Sermon for Sunday, March 14, 2021 || Lent 4B || Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
The writer of the letter to the Ephesians says something in today’s second lesson that makes my heart sing: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
This is one of those verses that makes me take a deep breath after reading it, a cleansing breath of the Holy Spirit who is so vibrantly present in those words. “For by grace you have been saved through faith…”
Today I want to talk about being saved. And I have to start, as I have before, down in the Deep South.
When I was a teenager growing up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a lot of friends and acquaintances were concerned with the state of my soul. It was not an uncommon occurrence for someone at school to come up to me, worry written across their face, and ask me if I was saved. At the time, I found their concern intrusive and abrasive. In the years since, I have come to realize that their questioning came from a place of love, albeit molded by a fairly narrow expression of evangelical Christianity. I was less charitable with my assessment back in high school so I concocted a standard response. The conversation went like this:
Them: “Are you saved?”
Them: “When were you saved?” (This was an important question because it established credibility, like when an investigator asks you the timing of your alibi.)
Me: “I was saved when Jesus died on the cross.”
Them: “No, but when were YOU saved?”
Me: “I just told you.”
The conversation would get pretty circular at that point and they would give up. They would leave feeling confused and worried. I would leave feeling smug and superior. It wasn’t a good look for anyone.
Looking back, I wonder about my answer to their question. They wanted me to say the date and time I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I hadn’t done that (yet) in the formulaic way they were expecting, so I came up with another answer that I thought would suffice. So I said I was saved when Jesus died on the cross.
I guarantee you I did not do any deep thinking about those words. I knew they had a powerful meaning, but I didn’t understand what it was. What I did know was that my friends went to church three times a week, and I only went once. Were they three times holier than I was? Or three times more knowledgeable about the Christian faith? What, I wondered, did they mean they asked if I were saved? What did they think would happen to me if I weren’t?
Let’s talk about that this morning. What do we mean when we Christians talk about being saved? I’m going to hit this from three angles, each of which, truly, deserves its own sermon. First, let’s stick with my high school friends. They were so ardent in their questioning because their understanding of saving – or salvation – had to do with being saved FROM something, namely the flaming depths of hell. In this perspective, Jesus is the knight in shining armor, we’re the damsel in distress, and hell is the dragon. Jesus charges into the dragon’s lair and saves us from a horrible fate.
This perspective is attractive on first glance until we realize how limited it is in application. The worldview my friends were taught in their churches was an exclusionary one: only people who are saved (and saved in a particular way as described by that particular church) are spared from hell. You can see why they were so concerned about me. They liked me (despite my smugness, apparently), and they didn’t want me going to H-E-double hockey sticks when I died.
So that’s being saved from. We could also look at salvation as being saved FOR something. That’s the perspective that our Ephesians reading picks up. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The reading continues, “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 prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
When we conceive of salvation as being saved in this way, we can compare it to conservation efforts for the environment. We save habitats so the diversity of life can continue flourishing on our planet. In the same way, we are saved for doing the good work of God, partnering with God to bring all things back into right relationship with God. God conserves us, graciously granting us throughout our lives the good things we need to grow and thrive. And so, with God’s help, we pray “Thy kingdom come”; we embrace eternal life before we die; and we start building heaven here.
However, few of us are able to live that kind of saved life. We are too battered and broken to accept our place in God’s loving service. And that brings us to our third perspective on salvation. It is the perspective Jesus refers to in the, admittedly weird, first verse of our gospel lesson this morning. “Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. What the heck are you talking about, Jesus? Well, thankfully, our readings today anticipated that question and give us the story of Moses and the snakes from the book of Numbers. Poisonous snakes attack the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings. God directs Moses to make a bronze snake and raise it into the sky on a pole. Any Israelite who was bitten by a snake could look at the pole and be healed.
So when Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” Jesus is putting himself in the place of the bronze serpent on the pole. Anyone who looked upon Jesus raised up on the cross would find healing and wholeness. The word that gets translated as “to save” in Greek can also mean “to heal.” And so we can conceive of salvation as the graceful healing presence of God that makes us ready to take our place in the building of God’s kingdom.
Was I thinking of any of this when I flippantly told my friends that I was saved when Jesus died on the cross? No. But looking back, my friends and I both had a piece of it. I was looking at Jesus, the bronze serpent of healing, whose saving presence gave me then and continues to give me now – give all of us now – the grace of healing so that we can move towards wholeness. My friends were looking at the present action of accepting salvation, the active component of our walks with God. Moving away from being saved FROM hell to being saved FOR God’s mission, we can all embrace this active role in our own lives of faith.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” We were saved by Jesus on the cross. We are being saved at this moment by God’s faithfulness. And we are partnering with God to save creation, conserving it back into the goodness that God began with, which is the kingdom of heaven.
Season 3 3/4, Episode 1:
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
We’re posting a mini-season in between Seasons 3 and 4 in order to jump from Harry Potter 3 to Harry Potter 7. We’ll deep dive into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when we get to season 4. For now, in Season 3 and 3/4, we’re spending one episode each chatting about the really long, middle year Harry Potter novels. Today is #4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.