Salvation (begins at 26:02)

September 22, 2019

Series: September 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

1 Timothy 2:1-7

1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. 3This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6who gave himself a ransom for all-this was attested at the right time. 7For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.


        It’s a movie scene.  A car has gone off the road.  A young couple is inside motionless, the driver is alive, eyes open, but can’t move.  The passenger lays limp next to him.  Her condition is unclear.  A man hurries through the tall grass to come to their aid.  Reaching the open driver’s side window, he leans in and asks…if the man has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.  For the record, if, God forbid, you find me on the side of 101, don’t ask if I’m saved.  Ask if I need help. The movie is The Apostle, and the man, played by Robert Duvall, is a fiery preacher.  The question he asks is the one that dominates the narrative. 

For many, this question of personal salvation has dominated their understanding of Christianity.  I don’t mean to make light of their faith, nor do I doubt the intensity of the feeling of in a moment giving yourself over to God or Christ.  I do, however, believe this treatment of spirituality, if it’s all we have, misses the point and leads us to miss out on so much of the spacious territory to which God invites us in Jesus Christ.  Being saved may have brought comfort to some, but it has meant torment to others, and pushed more still away altogether.  If we take a step back, we can ask who would want to be part of a faith where God would need to save people by giving up God’s only son, whom if we accept will spare us from eternal damnation?  Taken at face-value, it’s a twisted formula.  Let us then be released from it, once and for all, that we might enter into a greater realm that God has in store for us, not just one day, but now.

We don’t have to leave the tradition behind to find this greater realm.  It’s right there in the heart of the tradition.  Believe it or not, in the Bible salvation first referred to our experience in this life.  Throughout the Older Testament, including today’s first reading from Jeremiah, we see this understanding of salvation.  In today’s reading, it’s a negative example.  The people have not been faithful, and they’ve suffered for it—threat from foreign enemies, what we would call “natural disasters,” and famine.  The people cry, “we are not saved.”  They’re not talking about heaven.  They’re talking about their wellbeing here on earth.  In fact, most of the Bible’s understanding of salvation is concerned with about how people’s worldly needs are met:  are they safe, do they have enough to eat and drink, and so forth.  If you want a synonym for salvation that doesn’t sound so loaded, use “wellbeing.” 

          Add to it, “of the people,” because the biblical understanding of salvation is that it is primarily a communal good, not an individual one.  “We are not saved,” they cry in Jeremiah.  On the surface, it looks as though the Newer Testament is more concerned with individual salvation.  Acts 2, for example, has a passage that reads, “and the Lord was adding those being saved every day.” It reads like people punching their ticket to an exclusive club.  However, if you read Acts, you’ll see it’s about people living in intentional community almost like a commune.  This is the tale of the first Christians coming together in the wake of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Their understanding of what it means in response to Jesus Christ is to live together, share their worldly possessions, distributing to people according to their need.  The early Christian faith was a profoundly communal ethic, not simply a private code of conduct or guide for personal devotion as important as those things are.  For them, Christianity was not simply what you prayed or what you said; it was what you did, how you lived in relation to others. 

          I was reading in the Newer Testament book of James this week, where the author, much to the later dismay of the likes of Martin Luther, says, “Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:24-17).  Faith alone doesn’t yield salvation in the sense it does not automatically yield more wellbeing.  Salvation isn’t about getting yourself to heaven.  It’s about helping earth look a little more like it, particularly by tending to those most in need.

          Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School, says that salvation reminds us not that we have an option to be rescued apart from the other, but rather is about the “health of one depending on the health of the other.”[1] You could say another synonym for salvation, then, would be “public health.”  Davis says simply, “Salvation is healing.”  The healing of social wounds is the manifestation of God’s love, what we would rightly call “salvation.”  Another word for this is justice, for a just society is simply a well-healed society, a healthy society, where all the members are in good shape.  That’s a whole society, a holy society. 

As our reading for today, 1 Timothy puts it God desires “everyone to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:3-4), everybody to be well, not just some, not just Christians, everyone.

          Davis pushes us to expand our traditional definition of everyone as well.  Mature spirituality always pushes us to be more expansive.  She argues that salvation is not simply about the health of one person depending on the health of other people, but the health of any and all people depends on the health of the earth.  You don’t have to be a scientist to recognize this most basic of truths.  Anyone with even a basic understanding of ecosystems could tell you this.  The word “ecosystem” like “ecology” come from the Greek oikos, which just means house.  This is God’s house, our shared house.  We are not well, we are not saved, if our house is not well.  This is a far cry from the spiritual traditions that make the whole quest about escaping this wretched fallen earth, whether it’s contemporary fundamentalism or ancient gnosticism.  Both miss the point of salvation.  It’s not about escape.  It’s about incarnation, healthy inhabitation. 

          How does Jesus Christ save us, and I do believe Christ does?  Just by dying, or also by living and showing us to live in ways that are holy, that take care of the community, that live in right relationship with everything around us.  Jesus, you could say, shows us how to restore proper balance to a polluted ecosystem, advocating for those who are the most endangered, bringing down to size those who have taken too much, yet refusing to dominate and annihilate the other, even the enemy.  He knows that everyone is in it together, and thus he even seeks to rescue the enemy.  This is, on one level, the point of the Good Samaritan story – to seek to rescue the enemy. 

          Interestingly, another word for salvation is “rescue.” I believe Jesus rescues us not from God’s cocked and loaded wrath.  Rather, in Christ, God saves us from the worst of our impulses.  In Christ, God shows us how to live in ways that rescue others in need insofar as we are able.  Many of you watched with horror, as did I, as the images from the Bahamas came in following hurricane Dorian.  Whole islands seem to have been wiped out.  Everything destroyed.  People lost.  Some people found, rescued…sort of.  According to multiple news outlets, attempts to bring survivors to the U.S. were thwarted.  Even though Bahamians don’t typically require a passport to come here, and there was an internal push from the acting chief of Customs and Border Protection to grant these survivors temporary protected status, such status was denied and at least initially and to my knowledge still, they were not allowed in.  They were demonized as “very bad people” and “some very bad gang members and some very very bad drug dealers.”[2]  

          Earlier I said Jesus shows us how to rescue others insofar as we are able.  Smart people can differ about foreign policy, can raise legitimate questions about the logistics of handling refugees.  From where I stand, for the wealthiest country on the planet to deny such rescue seems to fundamentally misunderstand not just human decency, but more apropos to this room, salvation.  If they are not okay, we are, by definition, not okay.

          Are we saved?  Yes….and no, as long as we fail to recognize that we can only be saved together.  That’s the whole point of the Jesus story.  Somehow we’ve been taught salvation is a commodity that we must get in order to have eternal life.  No, salvation is a way of life, one that recognizes our wellbeing is bound up in everyone else’s wellbeing.  Until we recognize that, we will neither understand Jesus nor the salvation he came to show us. 

          The car is on the side of the road, the island is ravaged by a hurricane.  Do we call them to Jesus or do we act like him?  Amen. 

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