A review of Liberated by God’s Grace
This series of Advent devotionals is very short — only four reflections, and only two small pages for each one — but well-designed to offer a quick infusion of Advent reflection into busy lives. The devotionals are also appropriate for marquee uses such as bulletin inserts, websites, and discussion forums. The presiding bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada provide the devotionals for successive Sundays.
Each addresses at least one passage of Scripture, usually from the Sunday Gospel reading, and connects this reading to some form of liberation needed in today’s world. They follow the pattern of themes the Lutheran World Federation adopted for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation: Liberated by God’s Grace; Creation — Not for Sale; Salvation — Not for Sale; and Human Beings — Not for Sale.
First, Elizabeth Eaton takes on the topic of grace in the apocalyptic sermon of John the Baptist from the first Sunday of the season. Her Lutheran perspective is quick to point out the law-grace dichotomy and gestures more than any other of these reflections toward Christmas as the Incarnation, not only of the Son of God, but also of the grace of God reaching toward the world. Fred Hiltz writes about Creation for the second Sunday and turns quickly to the problems of environmental destruction related to climate change. For the third Sunday, Michael Curry moves deftly from passage to passage in pursuit of a message about seeing the unexpected possibilities God has in mind, though he loses track of his theme: salvation. And Susan Johnson, for the fourth Sunday, profiles the issue of human slavery, expanding that concern to a seemingly endless list of other issues.
This set of devotionals is very accessible. The bishops’ thoughts are clearly based in Scripture but without an off-putting scholarly tone. They point to important issues in contemporary society but also reflect theologically. By way of practical application, a reader comes away with no small list of important issues for which to advocate during this Advent season.
And therein lies the defect of this publication. Despite Bishop Eaton’s characteristically Lutheran insistence that Advent and these devotionals are about grace, not law, there is nevertheless a strongly legalistic flavor of liberation piety. That is, a good person is as a good person does; evangelism is too easily conflated with issue advocacy, and the saving work of Jesus appears less often than quotes from international conferences and documents. The bishops seem not to view liberation as a spiritual matter that involves liberating sinners from their sins; but they do view the spiritual resources of Christianity as a powerful platform and set of tools by which to bring about useful reforms in society.
In short, this publication loses track of Advent grace in its push for temporal liberation. Readers who are already committed to issue advocacy as the prime expression of Christian piety will have their commitments cheered and reinforced. But for the Christian of more traditional seasonal piety, busily preparing for Christmas and looking for a quiet reflection on the grace of God, the bishops offer small comfort.
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 More specifically, in the Anglican Church of Canada, Fred Hiltz’s title is primate, while in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada, Susan Johnson’s title is national bishop.