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Sunday, May 12, 2019 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Are We Saved?
"Big Questions" Sermon Series
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
The gospel needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.
Rachel Held Evans
Searching for Sunday: Loving,
Leaving, and Finding the Church
I’m curious: How many of you have ever been asked the question “Are you saved?” Please raise your hand if that has happened to you. I imagine if I were still in Waco, Texas, and asked that question, every hand would have been raised in response. The question “Are you saved?” or more specifically, “When were you saved?” is a fairly common question for those of us who were raised in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
This question “Are we saved?” is the question with which we wrestle today in our second Sunday of the “Big Questions” sermon series, and the fact that so many of you turned in this question or one like it tells me that while we might not be in Waco, Texas, many of us have been on the receiving end of that question that is often used as a weapon of religiosity. Now perhaps that feels like a rather provocative way of putting it—casting a simple question as something that does damage—but I have honestly never had anyone ask that question of me out of a genuine sense of humble curiosity. Maybe your experience is different, but every time I have been asked that question, it has always had a sharp edge attached—an edge meant to wound or to scare into submission.
Rachel Held Evans would have known what I am talking about. Rachel was a deeply thoughtful, deeply faithful writer who took her Christian journey seriously. I am speaking about her in the past tense, because Rachel died earlier this month at the age of thirty-seven from what appears to be complications tied in with the flu. She leaves behind two very small children, a husband deeply devoted, and thousands and thousands of people all over the world for whom her writing was manna—nourishing, loving, and life-giving.
Before she became a progressive evangelical Episcopalian in her adulthood, Rachel grew up in a very conservative religious tradition, one in which she said “evangelical” was simply shorthand for “authentic.” You weren’t a real Christian, she believed, unless you were an evangelical Christian, with all of the stereotypes attached. Even when her family moved to the very Christianized Dayton, Tennessee, the land of the Scopes Monkey Trials, Rachel still felt compelled to save the other Christians by bringing them into the evangelical fold. For years her church, especially her youth group, provided a loving and nurturing place for her. Church was her other home, and she felt good about who she was when she was in that place. During her college years, however, like many other young adults, particularly after the events of 9/11, Rachel found herself beginning to wrestle with how her faith interacted or didn’t interact with fields of study like science, sociology, etc.
For instance, it made no sense to her how a loving God could or would condemn whole swaths of humanity simply because they had not been born into the Christian tradition, as she had. “For me,” Rachel wrote, “the trouble started when I began to suspect God was less concerned about saving people from hell than I was.” That initial moment of wonder felt like trouble to Rachel, because before the beginning of that season of struggle, she had spent all of her life feeling like the salvation of her friends rested firmly on her young shoulders. Particularly in middle and high school, she had taken every opportunity she had to ask her classmates about their salvation, including the day after Columbine when, as she writes, she told her mother, “It’s the perfect witnessing opportunity. Everyone’s scared” (Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, p. 23).
“Do you know where you would spend eternity if you died today?” was one of her go-to lines, meant to open up a conversation about Jesus. She persisted with this work, because she really and truly believed that God expected her to save others, to bring them to Christ. She believed God needed her to make sure everyone she met could get into eternal life. It was her Christian duty. That is what she had always been taught.
A similar kind of struggle was going on in the churches of Galatia. It was similar in that the church leaders were arguing about exactly what people had to do in order for them to be set right in their relationship with God, to be justified or, as Rachel would put it, saved. Allow me to summarize the context of this letter: At some point after Paul’s visit (or visits) to Galatia, a group of missionaries showed up and began to urge, as one Bible commentator put it, “that the predominantly Gentile congregations adopt the Jewish practice of circumcision in order to secure themselves a place among the people of God” (Charles Cousar, Galatians: Interpretation—A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p. 4).
Yet this conviction was at odds with what the Galatian churches had heard from Paul. Up to this point, the leaders of these rather diverse congregations had all agreed that the Gentiles did not have to become Jewish in order to be Christians. Furthermore, the Jewish Christians also had new freedom. They could decide whether or not they would follow dietary laws or other Jewish practices. Regardless, Paul had taught them that based on his understanding of the gospel, both Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians could all be a part of the one body of Christ just as they were.
But once those other missionaries began to spread a different understanding of law and gospel, all of the bridge-building work Paul had done started to come apart. When Paul realized that Cephas and the others were threatening that initial agreement to prize unity above uniformity, he confronted them about it. “Don’t you understand,” Paul testily wrote, “that a person is justified [made right in relationship with God] not by the works of law [like circumcision for Gentiles] but through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Now, we need to pause for a moment in order to point out a critical difference between what I just said and the translation you have in your Bible.
The NRSV, along with many other versions, translates Paul’s point as “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” The critical difference is whether we translate the preposition as “of” or “in.” To get all fancy, do we treat Jesus as the subjective genitive or the objective genitive? Now I realize this might sound like a ridiculous thing to preach about, but this debate over such a small word (one that gets repeated several times) is tantamount to how one thinks that he or she “gets into right relationship” (is justified) with God. The way we translate this phrase colors our whole understanding of how salvation works. Is it through one’s own faith in Christ, or are we saved through the faith of Christ?
I will not get into all of the arguments about why I and many others think “of” is the correct way to go. If you are curious, Google it. But I do want to lift up one reason. Biblical scholar Morna Hooker argues that it makes total theological sense to use “of” because our Christian faith is always first and foremost a response to what God has done in Christ and to who Christ is (Morna Hooker, “Pistis Christou,” New Testament Studies, 35, 1989, pp. 321–342; Frank Matera, Galatians, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 9 of Sacra Pagina Series). Our response, as we always say, is important, but it is always secondary. What matters the most is God’s salvific posture towards us, towards all of creation. To put it another way, our faith does not change God’s opinion of us. Our faith changes us.
We just saw this faith conviction embodied in the very baptisms we administered today. We baptize small ones because we trust that baptism is first and foremost the celebration and announcement of God’s claim on us, God’s faithfulness to us. That is the primary thing that baptism does. It is also why we do not rebaptize. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Now, as these children grow up, they will have the opportunity to claim for themselves their identity of belovedness or not, and the decision they make will change the way they live their lives. We call that discipleship. But regardless of what they end up choosing, God has already made them and met them here in the waters of baptism.
Now, I know full well that one could argue and find biblical passages that support the understanding that teenage Rachel and others had and have that our salvation is dependent upon our ability to believe in Jesus Christ. That is why Rachel was so intent on helping everyone she knew have a particular moment when they decided for Jesus. “When did you accept that Jesus was your Lord and Savior? When were you saved?”
Yet we can also find numerous biblical passages like this one from Galatians that make the argument that our salvation is predominately tied to God’s faithfulness in being our God—what we experience as the faithfulness of Christ. So when someone would ask me, as a child, when I was saved, my parents taught me to answer “2000 years ago on the cross.” This latter interpretation is a primary way we Presbyterians understand salvation.
We trust that our salvation rests on God’s decision to be our God rather than on our ability to believe. We have been justified, made right, saved, healed, because of the faith of Christ and not deeds of the law, as Paul wrote to the Galatians. Or as Reformed theologian Shirley Guthrie always said, “God does not say ‘I will love you if you are good, if you prove yourself worthy, if you do so and so, if you first love me.’ God does not even say, ‘I will love you if you first have faith in me, or if you first humiliate yourself and grovel on the ground before me.’ God says simply ‘I love you just as you are—you; not your righteousness, your humility, your faith, or your accomplishments of one kind or another” (Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine). It is an “of” understanding, rather than an “in.”
I have often wondered what would have happened if the translators of our scripture had chosen to use “of” more often than “in.” At least the NRSV offers a footnote about it. But had that happened, would folks be as concerned about the salvation of others? Would Rachel have carried that weight of responsibility on her young shoulders for as long as she did? Furthermore, has the fact that so many of our biblical translations use “in” instead of “of” inadvertently made even our believing into a kind of work itself, similar to what those missionaries were proclaiming about the necessity of circumcision for the Gentiles?
By making salvation primarily about our decision for Christ rather than about Christ’s decision for us, might it be that we sometimes fall into the trap of believing in our ability to believe? I remember when a friend of mine who was interviewing with a church to be their pastor got into an argument about that very question. Things were going fine until my friend noticed that one of the people on the committee was clearly getting agitated. She finally interrupted my friend to say, “I do not understand why you keep calling the people of the congregation ‘the baptized.’ Why don’t you call them believers?”
In response, my friend said something like what I said a few minutes ago: I call them the baptized because I trust that we are saved not because of our ability to believe and be faithful but because of God’s ability to be God and to be faithful. So for me, he explained, the emphasis on congregation members as the baptized or as those preparing for baptism always reminds them that God’s actions towards us are always primary and what matter the most.
The woman on the committee was not a fan of that response and continued to press him on it. She did not understand why our ability to believe was not just as, if not more, crucial not just for our lives, but for our salvation. My friend began to figure out that she wanted him to say that if someone does not believe in Jesus Christ, then they would not be saved. Now he, like Karl Barth, is what we call an open universalist, meaning that he will not tell God that God has to save everyone nor will he tell God that God can only save some; rather, he believes what Barth always proclaimed which is “In Jesus Christ we have good hope for all people.” Thus, he was not going to do what she wanted him to do.
Rather, in response to the continued push, my friend finally asked her as gently as he could, “How many people have to be in Hell before you are able to feel safe?” Let’s just say he did not become the pastor of that particular congregation. But I find his response very interesting because it forces us to wonder why we, ourselves, or others do get so concerned about the salvation of others, or about our own salvation. If we trust that God really is as good as Jesus said, then why do we sometimes become afraid that we won’t be able to get our faith right enough to ensure that God will include us in God’s household? Do we allow our fear to tempt us into believing in our own ability to believe?
“Are we saved?” some of you asked. My honest response? Because of what we know of God seen most clearly in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus our Christ, my response is YES in all caps. Why? Because of our often puny decisions for Jesus? Because of our ability to be 100% committed to God? Nope. We are saved because of God’s decision for us. We are saved because God will always be 100% committed to being our God, regardless of how much we mess it all up. As Robert Farrar Capon writes, “Grace cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.”
May that certainty collapse in our lives sooner than later so we will all be fully free to live as children of God that we are. Amen.