Monday, April 9, 2012

Salvation Means More than Going To Heaven


Easter Day – April 8, 2012

Salvation Means More Than Going To Heaven

John 20:1-18

Marcus Borg’s chapter on Salvation in his new book “Speaking Christian” begins with these words, “Because salvation in common usage is closely associated with going to heaven, we need to clear up a major misunderstanding at the outset. Salvation in the Bible is seldom about an afterlife. (p 39)

Continuing with this thought he says, The first biblical framework shaping the meaning of salvation is the story of the exodus from Egypt... the leadership of Moses liberates (the Jews) from their political, economic, and religious enslavement to Pharaoh…This story is the ancient Israelites’ primal narrative, the most important story they knew and foundational to their understanding of God and life with God.” (p 40)

In the Exodus story salvation and being saved refer to liberation from economic bondage; liberation from political bondage; and liberation from religious bondage. The Israelites had been saved from Pharaoh’s Egypt and Egypt was not to be re-created in Israel.

Borg identifies the second major framework shaping the biblical meaning of salvation as the Jewish experience of exile in the sixth century B.C. The exile, which occurred between 597 and 538 B. C., began when the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and forced many of the survivors – the most elite of the survivors - into exile in Babylon.

The exile is the historical context for the second part of the book of Isaiah.

Listen to Isaiah’s powerful words of God’s salvation:

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” (Is 43:1-4)

Rescue from peril is also the primary meaning of salvation in the psalms. Salvation appears in the psalms more often than in any book in the Bible, including the New Testament.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” (27:1)

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” (51:12)

I thank you for you have answered me and have become my salvation.” (118:21)

“Save all the oppressed of the earth.” (76:9)

“By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation.” (65:5)

Borg concludes his discussion on salvation with the observation that, “What all of these meanings of salvation in the Old Testament have in common is salvation as ‘deliverance,’ ‘rescue.’ To be saved is to be delivered – to be rescued from that which ails us…to be saved is to enter into a new kind of life – a life covenanted with God is the central theme of both the Old and the New Testaments. Salvation is about deliverance and transformation.”

The New Testament is also filled with references to salvation that have nothing to do with going to heaven:

-         From blindness to seeing again - In John’s Gospel Jesus is “the light of the world.”

-         From death to life – In Matthew when Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” the implication is that we can be alive and yet dead. This Gospel also includes the good news that there is a way of leaving the land of the dead behind.

-         From infirmity to well-being – More stories are told about Jesus as a healer than about any other figure in antiquity. This is salvation in healing the wounds of existence; as well-being; as wholeness.

-         From fear to trust – In one passage Jesus counsels his followers not to worry, not to be anxious, but instead to trust in God. (Lk 12:22-31)

Throughout the Bible salvation concerns individuals; it is personal. Yet, at the same time, it is also consistently corporate. It includes how we live together in communities, societies, and nations. Salvation in both the Old and the New Testaments is about the kind of life we live in the here and now and in the kind of world that we live in – in the here and now.

Borg concludes his chapter on Salvation with these thoughts:

…whenever Christianity emphasizes the afterlife as the reason for being Christian the result is invariably a distortion of Christianity. It becomes a religion of requirements and rewards. The message is, ‘Be a Christian now for the sake of heaven later.’ It focuses our attention on the next life rather than on this world…The answer pointed to in this chapter is that salvation is the twofold transformation of ourselves and the world. Moreover, I think most people yearn for this. We yearn for the transformation of our lives – for a fuller connection to what is; from liberation from all sorts of bondage; for sight; for wholeness; for the healing of the wounds of existence. And most of us yearn for a world that is a better place…Salvation concerns these two transformations – self and world – this is what Christianity at its best is about.” (p 54)

Today, Easter Sunday, is the ultimate day of salvation. It is the day on which Mary who went to the tomb to pay homage to Jesus, found the tomb empty. It is the day on which Mary, who after moments of terror and inconsolable loss, saw Jesus standing beside her and heard him say to her, “Mary.”

Today is the day that Jesus spoke of in the Gospel of Matthew when he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" (Mt. 20:17-19)]

Today is the day we stand together and say, “Alleluia, Christ is risen; The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

Christ’s apostles understood the resurrection as heralding a new era; but,  forming a theology of the resurrection fell to the Apostle Paul who had never even seen Jesus.

Fundamental to Pauline theology was the connection between Christ's Resurrection and salvation. Paul understood the resurrection of Jesus – the lifting of Jesus to the Kingdom of Heaven - as the cause of and basis for the hope that all Christians would share a similar experience. In 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 he wrote, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Paul never imagined Jesus’ resurrection alone and by itself - a single event, involving Jesus only. Paul understood the resurrection of Jesus as the start of a general resurrection – the final act of cosmic justification transforming our world from an unjust society to a just society – an opportunity to transform ourselves and the world.

In Ephesians, Paul writes, "Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world. Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him. Because of his love God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his children---this was his pleasure and purpose."  (Ephesians 1:3-5)

Paul goes on, "God saved you through faith as an act of kindness. You had nothing to do with it. Being saved is a gift from God." (Eph 2:8) Jesus Christ – his life, his death and his resurrection – our gift from God.

John Dominic Crossan in discussing the resurrection in his book “Excavating Jesus,” writes: “If Christian faith has been in vain, that is has not acted to transform itself and this world toward the justice of God, and if Christian proclamation has been in vain, that is, has not insisted that such is the church’s vocation, then Christ was not raised. Christianity could certainly still claim that Jesus was exalted and had ascended to the right hand of God. But, resurrection presumes the start of a cosmic transformation, not just the promise of it, not just the hope of it, not just talk about it, and not just theology about it.”

As we go forward on this Easter morning, witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, let us remember that our salvation is more than just going to heaven; it is a here and now event.

Let us remember that salvation means making just an unjust world. 

Let us remember that, “…salvation is the twofold transformation of ourselves and the world.  – this is what Christianity at its best is about.

Let us remember that, “…God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16) 

“Alleluia, Christ is risen; The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.”

Friday, April 6, 2012

Following Jesus to the Cross


Maundy Thursday-April 5, 2012

Following Jesus to the Cross

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

A friend of mine told me the other day that he had 582 Facebook friends. A few weeks ago a young teen who I am counseling reported that she had sent 14,346 text messages in the previous month. The last time I was at McCarren airport, I overheard a businessman telling his traveling partner that he no longer needed anything but his iPad. “It has eliminated my need for a computer, a television, and a phone,” he declared. At the doctor’s office last Thursday, there were 14 people in the waiting room; 11 had electronic devices on which they were communicating to some other electronic device. Of those 11 people, 6 wore earbuds, listening, I presume, to some piece of music downloaded from iTunes.

Intrigued by the effect of the growing Internet phenomenon, I decided to “jump onto” the Internet myself. I settled in at my desk and developed a series of Google searches that focused on questions such as “What is the Internet doing to our society?”

After reading several boring and quite a few absolutely fascinating articles, it became clear to me that the rapidly expanding universe of information to be found on the Internet, and its proliferation of social media opportunities for individuals of all ages, has resulted in many of us turning to the Internet for answers to life’s questions, and for companionship.

I then wondered, “What is the Internet doing to church attendance.” I did not find many serious answers to that question. However, I did come upon an article that appeared in the November 8, 2011 edition of Episcopal News Service - “Episcopal Church membership shows some regional growth; overall decline,” authored by Mary Frances Schjonberg.

Schjonberg wrote, “While membership in 16 of the Episcopal Church's domestic dioceses and eight of its non-domestic ones grew in 2010, recently released data shows that overall membership has declined. The decrease is part of a trend that has seen membership decline by just more than 16 percent since 2000.”

Further into the article, Schjonberg quotes Bishop Stacey Sauls, the Episcopal Church’s chief operating officer. Bishop Sauls responded to the release of this data by saying, "These statistics reveal something very important about the challenges we face as a church," One of those is that we cannot allow statistics like this to make us anxious about our survival. Earthly survival is not of much value to the Gospel. Striving for the kingdom and righteousness of God is. Concentrating on the latter is likely to yield more abundant life than the former (Mt. 6:31-33)."

Sauls said that the statistics also show that "we cannot continue to pretend we are the church of the establishment entitled to the power, prestige and privilege that comes with that."

"Right now, I think the cross calls us to die to those trappings of our old establishment life, and that means turning our attention single-mindedly to God's mission and our participation in it, which means that we are going to have to restructure and reform ourselves accordingly," he said. "Churches that turn inward will die. Churches that turn outward will not only live, but thrive. The numbers call us to strengthen our commitment to turn outward."

Wondering about the decline in church attendance versus the increase in Internet usage I performed yet another Google search and found that in 1990 only 2% of the population used the Internet. By 2011 that number had increased to 79.3%. That is an increase of over 77% - a great many people; especially considering that during that same period of time the population in the United States also increased – by approximately 10 million people.

Episcopal Church attendance down 16% despite a population increase of 10 million people; Internet usage up 77%; and, a mandate from the national church to “restructure and reform ourselves… to turn outward.”

Critical thoughts for us to ponder today -  Maundy Thursday.  Derived from the Latin word mandatum, meaning "commandment," Maundy refers to the commands Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper: to love with humility by serving one another and to follow him to the cross.

Before the Passover meal, Jesus demonstrated his humility and his love for the disciples through the ritual of footwashing:

 “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…he got up from the table and took off his outer robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and to wipe them with the towel that was around him.”
By performing this lowly act of service, Jesus showed his disciples the full extent of his love. By his example, Jesus demonstrated how Christians are to love one another through humble service. Jesus tells the disciples: “For I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.”
A bit later in the evening, Jesus says to the disciples:

“Little children… I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our teacher, our loved one has told us that he is leaving. He gives us final instructions – simple ones: be humble, serve God only, and love one another. Through his actions Jesus shows us how these commandments should be carried out – by washing feet - the lowliest of tasks performed only by gentile slaves,  and by being crucified – by giving his life to God..

Jesus intentionally and indiscriminately loved us, and he intentionally and passionately journeyed to a place in which he knew he would sacrifice his life for his God. Filled with God’s passion for the Kingdom of God, Jesus offered himself up as a gift to God. His love flowed outward.

It is quite easy on this emotional evening for us to end with tears and silence, exiting into the dark evening, painfully anticipating Jesus’ torture, his suffering, and his death. We experience a dreadful emptiness – Jesus is no longer with us.

It is also quite easy to sooth ourselves by remembering that Easter is only a matter of hours away. Jesus will return. He will be raised from the dead in all his glory; he will become Christ our Savior.

That’s the easy way to experience this painful evening - the easy way out.

But, I would like to ask you to think about and to experience this evening in a different way. I would like to ask you to experience this evening in the context of our society here in Nevada in the year 2012, and in the context of Bishop Saul’s observation that “the cross calls us to die to those trappings of our old establishment life, and that means turning our attention single-mindedly to God's mission and our participation in it, which means that we are going to have to restructure and reform ourselves accordingly… The numbers call us to strengthen our commitment to turn outward.""

These are simple words that convey extremely complex concepts – “die to the trappings of our old establishment life; restructure and reform ourselves accordingly; strengthen our commitment to turn outward.”

What do these words mean, in general? What do they mean for us here at Grace? Can we, like the Internet entrepreneurs, turn our numbers around by going into the community and witnessing God’s love through thought, word, and deed? Can we attract crowds by providing healing through acts of mercy and social justice just as Jesus did as he journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem? Can we renew and reinvigorate God’s community in the world? If so…HOW?

Tonight as we exit Grace in the Desert and return home to good food, comfortable beds, and, yes - the Internet, will we be mourning the loss of Jesus, or will we be racking our brains in an effort to figure out what our cross looks like?

Are we satisfied to keep Christ alive only for ourselves here at Grace – is that what it means for us to “take up our cross” and follow him in 2012? Or, do we feel a sense of urgency to reverse those foreboding statistics – 16% decline in Episcopal Church attendance?

To follow Jesus is not to mourn his suffering and death this evening; but rather it is, with singleness of heart and courage, to take up his challenge of servanthood and love, and to offer ourselves to the cross with a passionate love of God, and as disciples of Christ, now and for eve.