medicine—for someone to receive them despite religious or ethnic differences, someone to accept them simply as human beings.

And so, our screens are awash with human tragedy, the calamitous suffering of hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered across the Mediterranean, their trail of sorrow running from the Levant to Turkey to Southeastern Europe and on to the northern states of the EU.  The nightmare plays out as migrants and refugees come ashore fleeing war, oppression, and privation in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Political structures creak under the strain; so too does the human spirit, let alone the Christian heart.  The narrative is captured in images of a solitary child’s body washed up on a Turkish beach; it is also told in statistics of mass migration not matched in Europe since the Second World War.  There can be little doubt that “these days are evil.”

Whatever the geopolitics that leads to these massive trains, trails, and trials of humanity, the people are “present”; they are a “fact.”  And, clearly, a response cannot be avoided. Now, we write these words from the vantage point of two Christians from the Middle East.  But, our intention is not to lay out a political or social prescription for others.  Our aim is to join the heartrending of God’s people as we seek the Spirit’s leading and as we respond together. We, the people of Jesus, “sojourners and exiles” ourselves (1 Pet. 2.11), must act with vision that transcends narrow cultural, social, or national concerns.  Our outlook must reflect the heart of the Father himself.

the outlook from ephesians

The charge in Ephesians 5.16 to “redeem the time” or to “make the most of the time” in these “evil days” is primarily aimed at the shared life within the community of God’s people.  Nonetheless, this challenge is surely relevant on multiple levels to the church in our day as we look outward on the crises of mass migration, political turmoil, and human suffering.  Note, first of all, that throughout the surrounding context of the Ephesian letter, Paul is obviously keen to contrast the community of faith with the society enveloping the believers in first-century Roman Asia (4.17-19; 5.5).[1]  He is bracing the believers to engage the evil “which prevails in the atmosphere” (6.10-12).

Further, many have discerned an apocalyptic undercurrent flowing throughout the Ephesian letter.  (We use the term “apocalypse” here in a limited and specific sense:  merely to point to the idea that in Christ, God has at last unveiled ultimate truth, truth previously unseen.[2])  From the opening of the letter we are struck by an emphasis on the Spirit’s revealing the cosmic structure of reality that lies beyond the limits of human insight (E.g. 1.17; 3.3).  Paul’s Gospel of world-renewing salvation in Jesus is a mystery once hidden, now proclaimed (3.3-6).  In the immediate setting of chapter five we see the clustered “apocalyptic” motifs of 1) a community illumined by divine wisdom; 2) the pressure of a hostile world in “evil days” (cf. Gal. 1.4); and 3) even the injunction to “redeem” the time.[3]  And then, famously, in chapter six there is the rhetoric of warfare, the struggle with authorities and dark powers in high places.

Ephesians speaks to us in sweeping, cosmic terms of evil forces loose in God’s good earth, of a pitched spiritual struggle for the destiny of our world.[4]  But this is not “apocalypse” if by that one means a call to hostility, to visceral opposition to this or that people group or religious community or what have you.  It is not a “flesh-and-blood” conflict; it is not like the plans for the “last great war” in the ancient Dead Sea community; it is not a patriotic battle cry for the preservation of a national interest; it is not a roadmap to a coming chain-reaction of global wars in a titillating “last days” scenario; it is not an obsession with “date-fixing” Armageddon.

Yes, Ephesians comes as “latter days’ revelation,” as an apocalypse, as a call to perceive the in-breaking of God’s power, God’s salvation, and God’s redemption in a world of hardened hearts and confused minds, seemingly submerged under the power of the “ruler of the air” (2.2; 4.17f.).  And so throughout the letter, the power of God is underlined, a power that will one day upend evil and renew all creation (1.8-10, 21-23; 3.10; 4.24; cf. Col. 1.15-20); but for now God gives power and wisdom so the believer can discern the world—not as it seems to be on the surface, where the impact of evil runs amuck—but from a transcendent point of view, looking at our world with faith, hope, and love, through the divine prism.[5]  As he exhorts the reader, then, Paul imparts insight to understand the times in which we live, and, thus, to live accordingly.  Adopting God’s interpretation of present realities, we are to respond with great effect “now,” in the face of overwhelming evil.  This is the “apocalypse,” the unveiling of God’s truth to his people.

Participating in the divine Agenda

And so, yes, most clearly in chapter six, battle is joined by the people of God.  But this war is not waged by fleshly machination; rather we are filled with the Spirit (5.18), endued with the very power, presence, and character of God himself.[6]  “Redeeming the time” is indeed a call to battle, but battle of what sort?  What does the response of the church look like in these critical “last days”?  Well, the answer is infused throughout the entire exhortation of Ephesians.  The whole tract is a Spirit-empowered project to form and re-form the people of God in our urgent Hour.  Scripture is a people-making and people-shaping word.

The call before us is a call to be transformed, to “imitate God”—being joined to our Head, renewed in his likeness, shaped by another Order, citizens and children displaying an uncanny likeness to our King and Father.[7]  And so, in this pitched battle for the very life of the world, the call to us is to live as radically different children of light.  Our way of joining the fray is living as a shared community of radical contrast.  Lives of submission to one another in the Spirit; lives of holy renovation; lives of transparency, love, and joy that are jarring by contrast individually, within families, within the Body… and the world at large.

The agenda of the Father is the healing and righting of our broken world, through the matchless Jesus.  His intention, which advances even now in the Gospel (2.5-10; 3.2-11), is reclaiming creation from the destruction that has engulfed it, redeeming a people for himself, and restoring all to himself (1.7, 10).  His compassion breaches every boundary, and the Gospel of the Cross is a word of renewal, restoration, and reconciliation across the most virulent enmities—hostilities that seem to have a poisonous life of their own.  In Messiah, people across all lines are healed and reborn as wholly new “Adams” and “Eves,” new people for God (3.13-19).

responding to the crisis today

This is the agenda of God for his world, not least for the suffering Syrian and the wounded Iraqi.  Evidently, then, this sets the agenda for God’s people.  We are privileged to take up our small role(s) in the greater sweep of God’s movement in human history:  to live as his people, to live for his purposes.  In this we redeem the time.  But, more precisely then, what might this look like as we seek to respond to this particular human crisis before us?  What can the Body of Messiah do?

We are certainly aware that many overwhelmed churches in the Middle East are trying to help the thousands upon thousands of refugees that are flooding into places such as Jordan and Lebanon.  We also thank God for the generous backing and support that churches in the West have given to this relief and mercy effort.  This is much needed and will be for some time. However, as we face the influx of these needy populations into Europe, we must “redeem the time” with further creative, transnational, and Spirit-empowered responses.

Again, the Lord’s light and mercy for the world flows out from the church primarily as the Spirit works within her first; any activism on our part must flow out from a community being conformed to Christ.  The redemptive influence of God’s people in his world makes its impact as we become what we “already are” in Christ.  This crisis, then, calls on us as Christians (European, Arab, and otherwise) to realize the work of the Spirit in our midst, across national and cultural lines, to be “built up for works of service,” as one body, “rightly joined together,” growing up, and “working properly” under our head, the Lord himself (4.12-16).

Specifically, this time, this moment, may call for another flow from “East” to “West”:  In God’s counter-intuitive economy, today may be the day for the church in the West to call on the Middle Eastern church for help and support.  This could involve consultation and cooperation between European and Middle Eastern churches in extending assistance, comfort, and the Good News of the Father to the refugees.  (We are speaking of both “minority” churches situated in Europe and churches actually in the Middle East.)  It could involve taking advantage of the cultural and linguistic resources of Middle Eastern Christians.  Perhaps channels could be opened up for bringing in committed Arabic-speaking believers from the Middle East to assist the European church in her engagement with the newcomers.  In response to the current population flows, cannot the global church encourage her own synergistic flow of financial-, people-, prayer-, and linguistic- resources across the Mediterranean? In whatever creative ways, propelled by the Spirit, we must allow the Body-across-boundaries to act in unison for the love and honor of God.

When it comes to dealing with this pressing issue, we present no detailed or dogmatic prescription for others to follow, but surely now is the time to respond.  The eruption of the current turmoil and suffering clearly represents an opportunity for the community of Christ to link arms across geopolitical and cultural boundaries with restorative effect.  We must not miss this door the Lord has opened for us to be a blessing in the lives of many.  Let us redeem the time.

 

[1] References given without specifying a biblical book are to Ephesians.

[2] We are not speaking of “apocalypse” here as a kind of literature.

[3] Such themes also converge, for example, in the dramatic book of Daniel.

[4] In the New Testament the personified forces of evil, Devil, and spirits are portrayed as realities to be contended with, even if one would additionally assume their manifestation in human political and social structures.

[5] There is a critical link between the ironic and surprising “wisdom” of God and the “power” of God which overcomes evil (and in which we participate).  The theme is evident in the book of Isaiah, the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, here in Ephesians 3.10, and elsewhere.

[6] The elements of the armor of God are attributes of the God of the Old Testament himself; the New Testament reveals Jesus as this divine warrior, Christ to whom we are joined (4.8f.).  In Romans thirteen we are clothed with “armor of light,” arguably, in the text, with Christ himself.

[7] E.g., 1.1-4, 11, 23; 2.6, 10, 13, 21; 3.11-15; 4.4-6, 13-16, 24; 5.1, 5, 8-9.

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