This morning I offer the next in that series, taking a closer look at two of the fundamental theological concepts around which our faith revolves, the concepts of “salvation”, and “grace”.
So let’s start here. My grandson Elliot is two. Every single task we undertake, when I have him with me on Mondays, takes about four times longer than it would if he would allow me to help him. Getting his crocs on, getting a slippery chunk of watermelon onto his fork, or getting into his car seat are drawn out and aggravating processes for both of us because he has to do it himself, and his way.
Here's what the Church has taught: the Elliot in all of us is the basis of what we call “sin”. We’re sure we know best, and we persist in having to do it our own way, and this leads into a separation from God, our Creator. The story our faith ancestors told about this – the second story in the Bible - is about our mythological ancestors doing it their own way, eating some fruit they weren’t supposed to eat, basically because they wanted the knowledge that would make them more powerful.
The story goes that God punished that mythological couple for their disobedience, for their willfulness and their quest for power, by making them mortal, by bringing death into human experience. Now, obviously this is a symbolic story: there was never an actual time before human beings made bad choices, or when we didn’t die. The truth of the Eden story, though, is that our inner two year old, our willfulness and drive to acquire power, to know more and be independent, leads us to separating ourselves from God.
We separate ourselves from God because we think we have a better way, a way that will keep us secure and free from discomfort. Wouldn’t you agree that we’re pretty much always drawn to the way that involves pleasure and minimizes risk? Following that self-centered and risk-averse impulse can result in a life that is short on relationships, and moreover, a life that is short on purpose.
Salvation is about being saved from bad consequences. The other theological word we use that means about the same thing as “salvation” is “redemption”. When we speak of salvation or redemption, we speak of God reaching out, from God’s deep and abiding love, to save us from the consequences of sin, in other words, to save us from the consequences of our own short-sightedness, out willfulness and insistence on our own way. We believe that this salvation, this redemption, comes about through the incarnation, the life and ministry, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The traditional formulation of the Christian concept of salvation comes straight from the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Church in Rome he says that sin and death entered the world through the error of one man, the symbolic Adam (forgetting, I suppose, the original initiative of the symbolic Eve), and that justification (or the “making right” of humanity’s relationship with God) came about through the one man, Jesus Christ (Romans 5). In the first letter to Timothy, Paul likewise observes that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (I Timothy 1:15). Paul believed that Jesus’ redeeming actions not only saved us from the consequences of sin, but also saved us from the death that because part of the human experience in the Eden story.
Now, exactly HOW salvation or redemption came about through Jesus Christ is a tricky question. For many generations the Church has relied on a theology of Atonement, the notion that Jesus’ death was required by God to “pay for” the sins of humankind, and that without Jesus’ self-sacrificing death, our redemption could not occur. The Gospel of Mark quotes Jesus as saying that the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
This theology – that Jesus death was, in effect, a compensation or repayment for the sin of the mythical Adam and Eve – is no longer a compelling idea for many Christian theologians, for lots of good reasons that I won’t attempt to elucidate here. On the contrary, the predominant focus, when theologians think about salvation today, is that the living example of God revealed in the human flesh of Jesus the Christ, in Jesus’ words and actions including his submission to the power of human evil in his crucifixion, is what saves us. The “ransom for many” needed to be paid is not to convince God to forgive human sin, but to convince us, to turn our hearts. The catechism or “Outline of the Faith” in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer affirms that Jesus Christ “is one sent by God to free us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation” (BCP p. 849)
“The power of sin” is not the same for everyone. We all probably have our own individual things that tend to enslave us, that draw us to ways of thinking and behaving that separate us from God, from ourselves and from others. Melody Shobe, in her book (with Scott Gunn) Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs and Practices, tells a story about going to a Christian camp, as a girl, where senior campers would give testimonies about how they were saved by encounters with God in Christ. She recalls that some of the young women spoke of being saved from addiction or from hopelessness, and that others could tell of tangible experiences of the Holy Spirit, and she says she worried about what she, as a middle class white girl who had led an uneventful life, would be able to claim when it came time for her own testimony. What Melody came to realize, through prayer, was that her burden was that of the expectation that she had to “measure up” in order to earn God’s love. She says:
“Being freed from expectations of perfection allowed me to grow more deeply in my faith, to discover the love of God that knows no bounds, to begin to serve God, not out of obligation or fear, but out of joy and gratitude.” (p. 204)
So here’s the next question about this idea of salvation. Is it something that happened once, with the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, or is it something that happens in the individual lives of believers, or is it an ongoing process? Hmmm… and the answer is… all of the above.
Certainly the historical events of Jesus life and death constitute salvation for humankind. Some Christian denominations emphasize the necessity experiencing personal salvation and maintain that we need to be individually saved, each person in a conversion moment when they accept Jesus as their Savior - i.e., the one who saves them. While I assume we all go through phases of more or less closeness to God and varying degrees of appreciation for how God’s love makes a difference in our lives, it’s simply not part of the Episcopal tradition to talk about individual salvation. It does seem fair to say, however, that our awareness of God’s love and its difference in our lives is, in some way, salvation as a process. In the Melody Shobe example I just cited, the self-awareness that came to her through prayer, that freed her to live a life of joy and gratitude, was undoubtedly a part of her salvation.
All of which brings us to the concept of grace. The Catechism, again, defines grace as “God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved: by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills” (BCP p. 858) I’m not sure that speaking of grace as “favor” is helpful to me, but here’s the visual that lives in my mind: I think of grace as the power of love that emanates from the heart of God the way you can sometimes see sunlight streaming in rays through the clouds. I think of grace as the goodness and the power that God shares with us, with which God surrounds and flows through us.
Salvation through Jesus Christ is part of God’s grace, for sure, and we receive God’s grace in the sacraments, to renew and strengthen us to do the work we’re called to do. Melody Shobe and , Scott Gunn in Walk in Love, remark that “the power of God’s grace, working in us will change us, enliven and inspire us, so that we can work on behalf of God’s kingdom in the world”. (p. 207)
Let’s turn to one final biblical quote, then, again from our friend Saint Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians:
“For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
As Paul implies, we are not just saved, but saved FOR something – to live out our salvation in the world. The grace of God finds expression in the way we live.
How have you experienced salvation, and how does God’s grace find expression in your life?
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