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Sunday, May 12, 2019 | 8:00 a.m.
Are We Saved?
"Big Questions" Sermon Series
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Salvation is about more than humanity. It is about the world.
Justified: did you hear that? “Justified” or “justification” occurs five times in this portion of Galatians. The Apostle Paul uses those terms eight times in the whole letter, and we just heard five of them.
Galatians has nothing on Romans, though. Paul uses some variant of justification eighteen times in his letter to the church in Rome. That is roughly half of the total instances of those words (thirty-nine) in the whole of the New Testament.
Clearly justification is an important element of the New Testament message about Jesus, particularly for Paul. So what is it? Briefly explained, it’s a legal term that roughly means to acquit or to make right. Justification is closely related to another group of words that is prevalent in the New Testament: rescued, salvation, savior, saved.
That’s enough background to get us to our big question for today: Are we saved?
If you’re itching for a dramatic debate weighing both sides of that question—Are we saved? Are we not saved?—I am sorry to disappoint you. There is no debate. The answer is yes. Yes, we are saved. With all due respect to the question itself, it is not a difficult one from the standpoint of faith.
We have just joined our voices to the voice of the psalmist in calling upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, because we have been and are saved.
That we are saved is a central affirmation of the New Testament. It’s all over the place, from the Gospels to Revelation. The angel tells Mary that the child born to her “will save his people from their sins” and the choir of angels announces to the shepherds, “To you is born this day in the city of David a . . . savior.”
We are saved.
Jesus tells Nicodemus, in John’s Gospel, that God had sent Jesus not to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We are saved.
In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, in the book of Acts, Peter shouts to the gathered crowd, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” And then thousands do and thousands are.
We are saved.
Paul and Barnabas take the message about Jesus to the Gentiles, to the most remote outposts of the empire, sent by God to “bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”
We are saved.
And Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is littered with this good news, which is “the power of God for salvation.”
We are saved.
You can’t spend any time with the New Testament and come away with any doubt about the answer to this question.
Thanks be to God.
Yet the same Paul who wrote so profusely about salvation to the church in Rome wrote this to another church, this one in Philippi: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
It seems the question still needs asking, Are we saved? I wonder if we can have a vibrant spiritual life without asking it, without regularly interrogating our life for signs of this salvation. Maybe we are called to hold this certainty that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” with one steady hand and a healthy concern for it in another, trembling, hand.
Those of us who stand in the Protestant tradition of Christianity are heirs of just such a posture of assurance mixed with fear and trembling. The founding reformer, Martin Luther, became a monk in the midst of a literal thunderstorm and, once a monk, prayed more ardently, suffered cold and sleeplessness more willingly, fasted more aggressively, flagellated himself more eagerly than any other monk. He struggled every moment with the doubt that his piety and devotion could never be enough, that he was hopelessly lost.
His history-changing encounter with a gracious God is rooted in fear and trembling.
Or consider a contemporary saint, Dorothy Day. She didn’t take the assurance of her salvation lightly either. Rather, out of the firm belief that “our salvation depends on the poor,” she helped establish in the 1930s a network of Catholic Worker houses to live in community with the poor and advocate for social and economic justice. There are 216 Catholic Worker Houses still in the United States.
The unshakeable assurance that we are saved does not lead us to complacency. You can hear the Apostle Paul wrestling this idea to the ground in that portion of the letter to the Galatians we read. “But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!” In other words trusting our justification to Jesus does not give us license to indulge whatever we want. To do so is to corrupt the gospel.
It also does not make of our “saved-ness” a ticket to heaven that we Saved can smugly wave over the heads of the hell-bound Unsaved. That’s a distortion too.
Are we saved? Most definitely. Without a doubt. Yet the most fervent faith in that fact is not the one that treats it as the end of the story, but the one that regards it as the beginning and that confidently struggles to work it out every day in fear and trembling.
And there is plenty to tremble about.
Scientists the world over are voicing their consensus that it’s getting to be crunch time for the climate, like we have a couple of decades to make really difficult widespread changes before the fundamental habitability of earth is irreversible altered.
Are we saved?
Another school shooting last week. Two actually. That’s eight in the United States since January. There have been 361 gun homicides in the city of Chicago over the past 365 days. Three hundred and sixty-one. Three hundred and three of those victims were African American.
Are we saved?
Not sure if you heard, but measles is back. Oh and ISIS hasn’t really gone away.
Are we saved?
Salvation is not a purely spiritual reality. It has a flesh-and-blood edge we must not overlook. For the people of God it always has. The crowds that shouted “Hosanna!” at Jesus as he entered Jerusalem were actually shouting “Save us!” They are an occupied people crying out for a savior to get the empire off their neck, quite literally.
The theologian Letty Russel said that “salvation is a story and not an idea.”
Salvation is their story. It’s the Exodus story: God saving them from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. It’s the exile story: God delivering them from years of captivity in a foreign land so that they can return and rebuild.
Salvation is our story, our flesh-and-blood story.
The psalmist knows that story, and so when the writer exults that he shall be saved by God, he means saved from enemies, the kind of enemies he’s learned in that story, enemies that are probably trying to kill him. Other psalms say, “Save me from all my pursuers” and “Save me from the mouth of the lion!” and “Deliver me from the bloodthirsty.”
You can almost hear the psalmist trembling. We should too, because we need to be saved just as much as the psalmist did and from enemies that are just as real.
We said it at the start, and it bears repeating: we are saved. The very real threats we face in life—some of our own making—do not dampen our hope in this good news. Indeed, after urging that church in Philippi toward fear and trembling, the letter delivers ten words that make all the difference: “for it is God who is at work in you.”
It’s the passive part of this that is the hardest, I think: that God is doing the work and not us. We spend our lives justifying ourselves with education and professional achievement, with healthy choices and self-giving service, with wealth, with suffering, with so, so much. We justify ourselves every day.
Yet the primary grace of God at work in us is a foundation for everything we believe: that God acted on our behalf, out of God’s great love and mercy, and by no merit of our own—in fact, despite our utter lack of merit.
Just hear the words spoken to those of all ages who are baptized, from the Church of Scotland’s Book of Common Order:
For you Jesus Christ came into the world;
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary
and cried at the last, “It is finished”;
for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life;
for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you
before you knew anything of it.
And so the word of Scripture is fulfilled:
“We love because God loved us first.”
And because God loved us first, we are saved. So we can come to this table that none of us set and we can share this bread that none of us baked and pass this cup that none of us filled. And we can all receive this grace together, as one body, all of us saved and all in the same way.
This good news does not depend on us. Even better, it doesn’t end with us. The “we” in the question “Are we saved?” is much bigger than you and much bigger than me. It’s even bigger than this congregation, bigger than any church or denomination.
Who knows how big the “we” is that is saved? We know that it’s bigger than us. We also know that it’s bigger than religion typically wants it to be; Jesus told people they were saved whom religion regarded as sinners. Paul argued that we are saved by God’s grace largely because religious leaders insisted on the demarcating ritual of circumcision according to the custom of Moses.
How big is the “we” that is saved? Maybe the most we can say is that it’s just bigger than we presently think. After my wife came home with a third cat she posted to Facebook “How many cats make you a cat lady?” to which someone commented, “One more than you currently have.”
Maybe salvation is like that.
And then some.
You see, humanity’s salvation is only part of God’s work of saving all of creation. Woven in among all of this justification-speak in Romans you find this thicket of a sentence that says “creation” six times, including this: “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Drawing on this passage, a Metropolitan in the Orthodox Church, Paulos Gregorios, says, “Human redemption can be understood only as an integral part of the redemption of the whole creation.”
Yes, we are saved. And we includes the oceans and the skies, the soil and the rivers, the plants and the animals. Another psalm praises God by saying, “You save humans and animals alike, O Lord.” To offer another answer to the question we considered last week, “Why care for creation?”—because our salvation is bound up with the salvation of the creation.
The we is as big as that.
Salvation is a story and not an idea. And in that story the people who are saved are so for a purpose, not for their own benefit. Our assurance of salvation is the beginning of the life of faith, not the end. Because of it we are enabled—by God who is at work in us—to actually answer the charge:
Because we are saved we can go out into the world in peace;
we can have courage and
hold onto what is good;
because we are saved we can return no one evil for evil;
we can support the weak;
help the suffering;
honor all people;
because we are saved we can love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.