Jesus Saves..and Saves...and Saves...
In her recent book "An Altar in the World," Barbara Brown recalls a time when she was invited to speak at a church, and asked the priest what his suggestions were for a topic. "Tell us what is saving your life right now." he told her.
Lately, I have been asking myself that same question. "What is saving my life right now?" I'm developing a new understanding on what it means to receive God's salvation that is not based solely on one defining moment of surrender, but on a thousand or more of them. I am learning that the question so many Christians ask those they assume who are unChristian needs to be refined by this understanding. Rather than asking, "Are you saved?" we need to be asking, "How are you being saved?"
"What is saving your life right now?"
God is saving my life right now through stolen moments of peace, conversations and rest, hope that comes with notes of affirmation from people who offer me their ministry of encouragement. God is saving my life right now through music that makes me smile, through friends who I've never met face to face, but who know more about me than most people because of the wonders of technology. God is saving my life right now because of my wife and the love she has for me despite her knowledge of me. God is saving my life right now through the meals I eat with my family outside our house in the sacred space between the garage and our back door.
God is saving my life through prayer. Prayer with others, prayer in my car, prayer while I sit alone in my office.
And God is saving my life through God's word--spoken, written, whispered, revealed all around me in me and through me.
Parker J. Palmer asserts that so many people who call themselves Christians actually seem to be espousing a sort of "functional atheism." In other words, they give lip service to God's presence in their lives, but never really believe that God can do anything in anyone's life unless they will it so, or in anyone else's life unless we fix them, point them in the right direction or "save" them.
I find that a bit scary because it's more than a little on the true side. I have known so many people in my years in and around the Church who profess to be Christians, who declare they know the exact moment when they "got saved," but then essentially live their lives in such a way that there is no evidence Jesus' teachings have had any effect on them.
Populist preacher and teacher (and suprisingly progressive theologian) Joyce Meyer likes to say to her mostly "saved" audiences: "Just because you sit in a garage all day doesn't make you a car." That's a good conviction for all of us smug Christian-types. Simply saying that we are saved, that we got our ticket punched and that we are good people who go to church on Sunday and give a little money to it now and then or maybe even volunteer once in a while for a good cause is fairly meaningless. Sitting in a church pew on Sunday morning doesn't make us a Christian.
Neither does sitting in judgement against those who disagree with us, or who threaten to upset our nice little religious arrangment.
I have been poring over the text that I am to preach from this Sunday. It is a passage in the Acts of the Apostles where Peter stands before the Sanhedrin--the very court that had condemned Jesus and colluded with the Roman empire to effect his execution. Peter has had the temerity to heal a man who had been begging his whole life outside Herod's Temple. Further, he has proclaimed that the power to perform the miracle came directly from Jesus himself, who Peter also declares is the Messiah, the Holy One, the Just One, the Author of Life. He calls upon the people to repent.
5,000 people do just that.
This causes a problem for the religious leaders, who sense that they are losing their grip on the people. After all, 3,000 people became followers of Christ on Pentecost, and another 5,000 after Peter's sermon. A massive movement has been started in their neighborhood overnight, and their own mega church, which is just as institutional as you can get is being threatened. So, they toss Peter and John in jail overnight to hold them for questioning.
Peter says, "Jesus is 'The stone you masons threw out, which is now the cornerstone.' Salvation comes no other way; no other name has been or will be given to us by which we can be saved, only this one."
Just a note. The word for salvation that is used here is derived from sozo which means (among other things) to be rescued, delivered or to be made whole. Oh, and there is this sense here that this is an action that is timeless--in other words, one can find evidence of salvation past, salvation present and be filled with hope of salvation in the future.
I couldn't help but think about the Church as I read this passage of Scripture. Probably because most of the time I can't help but think about the Church. If I was the Church--and I mean the Church-Right-Now--where would I place myself in the story? Would my place be with the barely formed, loosely connected group of new followers of the Way led by a bunch of unlikely leaders? Or as the Church right now would it be sitting in the courtroom of the Sanhedrin in my finest robes, standing in judgement?
I am guessing the latter, if as the Church-Right-Now, I am being honest.
Here's something pretty sobering...
Some ancient Jewish teachers would argue that miracles would not validate someone's authority, ministry, teaching, etc. if the miracle was not done in accord with their own reasoning which was gleaned from Scripture and tradition.
The man that had been healed was standing right in front of the Sanhedrin. This wasn't some fraud that had been perpetrated for the purpose of bilking money out of astonished onlookers. This was the real deal. No smoke and mirrors.
But they wouldn't see it, if it didn't fit within their tradition and their interpretation of Scripture. The religious leaders were stuck, though. "Let's threaten these disciples of Christ to remain orthodox," they essentially decide, "until we can figure out how to squash this heresy, this dangerous teaching."
Maintaining the status quo has supplanted most or all of the truest marks of the Church-Right-Now. The word is that this is not something that anyone really wants to admit because to admit it means that you open yourself up to critique. And God knows, no one in the Church wants to be critiqued--not liberals, not conservatives, not no one. If you don't believe me, just try it. Critique a conservative Christianesque person of being too narrow in her thinking, of interpreting the Bible too literally and watch as she pounds her Bible or shakes it at you. Or try this, tell a liberal that he has forsaken the essential tenets of Biblical faith and has diminished the authority of Scripture, and watch him grow apoplectic with intellectual elitist indignation.
And the first thing that church-y people in the Church-Right-Now who are getting critiqued (whether they are liberal or conservative) usually say about the folks offering the critique is, "Well, they are obviously not real Christians." Here's the truth of the matter, though.
None of us are.
I wrote this as I sat in an artistic worship service that I used to lead:
I look around at all of the people who gather here. The misfits, the one's who were were cast out, the broken, the sorry, the tired, the fearful, the proud, the suffering, the righteous...the lost, all of them lost...the loved.
If I were to pen a definition of "Church" to place in the Oxford English Dictionary, I would lobby pretty hard for that last bit.
Here's a question that deserves an answer. For those of us who make up the Church-Right-Now: Do we find ourselves resisting God's salvation by constantly testing the miracles happening all around us? Making sure that they fit within our interpretation of Scripture? Our understanding of Reason, and Tradition? When confronted with the miraculous in our own lives, do the words that most often spill from our lips sound like "By what power, by what authority is this being done?"
I think that Christians are in constant need of saving. Our understanding of salvation has become limited because we need it to be small. We need to have it confined to a moment so that the moment then excuses not only everything that came before it, but everything after it. Once we have settled the moment of our salvation in our minds, we can move on to other things. If we can say with finality "Heaven!" when someone asks us if we know where we will spend Eternity, we are confident--perhaps even smug--about our salvation. Then we can casually interpret passages in Scripture where we are admonished by Rabbi Paul to "work out" our salvation "with fear and trembling." We can ignore when he says, "We are closer to our salvation then we once were."
We can never answer the question, "What is saving my life, right now?"
Here's the thing, the grace of God is constantly offered to those who don't deserve it, and the people who are most undeserving are those who assume they don't need it because they already have it. There is none so blind as those who will not see. There are none so lost as those who refuse to stop and ask for directions when the way becomes unfamiliar. And didn't Christ come to seek and to save those who are lost? Didn't Christ come to give sight to the blind?
To pillage the title of Rob Bell's new book, Jesus really does want "to save Christians." If we are to truly become the people we are called by God to be, we must come to the realization that when it comes to salvation by faith through grace... those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus need saving most of all.
Every day of our lives.