(Note to academics: this brief essay is intended to be helpful to ordinary people who have heard the word but not given much thought to what it means.)
As we approach Easter there will be a lot of talk about redemption, but what does redemption mean?
If I redeem coupons at the grocery store, I get to trade something of little value (the coupon) for something of greater value (a food item). It may still cost me something, but less than it otherwise would.
In some states I can take my soda cans and bottles to a redemption center and get paid for them. Like my coupons, I trade in something of little value for something of greater value, with little cost to me, just the time and effort required to collect and deliver the can and bottles.
Redemption centers are also where I can take recyclable trash, stuff that has no more value to me, but, in the hands of the recycler, may be turned into something entirely new and of significant value.
Redemption, then, seems to have to do with trading something of lesser value for something of greater value at little or no cost to us.
Yet sometimes we speak of redemption as having an enormous personal cost. When we have really messed up, recognizing that what we have done has caused real damage to things and people, we wonder what we need to do to redeem ourselves. How can we restore our reputation? How can we fix what we have damaged? How can we put things back to the way they are supposed to be? What do we have to change to avoid future failure and save future success. The emotional, physical, and spiritual cost can be very high, higher than we can pay.
In like manner, we are happy to talk about how others have messed up even more than we have, and what they have to do to restore our trust in them. The costs we impose on them can be unbearable. Some people, we say, are beyond redemption.
So, from the point of view of the consumer, redemption appears to be a two edged sword, at least in common usage. On the one hand, it’s a really good deal that costs us almost nothing; on the other, it’s very costly, perhaps more costly than we can manage.
Redemption has other meanings, at least as it is used in scripture. It can also mean something like liberation or restoration. What does it take to liberate someone from slavery or an abusive environment? What would it take to liberate us from guilt and shame? What would it take to liberate us from the limitations of our human condition: illness, disability, injury, etc.? What would it take to restore someone bruised and broken to pristine, like new condition? Whatever it takes, that is what Jesus came to do, and he had the power to do it.
Redemption, then, is a complicated word with a range of complicated meanings. Jesus was, and is, the agency of God’s redeeming power, in all of its forms and meanings, for all of humanity and all of creation.
Maybe that’s why, when we talk about being redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or by the blood of Christ, there isn’t just one definition on which to hang everything else. Anything we say, any doctrine of atonement, can grasp only a portion of what, in the end, is far too big for human comprehension. It is a holy mystery. Speaking for myself, I don’t have to know how it works, I only have to know that it does.