March 11, 2018 various readings
The readings this morning come from three different writers. I’ve chosen short verses, but the messages they convey are repeated over and over in our scriptures, especially in the letters of Paul and his followers that were written before the gospels. They all have to do with salvation. Listen carefully for three different messages: that God sent his only son to die for the sins of the world, that we are saved through believing in him, and that we should rejoice in sharing in Christ’s suffering.
from Paul in Romans 5: 8-9
… God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.
from the famous words of John 3: 16-18
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
and from 1 Peter 2: 18-21
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
He goes on to tell wives in chapter 3:1- 2 “accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over, without a word, by their wives conduct, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.”
and to the suffering Christians in chapter 4:14 “rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings.”
These passages, and many others like them, were formed into doctrine by early church theologians, and into creeds, Christian liturgy and hymns, many that you may have learned growing up. Listen carefully to the words as we sing one of them: The Old Rugged Cross Black Hymnal 195.
As an infant I was baptized a Catholic - to wash away the original sin I was supposedly born with. In the 4th century Augustine had come up with the doctrine of original sin, based on a literal reading of the mythological story of Adam and Eve. But that didn’t prevent us from continuing to sin.
Growing up my family faithfully attended mass every Sunday where a giant cross with Jesus’ dying body hung over the altar reminding us that he died for our sins. The catechism and creeds I memorized reinforced this belief.
Up until Vatican II we were taught that in order to be saved you had to be a Catholic. My mother refuted that at home. Her mother was a Protestant and a good woman.
I poured over my book of saints, many who died horrific deaths due to their steadfast belief in Christ, and others who flogged themselves to share in his suffering.
Many of these beliefs are still held by large numbers of Christians today. Fundamentalists attract new members by telling them that by “believing that Jesus died for our sins, and accepting him as your Lord and Savior, you’ll be saved and go to heaven” - comforting news to a population raise to fear death and what comes after.
I discovered in reading your responses to my short questionnaire on salvation, it’s something many of you haven’t thought much about. But the theology expressed in our readings, while having a positive effect on some people’s faith, can create negative results for others.
In a book entitled “Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us” by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, the authors reveal how this can happen. It begins with a story by Rebecca:
... a quiet knock on the church office door interrupted my reading... A short, brown-face woman stood on the threshold ... “Hello, pastor. I’m Lucia. I live down the block and walk by the church on my way to the bus… I saw your name on the church sign. You are a woman priest. Maybe because you are a woman, you can understand my problem and help me.”
“Of course, come in,” I said. She sat down on the old sofa next to my bookcase with its load of theology texts bending the shelves. She smiled, an expression both warm and sad.
“I haven’t talked to anyone about this for a while,” she began, the smile fading, and sadness deepening her eyes. “But I’m worried for my kids now. The problem is my husband. He beats me sometimes. Mostly he is a good man. But sometimes he becomes very angry and he hits me. He knocks me down. One time he broke my arm and I had to go to the hospital. But I didn’t tell them how my arm got broken.”
I nodded. She took a deep breath and went on. “I went to my priest twenty years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said I should rejoice in my sufferings because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’ He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried, but I’m not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”
Lucia’s deep black eyes searched my hazel ones. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t. I wanted to speak, but my mouth wouldn’t work. It felt stuffed with cotton. I couldn’t get the words to form.
I was a liberal Christian. I didn’t believe God demanded obedience or that Jesus’ death on the cross brought about our salvation... But just this past Sunday I had preached a sermon on the willingness of love to suffer. I preached that Jesus’ life revealed the nature of love and that love would save us. I’d said that love bears all things. Never breaks relationship. Keeps ties of connection to others even when they hurt you. Place the needs of the other before concern for yourself.
In the stillness of that moment, I could see in Lucia’s eyes that she knew the answer to her question, just as I did. If I answered Lucia’s question truthfully, I would have to rethink my theology. More than that, I would have to face choices I was making in my own life. After a long pause, I found my voice.
“It isn’t true,” I said to her. “God does not want you to accept being beaten by your husband. God wants you to have your life, not to give it up. God wants to protect your life and your children’s lives.” Lucia’s eyes danced. “I knew I was right!” she said. “But it helps to hear you say it.”
I’m pretty sure that story is as shocking to you as it was to me. How could anyone, especially a priest, profess such a theology - or give such misguided advice to a woman in need? But then I recently spoke to a woman who came to me for counseling with a similar story about a minister in a fundamentalist church where she had once attended. She hadn’t walked into a church for years.
At a relatively young age, after Vatican II, I began to question the theology I was raised to believe. It made no more sense to me that I was saved by Jesus’ death, than I would be saved from an atom bomb by hiding under my desk at school. Remember the 50’s?
It was later that I learned that this notion of salvation came out of a primitive idea and Jewish practice where people brought an animal to the temple to have a priest sacrifice it for the forgiveness of their sins. Jesus then became the ultimate sacrifice for all of our sins.
Some biblical scholars today theorize that this theology came out of an attempt by Jesus’ followers to make sense of his crucifixion. It must have been humiliating to have their leader, the person they were putting their hope and trust in, die in such a horrible fashion at the hands of the Romans.
So what do we believe, as progressive Christians in the 21st Century about being saved? Might we say Jesus died because of our sins, because of a domination system and those who bowed to it, not for our sins?
The primary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words translated “salvation” are actually non-religious. The Hebrew words usually came from a military context and referred to victory over evil, or rescue from danger in this life. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg talks about salvation actually meaning “to heal.” It comes from the root word “salve.” It’s about being healed, being made whole. Stories abound in the gospels of Jesus healing people both physically and spiritually.
I understand salvation as happening in the here and now, not about an afterlife. It’s about creating the kingdom of God here on earth. Jesus provides a role model and a path for us to travel, in the same way Buddha and Mohammed, and other spiritual leaders do for their followers. Just maybe, our efforts to create that kingdom will be rewarded, not only in this life, but in the next. No one can say for sure. They certainly will draw us closer to God’s love.
None of you who responded to my questions wrote that you believed Jesus died for our sins. You were focused on the teachings of Jesus and how we follow them and live our lives today. To quote some of you:
I do not believe that we need to be saved. I do believe that Jesus loves us all, and if there is a God, she is love, and she loves us too.
We are saved through love. How we love and how that love impacts others, and their love in return saves us.
Salvation is fullness of life in grace. - to live in a state of grace, with faith, hope and love; to know, love and serve God.
We are saved by striving for goodness, kindness and justice through faith - One’s dedication to others as opposed to only oneself is a Holy path. Living humbly with an openness to accepting others.
What do we have to offer the lost and fearful souls brave enough to walk in our doors?
I believe Eliot is a place to “save” ourselves, and others who join us, through spiritual growth, learning and working to improve our lives, and be of service to others. As a church family, we are here to support, understand and accept each other. People are meant to live in relationship. Being embraced by this community can save one from isolation, anxiety, meaninglessness and purposelessness. We are here to heal those in need from the wounds of existence, to help each other grow closer to God.
Frederick Buechner once wrote about salvation: “You do not love God so that tit-for-tat he will then save you. To love God is to be saved. To love anybody is a significant step along the way. So God’s saving grace, God’s love - however you want to put it - is there all the time. We just need to be open to it. We have to work together, with God and each other, to heal ourselves and the world.”
In closing I’d like to leave you with one of the most profound and insightful stories of salvation that I’ve ever read. It’s from Rebecca Parker towards the end of “Proverbs of Ashes.” Both authors agreed that they were going to have to find a way to say something about what saved life if they were convinced, and they were, that no one was saved by the execution of Jesus. Rebecca does this through a very painful, personal experience:
“When I was raped as a child, there was a moment that I have been able to remember in which I was quite sure I was going to die - and perhaps I was, in fact, close to being killed...
I was just a small child! Four years old. In that moment I knew that there was a Presence with me that was ‘stronger’ than the rapist and that could encompass my terror. This Presence had a quality of unbounded compassion for me and unbreakable connection to me, an encompassing embrace of me, and for that matter, of the man raping me. I understood that if I died, I would somehow still be with this Presence, this Presence would ‘take me up,’ this Presence was ‘greater than’ death, and ‘greater than’ the power of the man who was raping me.
This Presence could not stop the man from killing me, if he chose to. And, at the same time, it could stop him. Because, I knew, if he noticed it he would be stopped. He would not be able to continue. You couldn’t. It was clear to me. You couldn’t be aware of this Presence and do what the man was doing to me. He only could do it by not noticing, not knowing. So, this Presence did have the power to save me from death and there is a way in which I believe it did. The man did stop short of killing me, and I think it was because a part of him could not ultimately deny the knowledge that he was raping God. Not that I was God, obviously, but that the Presence was there and in raping me he was going against the Presence.
The man was stopped by the Presence, that’s what I believe. The Presence saved my life. But he might not have been stopped. He could have killed me. Molesters do kill. The Nazi’s did kill. Batterers do kill spouses and children. I know that had he killed me, it would have been because he completely denied the Presence. Such denial is entirely possible and happens all the time.
One thing my own experience shows is that extreme danger can be revelatory. Near-death experiences tend to be, apparently. And this was a violent near-death experience. But it still offends me when the murder of Jesus is lauded as revelatory of God’s presence - and I’m not sure why. I think it is the pious suggestion that such experiences are, therefore, a blessing. If I hadn’t been raped as a child, I wouldn’t have experienced the blessing of this divine revelation. Shit.
I would gladly turn the blessing over to anyone who is willing to live with the curses that have accompanied that violation. And it also troubles me that people would think that God’s presence shows up in extremities and emergencies but isn’t available all the rest of the time. Somehow that lets those untouched by violence off the hook from the call to reverence the presence of God in all of life; or, it says that only those who have suffered terrible violation have access to knowledge of God. This is an awful idea.
So, if you find me arguing against the theological notion that Jesus’ execution is a revelatory gift, you’ll understand why. Jesus didn’t have to die for us to know that God is present. He didn’t have to rise from the dead for us to know that God’s creative power is greater than death. Judaism already affirmed all this, knew all this. Furthermore, nobody has to suffer for God to be made known to us.