January 7, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
A young man once climbed to the top of the bell tower of the local Episcopal church hoping to impress his girlfriend with his courage but to his embarrassment, he got stuck up there and couldn’t get down. Seeing the rector passing by below, he called out,
“Father, save me! Save me!
The priest looked up and said, “Young man, we are Episcopalian. We don’t use that kind of language here!”
Although all Christian groups recognize the word “salvation” as an important part of their theology, some emphasize it more than others making it a central lynchpin of a person’s faith understanding. They talk a lot about the need to be saved, they issue altar calls at every service, and members can often pinpoint the moment of their salvation. For those groups, personal salvation is defined as admission into heaven and it is for them the starting point of their faith experience. Moreover, because they believe that salvation is salvation from eternal suffering and to eternal reward, as caring Christians, they feel that it is imperative that they point as many people as possible toward the line which heads into heaven’s gates. In this way of thinking about salvation, earthly concerns are only temporary and eternal concerns paramount so nothing much matters if you haven’t first secured eternity by acknowledging your salvation in Christ.
You probably recognize this understanding of salvation because it has become the predominant popular understanding of salvation in American culture, reinforced by the dedicated missionaries who hand out tracts on street corners and greet you with the words, “Brother, sister, are you saved?” And of course, if you define salvation as being saved to heaven and being saved from hell, then of course, the most loving thing that you could do as a Christian would be to act as a religious fire fighter, saving as many people as possible from the consuming flames. However, as much as I may respect their dedication, I want to suggest that that understanding of salvation is misguided. In fact, Jesus’ view of salvation was much broader, much more inclusive, and certainly more grounded in what is going on around us right here and now than is the idea of salvation as a simple ticket to eternity. While the gospel of John is the source for the theology of a born again salvation securing eternal life, in the other three gospels Jesus spends much more of his ministry talking about the hells of this earth than he does talking about the hells of an afterlife, and he calls on his followers to put aside the behaviors, judgments, and oppressions that causes the suffering of their neighbors in this very place and time. Jesus was preaching to a society not unlike ours today where people were trapped in poverty and judged by circumstances over which they had no control, where those on the lower rungs of society had little voice in the way things were run, where might made right and peacemakers were crucified as troublemakers, and he exposed the corrupting influences of people’s assumptions and challenged that status quo. We know that Jesus’ family was not rich since their offering at the Temple, a pair of turtle doves, was the sacrifice generally made by those who didn’t have enough money to buy the more impressive offerings. Jesus, as the oldest son of a poor family of little consequence, knew first hand the inequalities and injustices heaped upon the heads of the lowly by the rich and the mighty, and as the Son of God, he also knew first hand that this is not the world God has envisioned for us. In his ministry, Jesus tried to help us imagine another way of living together which is more in alignment with God’s desires for us and he called this way of living, “God’s realm.” 1 He modeled and encouraged giving and an equal distribution of our resources. He insisted on a flagrant generosity of the spirit — “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” He touched the untouchable, talked with the ostracized, and welcomed the friendship of the friendless. Salvation is in the here and now; “the Kingdom of God is among you,” he said.
Not only our acts but even our prayers, Jesus told us, should focus on the work we are called to do right here on earth to reshape our society.
Everyone take out your pew Bibles and look up Mathew 6:10. What does it say?
This is the prayer that Christians around the world pray every Sunday and that Jesus said should be the model for all of our prayers: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’” May your will, God be done right here on earth just the way you are running things in heaven.
Which means that unless we can envision God sitting up there in heaven exploiting the citizens of the afterlife, insulting them and degrading them, and threatening them with war to keep them in line, we are royally messing things up right and need to try to rethink the way we do business here on earth. While modern day Christians often define salvation as being saved from a hell that begins after you die, Jesus defined salvation as being saved from the brokenness we are experiencing in our mortal lives right now, both individually and as a society. For Jesus, salvation is the wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and community that his way offers us right here in this place and in this moment.
Or as Dan Wilt says, “Christ walks into the middle of my struggle, your struggle, to bring Heaven to the hells of the heart.”
If salvation then, is not about heaven and hell in some distant eternity, but is the wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and community that we seek for ourselves and our neighbors right here in this place and in this moment, then how should we answer the question, “Brother, sister, are you saved?”
The gospel of Luke says we should answer it with a definitive ‘yes’ and moreover, we all share the same moment of salvation: we were all saved more than 2000 years ago on the night when Christ was born because in Jesus, God gave us a way of seeing the fullness of God’s vision for us and the road by which that vision might become a reality. The theologian John Cobb said we all know that the world we live in is not the world we would like to live in, but in Christ we discover that the world we live in is not the world God wants us to live in either,” and that God can free us from the chains of the status quo to build new hearts and a new society. 2
Listen carefully to the words of Simeon when he encounters the baby Jesus in the Temple: “Master,” he says to God in tearful prayer, “my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared.”
Simeon has seen God’s salvation even though Jesus is still a baby and hasn’t yet died on a cross. Simeon hasn’t experienced a change in his personal state of being; he hasn’t been baptized or born again in the spirit. All he has done is set eyes on a baby whom he recognizes as God’s chosen son who will show us the way forward. In the life and ministry of Jesus, God’s rule became a reality; God’s vision was made concrete; God’s salvation was complete.
Brothers and sisters in Union University Church, when were you saved? You were saved more than 2000 years ago when Jesus Christ was born. In Jesus, God’s vision for us is made concrete and we are saved from the chains of our bondage to be freed to new ways of living together.
Of course, our salvation comes at a price, and not just for Jesus, but for us as well.
“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many,” Simeon prophesied, knowing that the salvation Jesus offered — the wholeness of mind, body, spirit and community that we can experience when we live as God would have us live — will require letting go of some of our most cherished flaws. Jesus brought people face to face with the wrinkles in their souls, and exposed their false assumptions and phony self-images. Remember how the rich young man squirmed when Jesus confronted his love of wealth and power? Remember the pious scribes scuttling away muttering in angry embarrassment after Jesus unmasked their self-righteousness? Even his own disciples sometimes faltered in the brutal light of the Kingdom — James and John caught in their schemes of self-aggrandizement, Peter pretending understanding while he groped in ignorance, and turning away in denial where he had promised to stand steadfast. God’s salvation will require the shattering of our hypocrisy, the unmasking of our pretense, the honesty of self-scrutiny. It will disturb the powerful and unsettle our comfortable apathy. The honesty of God’s salvation can be painful — there is a cross on the way to salvation for each and every one of us — but Christ promises that healing and wholeness awaits if we only keep our eyes on him.
A man tells of a time when he became very discouraged with life. He had given so much to trying to help others and wasn’t sure he was making a difference. Self doubt began to overwhelm him and he fell into despair. A friend of his recognized his struggle and invited him to lunch to talk and afterward suggested that they stop at her church. He was skeptical, too filled with frustration to feel very prayerful but he reluctantly agreed. To his surprise, however, when they arrived, they didn’t go into the sanctuary but instead she led him to one of the Sunday School rooms where there was a painting hanging on the wall.
“I come here when I am feeling low,” she said. “Look at this painting and tell me what you see.”
It was a typical Sunday School painting of Daniel in the Lion’s Den and as the man looked at the picture, he said, “I see a lot of lions, bones scattered over the floor of the cave, and Daniel gazing at some sort of red light coming into through the window.”
“What I want you to see,” the woman said to him, “is this: Daniel doesn’t have his eyes on the lions but on the light. His eyes are on God. There will always be lions, but there will also always be God, and you have to choose where you are going to focus your attention.”
Christ offers us salvation saying, “I know the world you live in is not the world you would like to live in, but it is not the world God wants us to live in either. God can free you from the chains of the status quo, so that you might build a new heart and a new way of living with others. Keep your eyes on God and you shall know salvation.”
1. Jesus referred to this way of life as “the basileia” which we generally translate as the Kingdom of God. (The gospel of Matthew used the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” because the word “God” was considered too sacred to say.) This translation is a little misleading, however, because “kingdom” implies a place but it is really more of a condition of life in which God is ruling. Some biblical translators now prefer the phrase, “the realm of God.” In Jesus’ preaching, the basileia is both present and future: it is present in a partial sense whenever anyone acts in accordance with God’s will for society but we pray that it will eventually come to be fulfilled completely as all society is ordered in a just and compassionate way according to God’s desires.
2. While the basileia, or realm of God, can only be partially realized in the present, salvation is possible for all people upon the birth of Christ because in Christ, the nature of God’s realm was made visible.