Paul declared that “now is the acceptable time; see, now is the Day of Salvation!” That may be true, but what does it mean to be saved or to proclaim Jesus as savior? This is a question that many struggle with. We sing about it and pray about it, but we’re not sure what salvation really is.
That’s the impression that Mark Love got from his interviews and surveys. We have a strong sense of the presence of God in the world, but we’re not quite sure how that relates to our own lives. He found that there’s a lot of discomfort with traditional understandings of Jesus being our “personal savior,” despite all the salvation imagery present in our hymns and prayers, including the prayers at the Table.
Could it be that we’ve been overly influenced by an atonement theory that many of us find problematic? The idea that Jesus died on a cross as a sacrificial victim to satisfy God’s need for blood as atonement for our sins no longer makes sense. The traditional Protestant vision of salvation tends to be very individualistic. I sinned; I’ve been judged guilty by God; God demands justice; Jesus pays the penalty. It’s quite simple and it works for a lot of people, but is this the only option?
I believe there are other ways of looking at this question – what does it mean to be saved? One of the places I’ve often looked for guidance is found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Paul writes that when God is at work reconciling the world, God is also bringing into existence a new creation. This newness not only includes our relationship with God; it also includes our relationships with our neighbors and with creation itself. After all, Jesus linked love of God with love neighbor. They always go together.
This word reconciliation is another way of speaking of salvation. To be reconciled to God and neighbor is to be liberated, healed, restored, and ultimately united with the life of God. Of course, we not only ask about the restoration of these relationships, we also must ask why the relationships with God, neighbor, and creation are broken. From what, therefore, are we being saved?
Over the years a variety of atonement theories have evolved to explain how Jesus restores us to fellowship with God. Each of these theories seems to speak to a particular time and context. So what does it mean to be saved if the majority of this congregation lives in middle class American suburbia? What if, we’ve lived our lives in a predominantly Christian context? We’ve gone to church all our lives. While we’re not perfect, by any means, and we have plenty of bad habits, we’re not monsters! Of course, Jesus doesn’t make a distinction between our motives and our actions, but we do! Getting angry at someone and killing them is really two different things – at least in our minds, if not that of Jesus!
So, what do we mean when we pray the Lord’s Prayer? Whose debts or trespasses are we forgiving so that God might forgive ours? When we recite a prayer of confession, like we did during Lent, acknowledging our sins before God, what exactly were we confessing? What sins am I truly guilty of? Maybe that’s why Jesus did emphasize our motives as well as our actions!
I chose to preach from 2 Corinthians 5, because this has been a defining scripture for my life and ministry. I’ve preached on this passage several times. In fact, my very first sermon in my seminary preaching class focused on this passage. I don’t have the notes or manuscript from that sermon, because it predated the personal computer and I tossed out most of my notes from that era. But, I do remember the illustration I used in that sermon.
I called the class’s attention to a beautiful pristine lake, perhaps one like Crystal Lake. Unfortunately, over time careless and thoughtless people dumped garbage and sewage into the lake. What had been crystal clear water was now brown and dead. It was so polluted that it could no longer sustain life. Then I suggested that something happened to restore that lake to its pristine beauty. Gradually, over time, the pollutants were removed and fresh water replaced the old polluted waters. I then suggested that this is what Jesus has done for us. We are that lake. We allowed it to become polluted with sinful thoughts and actions, but Jesus has restored us to our original innocence before God. The old is gone, and the new has come into existence. It’s been thirty years since I preached that sermon, so I can’t remember all the particulars, but that image continues to stand out in my memory. God restores us to our original innocence.
To be reconciled is start life afresh. The slate has been wiped clean. God has forgotten our trespasses. No longer do we know God from a human point of view. Now we see all things in the light of God’s gift of salvation, and isn’t that good news? From the way Paul writes about reconciliation, it’s clear that it comes to us as a gift. It is God who initiates this process. It is God who reconciles us and makes all things new in Christ. Yes, this is God’s gift, but it’s incumbent on us to graciously receive this gift if it is going to truly transform our lives.
If someone gives you a gift – maybe a birthday gift or a wedding gift – will you put it on a shelf and never unwrap it? What’s the point if you do that? The wrapped box might look pretty, but it’s what’s inside the box that counts. Paul tells us that inside that box is new life in Christ. So, be sure to unwrap the gift, which comes to us from God in Christ.
There’s more to this story, however. Not only does God give us this gift of a new life in Christ. God has entrusted to us the job of delivering the gift to others. We are, Paul writes, ministers of reconciliation and ambassadors for Christ, charged with telling the world that they have been reconciled to God in Christ.
In reflecting on this passage over the years, I’ve thought about how God is at work restoring broken relationships. There is so much brokenness present in our communities. We see this in our families. Parents and children are at odds; siblings are odds with each other. On and on it goes. It’s also true in our churches. We have a tendency to divide over things minor and major. They can be doctrinal or political. It might involve the color of the carpet or an important social issue of the day. Race, sexuality, gender – the list is long. Sometimes these are life and death issues.
We Disciples are not a perfect people, but I appreciate the emphasis we’ve placed on both freedom and covenant. That is, we are free to read and interpret scripture for ourselves. We’re free to formulate our own theologies. We’re free to disagree on the important issues of the day. We can be Republicans and Democrats, and every shade in between. We are liberal and conservative. We’re old and we’re young. We’re male and female, gay and straight. When it comes to our differences, we’re tempted to say -- as the title of a little book by my friend Steve Kindle puts it – “I'm Right and You're Wrong.” That’s the temptation, but despite our differences, we’re still one in Christ, in whom God has reconciled us to God’s self!
I was pleased with Mark Love’s report that this congregation believes that God is active outside the walls of the church, and so should we. This is definitely a missional vision, and we’ve accepted this vision as God’s vision for our congregation. But Mark also discovered that we struggle to understand how God is working in our own lives, saving us. He discovered that we tend to be uncomfortable talking about how God is at work in our lives. In fact, we find it difficult to ask for help for ourselves. We’ll ask people to pray for others, but not for ourselves.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be wrestling with this question of salvation. Part of this journey will include asking the question – if God is at work saving me, then from what am I being saved as well as to what am I being restored? Could it be that we struggle with anxiety over our fate and fear of death? Is it anxiety over being enslaved and needing to be liberated? Or is it anxiety over a sense of meaninglessness and despair? That is, as middle-class suburban Americans where do our anxieties lie? From what must we be saved?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 12, 2015