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Sunday, May 12, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.
Are We Saved?
"Big Questions" Sermon Series
Joseph L. Morrow
Minister for Evangelism, Fourth Presbyterian Church
2 Corinthians 5:10–18
In his recent book on African American poet Langston Hughes, Wallace Best begins by telling a story about his own coming to faith (Wallace D. Best, Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem). In Wallace’s youth, his grandmother, affectionately called Mother Pearlie, would come up from rural North Carolina to periodically visit his family in Washington, D.C. During her long stays, she would take over the family dining room after dinner and hold church services. Around the table Mother Pearlie would lead the family in hymn singing with her ethereal voice filling the room like Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald. Then at the high point of the service, Mother Pearlie would deliver the word.
Her sermons, Best said, almost always involved the topic of atonement for human sin, summed up in the famous John 3:16 passage: “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son . . .” Hers was consistently a message of salvation that led to a place called heaven where, as God promised in the Gospels, there would be many mansions. Often she’d turn to young Wallace after explaining all this and pleadingly ask him, “Don’t you want to go? Don’t you want to be saved?”
I thought of this story when I was in the Bay Area recently traveling to a friend’s wedding. Driving to the venue on a lonely stretch of highway, I perked up when I caught sight of a billboard high in the sky that read “Jesus Saves. Believe It!”
Those are striking words and not just because they could be seen for miles. Let’s face it, there are many different reactions to any question or statement that has the word save and the name Jesus in it, including the variations “When were you saved?” “Have you found Jesus?” “When did you find Jesus?” and “Do you know Jesus?” In a society that has historically called itself Christian and has been deeply impacted by diverse and even contradictory movements in the name of Jesus, any talk of being saved raises high emotions.
Accordingly, pose the question we are wrestling with today as part of our sermon series—“Are we saved?”—and reactions will likely be swift and vary considerably. There will be some who wonder inquisitively and skeptically, “Saved from what?” Others might respond in confidence, “Saved? Well I don’t know about you, but I know I certainly am!” But many in our society who have been bruised and shamed by Christian communities might see the whole question as a threat, a charge against their current beliefs or behavior. “Why do I need to be saved?” they might respond.
These are the questions and emotions that drive our relationship with the idea of salvation, which is about how human beings are reconciled to God. Langston Hughes, the poet about whom Wallace Best writes, was one such person who struggled personally with salvation. Like Wallace, when Langston was young he also encountered a family member, in his case an aunt, who was very religious. She encouraged him one day, in his family’s church in Lawrence, Kansas, to get saved. So Langston joined the long train of young people lined up to profess their belief in Christ and be immersed in the waters of baptism (Langston’s Salvation, p. 5).
One by one they were encouraged to go up as the Spirit moved them. Finally, it was just Langston and his buddy, who although he hadn’t felt moved by the Spirit felt moved by the desire to get on with it, as he imagined all the other fun he could be having that day. Finally it was only Langston left, waiting for a promised vision of Jesus. But he was waiting for what never came. He never felt a sudden stirring of the heart. For one such as this, sometimes the question “Are we saved?” reveals deep loss and disappointment. As with Langston, the perceived absence of Jesus can bring us anguish as we wonder, in fear and trembling, whether something like God exists or is for us.
But the question is not merely theological. Whether we anxiously wonder if our theory of atonement is correct or if we have the kind of spiritual experience of God that ensures our place in the kind of heaven Mother Pearlie describes, there is much in this world from which people desire to be saved. Author Anne Lamott once said that among the most important prayers is a simple one: “Help me. Help me. Help me.” Those words represent the visceral quality of the idea of salvation. It is both deeply personal and urgent. “Help me out of this health crisis.” “Help me out of this abusive relationship.” “Help me out of this job that pays too little and worries me too much.” Help, Help, Help.
These are, of course, serious burdens from which people need to be released, but I do wonder whether there is something more to salvation than being personally rescued from the difficult and desperate circumstances in which individuals find themselves, because in an individualist age and society, that rescue seems to come at the cost of us proving ourselves good enough or worthy enough over and against our friend, colleagues, and neighbors. Have we believed the right things? Achieved the highest grades? Secured the right promotion? Do we merit the last spot God can offer on the lifeboat from a sinking ship?
But if that’s salvation, not everyone wants what is on the menu. I once heard the story from a missionary serving in Thailand of a young Thai man of Buddhist background who was interested in Christianity. He felt moved by the story of Jesus and wanted to belong to the community of Jesus. We might say he wanted to convert. But then the young Thai man asked if his Buddhist friends could join him. The response was that joining the faith was only possible if they verbally confessed certain beliefs. After pondering this response, he said that while he readily believed, he could not join. “If they cannot join me, then what good would be this salvation?”
When asked Mother Pearlie’s question—“Don’t you want to be saved?”—some say no. Paradise isn’t paradise without my friends. Not without my family. Not without my neighbor. Perhaps salvation is not personal after all.
And that is just what Paul contends in 2 Corinthians 5. His letter is not addressed to an individual but rather to a conflicted and challenged community. The issue at stake in Paul’s letter is not over who will join the heavenly ranks. It is about the very survival and thriving of a collective of Christ followers who were forgetting the significance of their identity in Christ. Forget about your petty human squabbles, says Paul; remember you regard no one from the all-too-human perspective of winners and losers. Salvation is as wide as the whole creation.
Scripture affirms that gracious inclusion. In the words of Isaiah, we are told that in the future, the land itself will be changed so that everyone will have their own vine and fig tree. In Jesus’ gospel prophecies, we learn of a time when many will come from east and west to gather at Abraham’s table. Then in Revelation we get the most vivid descriptions of a new heaven and earth, with a city whose gates never close and whose trees heal not individuals but whole nations. Paul’s letter simply affirms the swelling chorus of Christian scripture on this issue. There is a reality coming, called God’s New Creation, and no one can avoid, evade, or get out of it. It is a party to which all are invited. The only question being will we sulk in a corner or join in the dance?
We don’t experience God’s rescue alone, but rather in community. So we ask the question “Are we saved?” The gospel says, yes, saved from a reality in which families experience abuse or separation. Saved from communities that experience neglect or violence because they are deemed economically unviable. Yes, we are saved. But not just us only. It is every person, every creature, every work of love and beauty that is being saved.
If we are all headed to the same New Creation, individually or collectively, that does not mean that each one of us can remain the same. Salvation is not merely an act of conservation or preservation; it is also an act of transformation. New Testament scholar Michael Gorman says Paul’s language in this Corinthians letter, full of images of death, resurrection, reconciliation, and New Creation, is really about “the establishment or restoration of right covenant relations.” That means seeking right relationship with God and with other human beings in the hope that such a love shared and fidelity shown leads to liberation from the sin that so often binds us.
Gorman reveals how Paul tells us right relationship comes through our participation in two key processes in Jesus’ life: death and resurrection. Facing all the violence and death the world had to give in its viciousness, Jesus offered a self-giving love and faithfulness by standing up for the righteousness of God and refusing to abandon those who suffer. Jesus stood for something with a cost, and we are invited to share in it not as lone individuals but as participants with others, in a communion so intimate we call it a body.
Together in that body God is changing us. We can feel it through tugs of the conscience, pangs of suffering, doubting, and dreaming that we can and must be better or that we should yield our striving to the righteous aims of God and trust in holy provision. God is saving us from our own self-destructive ways—from idolatries that place our own interest in front of others. And any judgment, admonishment, or correction is received not because of an injury we have permitted to the whole body. We tend to think of salvation as a personal experience, a racking-up of points, pointing out the faults of others. But Paul reminds us that the one who died for all has allowed us to live for all.
So there is ultimately no salvation without community. I am not saved unless you are saved. You are not saved unless I am saved. As the poet Edward Markin puts it:
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!
We are not saved unless all creation is saved. But with God’s help it is happening. Someday we will all be free. Amen.