Scripture: I Corinthians 1:1-9
I want to talk to you today about salvation which I know will immediately make some of you squirm uncomfortably. We mainline Christians don’t like to talk about salvation much because the word has been so misused that it makes us uncomfortable. It reeks of the street corner evangelist who suggests that all you have to do is say the words, “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” and you will get a free pass into heaven, but we know that faith is more complicated than that. The salvation that Christ offers isn’t a ticket to the best seats in the afterlife, but it is deliverance from our sin right now; it is the freedom Christ gives us from everything that keeps our hearts and lives in bondage this very day. Salvation is something that we experience here on earth when, in Christ, we discover healing for our brokenness, forgiveness for our mistakes, comfort for our sorrow, strength in our weakness, and liberation for our communities and our neighbors. Salvation is not about what happens later in the by and by but is about what is happening in your heart and in your relationships and in your communities right now as you seek to follow Christ.
The best definition for salvation is “wholeness.” If I were to ask you, “Are you saved?” what I would mean by that is, “Are you whole? Are your relationships sound? Is the community in which you are living a healthy one where all of your neighbors are free from bigotry and poverty of both body and soul?” In Jesus’ preaching, salvation was not a solo affair but was something that we are all in on together as we seek to create a community of peace both for ourselves and for others grounded in grace.
Which means that the one thing we can say for certain about salvation is that it is not a competition. You wouldn’t turn to the person in the pew next to you and say, “I am more saved than you are. When the day of judgment comes, Jesus is going to give me the Most Valuable Player award, and you’re just going to get a ‘Thanks for Participating’ ribbon.”
What seems obvious to us, however, was not obvious to the new Christians in the city of Corinth. The members of the Corinthian churches were so excited about the new gospel Paul had taught them — so excited about Jesus, and salvation, and the day that Jesus would be taking them home — that they were, in the words of one scholar, “over-converted.” Word had reached Paul that they had even begun arguing among themselves about whose conversion to Christianity had been the best — who had had the coolest baptism and whose salvation experience was the most awesome and who was consequently going to sit highest in heaven when the judgment day came — and so Paul writes a letter to the Corinthians trying to set them straight on this whole salvation thing.
He begins his letter, “I give thanks to my God always for you. You have been enriched in Christ … you are not lacking in any spiritual gifts,” but this is about as long as Paul can hold his temper and the rest of his letter is a stern indictment of the Corinthians’ behavior. He tells them that while they have all indeed been saved by the power and love of God, none of them are acting like they are saved at all, and he then proceeds to lay out for them what would become known as the core of his theology: the understanding that salvation is a free gift of God. We can’t compare our salvation to another person’s salvation as if earning salvation is the same as earning the top score on a chemistry exam because salvation is given freely by God even to the most undeserving. Everyone gets an A.
The concept of unearned salvation becomes easier to understand if we think about salvation as wholeness rather than as a ticket to heaven. If salvation is wholeness, then it is obviously something that cannot be earned because how can we become whole on our own when we are broken? You don’t say to the person whose heart is filled with grief, “C’mon man. Buck up. Work harder at getting over your sadness. You got this.” We don’t heal our own grief through sheer effort or patch up our own souls with hard work. Healing comes from outside of ourselves through the attention of a community of caring people and through the comfort and mercy we find in Christ. Paul says that none of us can boast of our salvation because none of us can save ourselves no matter how hard we try.
Paul’s understanding of grace as a free gift frees us from despair over our own inadequacies and weaknesses but the Corinthians saw that it also appeared to create a massive loophole. If salvation isn’t earned, they said, but is given to us freely by a gracious God then why not just remain in our sin and let God fix everything? Why not say, “God loves me ‘just as I am,’ so ‘just as I am’ is how I intend to stay?”
Paul himself acknowledges this potential loophole when he wrote later in his letter to the Romans, “What then, shall we sin so that grace may abound?” but his answer to that seeming escape clause was that while good works may not earn us salvation, salvation will cause us to do good works.
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” he tells the Corinthians, “for in every way you have been enriched in him,” or as he says later, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
In other words, for Paul, we don’t need to spend our days trying to earn Christ’s salvation because it is given to us freely by the grace of God but we who have been saved will spend our days thinking about how our lives have been changed and enriched by Christ. We don’t do good works to earn salvation but we will do good works because we have experienced salvation and our salvation in Christ will be evident in the kindness of our words, in the compassion of our hearts, in the work of our hands on behalf of those in need, and in our own grace toward others.
So today, I’m not going to ask you if you have been saved because I know that God has already saved you; God has bestowed grace upon your life. What I ask you to consider today is this: “How has your life been enriched by that salvation? How has your life been changed because of Christ’s love? What old selfish ways of living have passed away and what new person has been born in their place?”
And I want to propose for you a simple method of helping you to answer that question; a kind of self-check to make sure that your salvation is showing through in your life every day. I am basing my method on something my mother had to do in the last years of her life. In her last years, my mother suffered from idiopathic neuropathy. Neuropathy is a nerve disease that causes numbness in a person’s extremities, and idiopathic just means that, in my mother’s case, they never figured out what was causing it. Her neuropathy mostly affected her feet and legs which made walking increasingly difficult, but the greater danger from her neuropathy was the risk of infection. Because my mother couldn’t feel her feet, a small wound or blister could go unnoticed and eventually it might fester and cause an infection to spread throughout her body. She had to learn to do daily inspections of her feet and legs so that she could seek immediate treatment before the wounds sickened her body. This daily practice is called a VSE: a visual surveillance of extremities.1
As my mother experienced in her body, we too experience in our spiritual lives. It is often not the big things that endanger our faith but the little wounds to ourselves and others that accumulate and fester: the small slips of the tongue, the little acts of selfishness, the small grievances we refuse to give up, the rude words we speak, the quiet judgments of others, the cold shoulders and hot tempers. It’s those careless moments throughout our ordinary days that can molder and lead us away from our calling as faithful disciples of Christ. I want to propose then, a daily self-check which I will call the VSSE — a visual surveillance of spiritual extremities. You can do this VSSE to start your day to remind yourself of the one you follow. You can do it when you confront a difficult situation during the day to help you align yourself with Christ. And you can do it before you go to bed to ensure nothing festers too long before you notice it. I described this once at a Maundy Thursday service, but I think it is worth repeating again to help us all remember that we are new people in Christ and we should look like new people.
Let us begin our VSSE in our head. Place your hands on your head and say, “Is Christ in my head?”
To place Christ in our heads is to give his teachings a central place in our thinking. As you review your relationships or think over the problems you are facing, consider what you know about Jesus. Where are the parallels between his life and what you are going through now? What words of his come to your mind? Of course, it’s hard to answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” if we don’t know what Jesus did in the first place so if you find your mind blank when asking what teachings apply, consider adding some devotional reading to your day. Live with his words and his teachings and carry the biblical stories in your head so that everything you experience in your day is overlaid with the stories and teachings of Jesus. Visual Check #1: Is Christ in my head and in my understanding?
2. Place your hands on your heart and say, “Is Christ in my heart?”
When John was three years old, he climbed onto my lap one day and laid his head against my chest to cuddle. Suddenly he looked up in wonder and said, “I can hear your heart.”
Smiling, I asked, “And what is my heart saying?”
John put his head back down for a second, listened, and then with complete sincerity responded, “It’s saying, ‘Jesus is in here, Jesus is in here.’” I have never forgotten that moment nor the way it affected the rest of my day. Nothing changes your perspective as much as walking around with the thought that your heart is beating out the message, “Jesus is in here. Jesus is in here.”
In the second VSSE, place your hands over your heart and ask whether people can tell that Jesus is in there. Being a loving person means maintaining a sense of humor about yourself, recognizing that you are not always right, you are not perfect, and you are not the center of the universe. Having Christ in your heart also means accepting the imperfections of others and forgiving them their mistakes. If Jesus is in your heart, you will go the extra mile for someone, be slow to anger and quick to forgive. You will have empathy for those different from yourself and worry less about the status quo than the need for peace for all people. Visual check #2: is Christ in my heart?
3. Hold out your hands and ask, “Is Christ in my hands?”
The root of the Greek word “to heal” also means “to touch” and it was through reaching out to the suffering that Jesus healed their spirits as well as their bodies. We may physically touch others by holding the hand of a sick person in the hospital or soothing a crying child. We may heal a starving heart by touching the shaking hands of a woman with severe cerebral palsy, a woman whose disability has left her starved for the recognition of her humanness. We use our hands in spiritual ways when we build houses for Habitat for Humanity, hand out food at the food pantry, draw a bow across a violin to play music that lifts people’s souls, create beautiful artwork to nourish spirits, or plant trees to sustain God’s creation. There are so many ways to use our hands for good. Visual check #3: Is Christ in my hands?
And finally, #4. Is Christ in my feet?
When I took squash in college, the instructor told us that the most important thing we needed to learn was how to move our feet. When I took fencing in college, we spent the first three classes just learning how to move our feet. When I took a semester of badminton, the instructor frequently yelled out, “Move those feet!” When I graduated from college, I stopped taking gym class but that doesn’t mean I could stop moving my feet.
Christians are movers. We are always on a walk of faith, never satisfied with the status quo and never assuming that our life’s work is completed. It’s in our DNA — our biblical DNA — because the Bible is a whole list of people on the move.
God called to Abraham and Sarah when they were in the city of Ur, “I want you to move to the land of Canaan where I will make of you a great nation.”
Moses called to the Israelites on the night of the Exodus, “Move your feet because God is showing us the way to freedom.”
Jesus called to the disciples at the seashore, “Follow me; set your feet on the path of discipleship!”
When Paul was immobilized on the Damascus Road, a vision of Christ came to him saying, “Get up. Move along. Head into the city and there I will tell you what to do.”
Faith, Paul said, is a marathon, a race that is not finished until our last breath. God needs movers and shakers, people who are committed enough to the vision of God’s rule to get up off their duffs and do something about it. We cannot let our fear immobilize us; we cannot let the past chain us down. We cannot let indecision or apathy or force of habit mire us in a rut. There is always something new to discover ahead and something new to be done down the way. We have to get up every day ready to hit the road of faith. Visual check #4: Is Christ in my feet and where is he asking me to go today in my journey of faith?
Let’s do the VSSE together:
Is Christ in my head?
Is Christ in my heart?
Is Christ in my hands?
Is Christ in my feet?
Head, heart, hands, feet;
head, heart, hands, feet.
In the words of Paul, may we give thanks to our God always because of the grace of God that has been given us in Christ Jesus, and may we in every way show how much we have been enriched in him:
Christ in my head,
Christ in my heart,
Christ in my hands,
Christ in my feet.
1. This is what Stephen Donaldson calls it in his Thomas Covenant books. The practice he describes is used by medical practitioners, but I don’t know if Donaldson coined the acronym “VSE” himself.