We live with the mediocre in our lives, afraid of being killed or of being left behind, unable to define the far off poles between which the conventional stands in the middle. We ask for no great shakes, determined to seek the easiness we believe was promised to us long ago by those who walked long distances with a practiced pace and on calloused feet. Salvation should, the story begins, be easy, with no hindrance in our seeking for definitions of the God who seeks and waits as we actively search for the desire that will deliver us.
How is it that salvation history depends upon scripts unwritten and words incomplete? Weekly festivals do not make the passage of time any less difficult or slightly trying. Dancing elders celebrate with high-leg kicks the message their generation received long ago from the bottles others tossed into the seas. A conversation about the next memorial wall slows, weighted with the wax of last night's dinner candles which burned too fast. Writing checks to the cleaning company and first-time talks with new-found friends will not create the forgiveness you seek nor secure a place for your name on the wall.
To be saved is to be provoked; to believe that a message is true if it saves your life. How can you be comfortable and still thirst for more comfort? Which is worth more? A twelve hundred dollar band-aid? Or a six hundred dollar band-aid? Signs and standing ovations applaud and promote service workers to the rare air of being essential. (Essential really means expendable.) We need healers who walk in the ancient ways.
Saved from Death.
Saved from Sin.
Saved from Self.
Saved from Meaninglessness.
Saved from Hell.
And since this is the last sermon in this series, perhaps some of you are thinking, Thank God, we are saved from another sermon by Reverend Eric about being saved.
I hope that after five weeks of wrestling with salvation – with what salvation meant for the early followers of Jesus Christ and with how the ideas about salvation have carried forward into today’s world – your appreciation for this rich, theological idea has grown, been challenged and, more importantly, that you are inspired to continue to be saved from death, sin, yourself, meaninglessness and from Hell. We have heard a great deal from Paul’s letters about salvation in this sermon series. Today’s reading from his letter to the Romans is the culmination, the endpoint and the main point, for Paul’s understanding of salvation found in Christ.
Paul writes to the church in Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Did you catch how Paul began this list of his? Paul starts with, “neither death,” the place where he began in his earliest letter where he wrote about salvation to the Thessalonians. And then Paul keeps adding to the list of those things that cannot separate us from God’s saving grace. Ten things on Paul’s list. (Just to think I could have preached a ten-part sermon series.) “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from being saved. AND, this begs the question: If we are saved FROM everything, then what are we saved for? If God is for us, then we are saved for…? I have dropped some not-so-subtle hints in each of the sermons these past five weeks. Along the way I have talked about pronoun usage. If God is for us, then we are taken care of and we can stop worrying about us. Me, myself and I? We’re good. Now, how about the second person singular and the second person plural, you and the others, and the third person singular and the third person plural, he/she/they/them?
The point of being saved is not to become a follower of Jesus and be able to say, “I am a Christian.” That’s already taken care of. In fact, the point of being saved is not to become a “Christian” but to become Christ-like. There is a story of a young person seeking to evangelize an old and wise monk in a Greek monastery. The young person comes up to the monk and introduces themselves saying, “I am a Christian.” And before they could say anything else the monk replied, “Already?
That sort of puts one in their place. And we need that as people who call ourselves, “Christian.” To be reminded that the way of Jesus is a journey and not a destination. Just as Paul is convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God, I am also convinced that we don’t really believe that that is true. How so? Well, we keep thinking and believing and acting…small. Most Christians think that being called a “Christian” and being a disciple and follower of Christ is what being a Christian is all about.
And, that is the first step. Once you see the resurrected Christ in the garden where it all begins outside the tomb, we are told to return to Galilee, where the story of Jesus all began. Why? Not to read it again as one of the disciples. You did that the first time through to become a disciple. Now, read the story again to do what Jesus did; to become Christ-like.
Take the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. Yes, of all the miracles and stories about Jesus’ ministry, there is only one that is found in all four gospels. The feeding of the five thousand. What happens? The people have been following Jesus all day. It’s supper time. The people are hungry and tired. The disciples say to Jesus, “Send them away for they are hungry.” And Jesus replies, probably with a roll of his eyes, “You give them something to eat.” But we don’t have anything. And what happens? Bread and fish make a meal. Okay, okay. This is our first time through your story, Jesus, we understand.
What happens the next time we go through the story? What role do you see yourself in the second time through? Or is there a third time and a fourth time? At what point do we see and learn that we are supposed to be like Jesus and BE the ones to give them something to eat? Jesus tells us, “YOU give them something to eat.”
To do what Jesus did. To become Christ-like. That’s the saved for!
Our Bible study group is wandering through the Book of Acts and we are reading about how Peter and Paul and others “get it” and do what Jesus did. They go to those in need. They eat with them. They heal them. They resurrect them. We are called to do the same thing for…them. And it grieves me that the rapid decline in Christianity in the West, in the United States, is not due to the demonic forces keeping people away from the love of God. We know, from Paul, that that can’t happen. It grieves me that we have made the Christian faith so…small…and personal…and selfish…and most people see right through that in this day and age.
We are not saved for…us. We are saved for…everything and everyone else.
And here I thought that throwing in this extra week in our Salvation Story about being Save From Hell would be “easy” and “fun”… This message has been Hell to create.
Why? Maybe because I am now keenly feeling the Hell of what my life is like during this pandemic? Maybe it’s because I, like most people in this day and age, don’t believe in a Hell after we die. Dante’s nine circles of Hell that he wrote about in the 14th-century don’t really resonate with me and my enlightenment thinking in the 21st-century. And, I don’t have to look very hard today to see the Hell on earth that we human beings have created for ourselves and for each other.
Maybe this has been so hard because the Hell on earth right now is so…very…Hell-ish. I hope we are all honest with ourselves and even more than that, really taking the time to look out on a creation that is groaning with labor pains – which Paul writes about – a creation waiting…for us.
And I find that helpful. Paul is working with the metaphor found in Genesis where by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil Adam and Eve set this mess in motion. God cursed the ground because of their action. It is this ground that is groaning according to Paul. And oh how we hear the groans because we now know good and evil. We know Hell. And it is here.
Several years ago I wrote a weekly religion column for the Noblesville Daily Times. Every week a word or two on something religious, ethical and/or philosophical. And then every Monday I would have at least one maybe two emails in my inbox telling me that I was going to Hell. Some were nicer than others whereby the sender indicated that they would be praying for my soul. I suppose I should be grateful for her or his pray but then I got to thinking about the sheer audacity and arrogance of someone thinking that her or his prayer could save my very soul. Tell you what God can handle the endpoint for my soul without your prayer. So, I wrote a column about that thought and guess what…
I wrote a column suggesting that some biblical practices condemned as sinful were more about the times and cultures of that tie than about morality and God’s will. Guess what?
An aside: Isn’t it interesting that those who seem to be the most vocal and most sure about the soul of another going to Hell also carry with that judgment the idea that her or his soul is headed in the more upwards direction? I could guess what my inbox would contain if I wrote a column reflecting upon that observation…
If the number of messages in an inbox saying, Go to Hell, is indicative of one’s chance of actually going to Hell, well…Hello, Hell!
Hello, Hell. Which brings me to Eric’s Helpful Hints to Hold-off Hell. And I use the words hold-off as way to say avoid with an H-word so I could gain some rhetorical power with alliteration in my title, “Helpful Hints to Hold-off Hell.”
First, remember my first sermon to you where I said, “Hello!” And I indicated what happened when you drop the “o” from “Hello”? Hint number one: Always say, “Hello.” When you don’t you create Hell.
The next seven hints come from Christian tradition beginning with the 4th-century desert father, Evagrius Ponticus, who was the first to enumerate what became known as the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s a good list. A great list.
And as I quickly run through this list keep in mind that these seven deadly sins come out of seven basic needs of the human being. Those needs become sins, deadly sins, when we make those needs all-consuming. When we become addicted to a particular need. Or when we become blind to the effects our needs are having on those around us.
With that said, here’s the list:
As I say that list once again, which of them creates a bit of heat under your seat.
Lust. Uncontrolled desire. Physical. Sensual. Spiritual. So very much a hallmark of our consumer-driven society. How difficult has it been for you to be holed up at home unable to go out and shop? Lust.
Gluttony. How much stuff do you really need to be a human being that lives for the sake of other human beings? I would suggest that we are not gluttons for punishment. We are gluttons of stuff.
Greed. Gimme. Gimme. Gimme. Sure we all need the basics. But some need more. And worse. Some need what others have.
Sloth. I am so lazy I am not even going to take the time to explain sloth. Back to my video game.
Anger. It’s that reptilian response of fight type anger that is dangerous. I have shared before how in our study of Joy with the Dalai Lama and with Archbishop Tutu how important it is to create space and time between a stimulus that…creates anger…and our response. It’s the immediate response that is dangerous and destructive.
Envy. The classic example of Cain killing Abel. Somehow we get it in our minds that God loves another more than God loves us and WATCH OUT, malice is soon to follow.
And finally, Pride. The BIG ONE. Throughout Christian history Pride has always had the pride-full place of being number one on the list of the seven deadly sins. Oh, how pride conceals itself so very, very well. I am not racist. I earned my living. I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I deserve what I have. I worked hard for my way of life. AND, my way of life and my religion and my sense of well-being is right. And, here is a real sneaky one: God has blessed me. I don’t often quote from America’s first and foremost fire-and-brimstone preacher, Jonathan Edwards, but he puts pride in it’s place 400 years ago when he says, “Remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out, and is the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all lusts, and often creeps in, insensibly, into the midst of religion and sometimes under the disguise of humility.” Oh, my…sweet, sublime Rev. Edwards, grandfather of Aaron Burr, who ironically, was unable to realize IN HIS PRIDE that the world was wide enough for Hamilton and I.
Interestingly enough, pride, the most difficult to root out, the most hidden, secret and first sin, is right in front of us, looking at us in the mirror in which we are looking at ourselves. When we look in that mirror and see me, myself and I, or when we look in that mirror with others and see us, ourselves and we, how quickly we create Hell. Or, how quickly we go to Hell.
Believe it or not. There is a simple way – which is a theological way of saying, A very difficult way – to avoid Pride as a deadly, deadly sin. And it also works for the other deadly sins. And that is, my high school English teacher would love me for this, Pronoun Usage. If in your Facebook posts, and conversations with those around you and in your neighborhood and your community, you are using me, myself, and I and using us, ourselves and we, pause. Is that who God is seeing and loving and pouring out compassion upon?
Sometimes I point out that Jesus lived and died to show us proper pronoun usage and to give us one helluva chance to stay out of Hell. Jesus was constantly for the Other; healing, teaching, feeding and eating and drinking with the other. Jesus died not for himself but for everybody else. God so loved the world. And I may approach a bit of heresy here – and my email inbox will probably fill up – but we turned what Jesus did for Others into believing that Jesus did whatever Jesus did…for US. When Jesus was giving us an example, his very way of life AND his very life, to show us how to bring heaven here on earth for the other by living and dying for the other. And we turned that into having faith that Jesus died for us to save us from Hell.
Is it any wonder that spiritual master after spiritual master all say that when she or he dies they want to go to Hell? The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu say that very same thing in the Book of Joy. Because the compassionate and loving response to the gift of life is always to go to where there is no life. If there is Hell on earth, go and work to bring heaven to that place on earth. And then in death, if there is Hell in Hell, to go to Hell and save everyone.
The story of salvation continues…
I began planning for this sermon series before the COVID Pandemic. My thinking was that “Salvation” would be a good topic to cover after our Lenten season of “Encountering Jesus.” Well, the pandemic got in the way of those plans and delayed “Salvation” for a month or so. And, I now had some more time to think about all the myriad ways one can think about salvation. And like Pooh, I sat on my thinking log and went, “Think, think think.” All of that thinking didn’t bring me any closer to salvation.
This week, though, salvation fell into my lap. As some of you know, I am a fifth generation pastor. My great-grandfather, Harvey Garland Waggoner, was the pastor at First Christian Church in Dixon, Illinois, during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. I have been seeking anything of his in the family archives from that time period so I could learn how to be a pastor in a pandemic. No luck. What I did find this week was this…
“What Shall I Do to be Saved? A Sermon by Elder J. G. Waggoner. Price 5 cents. pp. 16. A plain and faithful presentation of the scriptural answers to this question.” All of my work already done one hundred and forty years ago by my great-GREAT-grandfather, John Garland Waggoner. And, at a very reasonable price in today’s dollars: 5 cents in 1880 is about $1.25 today in 2020. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of that 16-page sermon.
(I love the sentence in the advertisement: “It would be a good tract to circulate in Chicago just now.” Makes me one wonder what was happening in Chicago in 1880. Probably not much different than today. Would John Garland Waggoner write the same thing about The Windy City if he knew that his great-great-grandson would be born there eighty-five years later?)
Of course he would, because the next sentence, “It is a good tract to circulate anywhere,” indicates that he knows that sin is present anywhere…and all the time.
Which brings me around to today’s salvation topic: Saved From Sin. The author of the Book of Hebrews writes, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Very true. According to the Temple laws laid out in the Book of Leviticus every sin offering at the Temple in Jerusalem must be accompanied with a blood sacrifice. That is how it worked…back then.
In the two songs in our service today, we sing the words found in those traditional Christian hymns, “washed in his blood” and “the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine.” Blood atonement. Getting right with God, atoning for one’s sin, can only happen with blood. The 20th-century pastor and theologian, Reinhold Neibuhr tells a wonderful story about blood atonement in his parish in Detroit. “The old gentleman was there too who wanted to know whether I believed in the deity of Jesus. He is in every town. He seemed to be a nice sort, but he wanted to know how I could speak for an hour on the Christian church without once mentioning the atonement. Nothing, said he, but the blood of Jesus would save America from its perils. He made quite an impassioned speech. At first I was going to answer him but it seemed too useless. I finally told him I believed in blood atonement too, but since I hadn’t shed any of the blood of sacrifice which it demanded I felt unworthy to enlarge upon the idea.”
And I really feel the same way today as Neibuhr did one hundred years ago in 1920. I am unworthy to enlarge upon the idea. Speaking of large. How about this idea of atonement?
“I want bigger virgins.” Because if you offer yourself to the volcano, say your name is Joe Banks played by Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano, then, who knows, maybe your sins and the sins of the tribe will be absolved by the Volcano God.
Maybe. I do know this. I am not one to throw myself into a volcano for the sake of absolution for the sins of the world. Reinhold Neibuhr was/is correct.
I am not worthy to enlarge upon the idea of being “washed in the blood so divine.” I AM grateful that the blood so divine flows through MY veins and arteries in this COVID pandemic-time. Whereas the blood of 127,000 people and counting in our nation has ceased to flow – 51,000 of those deaths of people in nursing and retirement centers. Two, Ed Alley and Jack Henneberry. My mentors, teachers, coaches and friends.
They did not have to die from COVID-19. And though I am unworthy to enlarge upon the idea of blood atonement, I will enlarge upon our understanding of sin for which blood atonement is made.
Here is my sin. Here is our sin. Ed Alley and Jack Henneberry did not need to die from COVID-19.
I was on a men’s retreat at Bedford Christian Camp in 1994 when I first met Ed Alley who was on staff for that weekend. Big, tall man. Bald. Bearded with a joy-full face. I asked him what his role on the weekend was. Ed replied, “I am here to simply bless, bless, bless.” As the principal for Western Avenue Elementary School, Jack Henneberry always ended the morning announcements with “Be kind to each other.”
Good advice. Biblical advice. Bless, bless, bless. Love one another. How to be saved from sin? How to be saved from our separation from the God of Love? Love one another. Bless one another. “Be kind to each other.”
Even before Jesus was born, the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar, was called “Savior of the World.” In the Greek and Roman understanding of salvation, salvation was about being saved from the perils of life by the gods or by a powerful benefactor, such as Caesar. The Romans were not alone in thinking about salvation. The Jews of the time had their own understandings of salvation. In the First Testament there are numerous ideas about salvation each sharing in common the intervention of YHWH in some way or another. One of my favorite meanings of the Hebrew word for salvation is “to make roomier” or to create more space. [Heaven will never be crowded.]
When Paul writes what we call his first letter to the church in Thessalonika, he is, no doubt, mindful of the salvation-talk around him. Most scholars believe that this letter is one of Paul’s earliest writings; perhaps reflecting Paul’s first way of talking about the salvation that Christ brings. Paul is responding to a question that the Thessalonians have asked. If we who are alive will be raised with Christ, what about those who are dead? Here’s Paul’s response…
We each have our own understanding of salvation and that is why I like Paul’s later words, and I would say more mature words, to the church in Philippi, “work out your OWN salvation with fear and trembling.”
We hear in today’s scripture that Paul is working out what is for him his earliest understanding of salvation; God in Jesus Christ will save us from death. Salvation from death was a big issue for some early Christians. Death was all around them. People hanging on crosses along roads as warnings to obey the Empire. People dying from hunger and disease. A horrifically high infant mortality rate. Is it any wonder that Paul’s message appealed to many? “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” How encouraging do you really find these words?
AND…Time passed. Those who were left died. Even Paul died. So the understanding of being saved from death had to change.
“We are a resurrection people!” We proclaim this as Christians. It is at the heart of our religion. And yet, as people of the resurrection, we tend to ignore the state of being that precedes resurrection: death. We are quick to cry out, “New life!” while quickly passing over, “old death.” The grim reaper, cloaked and hooded in black, carrying a scythe. It’s been said, “In life, only two things are certain: taxes and death.” In death, nothing is certain not even life; a Lazarus has yet to appear on Oprah telling about his exploits in the afterlife.
Nothing is more terrifying for some people than death. Death, more than any other condition or experience in life, pushes us into the very heart of things. One moment there is life. The next moment there is…nothing. What do we make of this as human beings? Is the end of our life the equivalent of an ant being stepped on; one moment crawling along, the next squished? “Surely not!” we cry out. Our very consciousness and awareness of “The End” must count for something.
The poet James Laughlin has a wonderful poem titled “The Junk Collector” that engages this very thought. “What bothers me most about / the idea of having to die / (sooner or later) is that / the collection of junk I / have made in my head will / presumably be dispersed / not that there isn’t more / and better junk in other / heads & always will be but / I have become so fond of / my own head’s collection.” Where will the collection of junk in our heads “go” when we die? Most polls show that around 80% of Americans believe in an afterlife. Somehow, some way, our junk remains with us even when we die. Think about it: garage sales and flea markets in the afterlife. Heaven for some. Hell for others.
Today most Christians believe that salvation from death means that after we die we will live forever in God’s eternal realm. Of course we must remember what my uncle said about such a state of heaven. He declared, “If I have to listen to the heavenly host singing constantly, than I’d rather not go to heaven!” Or, I have heard many folks say, “The alternative to Heaven just sounds more fun!”
I did a funeral for an elderly woman in Noblesville who everyone considered a saint in the church and in the community. The first time I met her was when I offered to give her a ride to one of her many meetings. She first scolded me for knocking on her front door when I should have come through the open garage door and walked right in. I settled her in the front seat of my minivan and began our drive. A pastor is always challenged in a call like this. How best to begin a first conversation with a parishioner whom you do not know? She saved me from another mishap by saying, “Eric, you’re probably the pastor that’s going to do my funeral.” Okay. “I have one request: do NOT say, ‘I have gone to a better place.’” This profound and loving Christian did not believe in an afterlife. She believed that in each and every moment of life we are SAVED FROM death in order to live into the line in the Lord’s Prayer that “God’s will may be done on earth” while we are alive. And, oh, how she was alive!
Perhaps another turn to the poets is in order.
Antonio Machado – All things die and all things live forever; / but our task is to die, / to die making roads, / roads over the sea.
Yehuda Amichai – If now, in the middle of my life, I think / Of death, I do so out of confidence / That in the middle of death I will suddenly think / Of life, with the same calming nostalgia / And with the distant gaze of people / Who know their prophecies come true.
One of the reasons those early Jews, who would later call themselves Christians, thought that Jesus Christ would save them from death comes from their own story in scripture. Jesus was seen as the Passover lamb. PASSOVER! The formative event of the people of Israel was used as a way to tell the story of Jesus. Remember what Passover meant to them? What happens when the angel of death passes over your door and death is once again kept at bay? You LIVE! You live for another day!