This week’s sermon.
“Have you been SAAAVED?”
People ask me that sometimes.
I say Yes, I’m a Christian. I’ve been baptized, confirmed, and ordained. I serve as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.
And they ask me again, “But are you SAAAVED?!” They want to know whether I can identify a particular moment in time when I made a decision to “give my heart to Jesus.” Depending on the theological orientation of the person asking the question, they might also want to know if that decision was accompanied by baptism by immersion, falling down under the power of the Holy Spirit, or ecstatic speaking in tongues.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to disparage or discredit any of these phenomena; many faithful Christians (including not a few Presbyterians) have experienced changed lives as a result of them. My only problem is when people treat these blessings from God as criteria by which one person can judge whether or not another person counts as “a real Christian.”
People who speak of being “saved” in this way typically think of salvation as a one-time event, but I think this conception falls short of what we find in the pages of the Bible. What I take away from my reading of the Scriptures is that salvation is not a one-time event, initiated by the Christian through an act of faith, but an ongoing process, initiated by Christ through an act of grace.
My favorite response to that question (“When were you saved?”) comes from the prominent 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Someone asked him, “Dr. Barth, when was the exact moment when you were saved?”
Karl Barth responded, “I was saved at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem, in the year 33 A.D.”
When people ask me whether I’ve been saved, I want to say, “Yes, I’ve been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved, thank God, not by virtue of my own merits or pious experiences, but by the limitless grace of God that has been made known to me in Christ Jesus and never stops working in me to finish the good work that was begun at the creation of the universe.”
So, are we saved? Yup.
Salvation is a process: an ongoing process whereby we are continually growing in our knowledge and love of God, our neighbors, and ourselves. There is not a soul on this earth right now who can rightfully claim to possess the fullness of salvation. There is no one who has achieved (or received) perfect knowledge and love of God. No matter how good or wise we are, there is always room for us to grow. With God, there is always More.
Jesus talks about that very thing in today’s gospel reading. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And he gets the answers then being generated via speculation in the rumor mill. Unsurprisingly, these ideas conform to the religious concepts and categories of their time. “Jesus is a prophet,” they say, “like Elijah or John the Baptist; he is a messenger, sent by God, to tell the people of Israel something important.” And to this, Jesus says in effect, “Yes. You’re right. I am a prophet, I do speak truth to power, I am here to set God’s people back on the right track… but there’s more.”
So, he asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter takes it to the next level, he says, “Okay Jesus, I get what you’re doing here. You’re a prophet, but not just a prophet; you’re more than that. I say you’re the Messiah: God’s anointed leader who will march into Jerusalem by the power of the sword, kick out those pesky Romans, and usher in a new Golden Age of purity and prosperity.” As Peter speaks, I imagine the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background:
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
his truth is marching on. Glory! Glory, hallelujah!”
This is Peter’s idea of what it means to be the Messiah. This is his answer when Jesus asks him, “Who do you say that I am?” And Jesus says again, “You’re right: I am the Messiah… but there’s more.” I am marching to Jerusalem, not to conquer and kill, but to be killed. And our people will not receive me, but reject me. Peter’s definition of Messiah is entirely inadequate. There is more to Jesus than that…
And Peter, bless his heart, does exactly what any of the rest of us would do in his situation. Does he sit back and rethink his previously held assumptions? Does he thank Jesus for this valuable perspective and insight? No, he gets angry and rebukes Jesus for challenging his preconceived notions.
Don’t we all do the same thing? We don’t like it when people challenge our assumptions about the world. Jesus is like that neighbor kid who comes over to play and breaks all our favorite toys. That’s just who Jesus is. No wonder nobody likes him. No wonder the people rejected him and had him killed. No wonder his closest disciples betrayed him, abandoned him, and eventually denied they even knew him. Jesus doesn’t know how to play nice. He’s doesn’t leave well enough alone.
But what we fail to see is that Jesus does these things to us, not because he’s the mean bully from down the street, but because he loves us. Jesus loves us exactly as we are, and refuses to let us stay that way. He knows there is more to life than we have heretofore conceived. And he wants us to experience its fullness in abundance, but first he has to pry us loose from those old ways of thinking and behaving. He has to deconstruct our feeble, limited ideas about who he is and what he means.
The people said he is a prophet, and he is more than that. Peter said he is the Messiah, and he is more than that. Christians say he is our Lord and Savior, and he is more than that. Theologians say he is God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, and he is more than that. No human words or ideas can ever sufficiently sum up the totality of who Jesus is. Anything we can say about him, he is all that and more.
The journey of the Christian spiritual life is about following this Jesus, who is “all that and more.” Christian spirituality is about remaining continually open to these new depths and new dimensions of God that are being continually revealed to us in Christ. Our task, as believers, is not to plant our flag on a particular ground of theology and defend it against all comers. Our calling is to keep on following, to keep travelling forward into the next truth that Jesus wants to reveal to us.
I love this sentence by the famous Trappist monk and spiritual author, Thomas Merton: “If the you of five years ago would not consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”
Salvation is a journey. It is a process. It’s not about having the theologically correct answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s about letting Jesus ask us that question over and over again. It’s about growing in love and wisdom, outgrowing the answers we thought we already had. It’s about following Jesus, one step at a time, toward an unknown Promised Land.
Brothers and sisters, we are about to embark on a journey of discovery and discernment this week, as a parish. We have already completed the first phase of New Beginnings assessment program. Now begins the task of looking over the data and deciding together what we will do with it. We may find ourselves facing difficult decisions in the days ahead. We may hear Jesus challenging our assumptions about what it means to be the church.
Because being the church is not about the beauty of our buildings, the success of our institutions, the size of our bank accounts, the style of our worship, or the effectiveness of our programs. Church is about much more than that.
It was two years ago this week that my family and I first arrived in Kalamazoo, so I could begin this call as pastor of North Church. Within a week of our arrival, I made a point of sitting down with my predecessor, our pastor emeritus, Rev. Bob Rasmussen. Over lunch, I asked him, “What do you think this church needs most?” And I’ll never forget what he said to me. It was three words: “Just the Gospel.”
And that’s it. That’s what it means to be the Church. To follow Jesus Christ. To know and love our God, our neighbors, and ourselves. To let Jesus ask us that question, again and again, day after day, “Who do you say that I am?” That’s all there is to it.
We could have the rest of those aforementioned trappings or not. We could go back to being like Eliza Valentine and our first ancestors at North, a crowd of misfits, meeting in the woods, fending off stray cows with sticks, and we would still be the Church of Jesus Christ.
“Just the Gospel.” That’s all we need. I want you to remember that as we begin our process of discernment this week. And if you can’t hear that from me, then hear it from Pastor Bob.
On the surface, it might seem like Jesus is that mean kid who comes over and breaks all our toys, but deeper truth is that he loves us. And he does what he does in order to free us from the trappings that hold us down, the lies that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life he has prepared for us to walk in. Jesus loves us and stands in front of us, two steps down the road, beckoning us forward with the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
What he wants from us is not a final answer, but another step forward in faith. He wants us to keep asking ourselves that question with the ever-present realization… that there is always more.