Lent 4: Salvation
Ephesians 2.1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved-- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Plus another verse, not in the Sunday's lection, from John 10, red letter words if ever there were any, from Jesus' lips to our ears, his prayer for our salvation that "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." Abundantly!
A bane of the preacher's existence, especially in the pulpit, are ecclesiastical code words. You know them, or, at least, you have heard them: holy, spiritual, sinner, divine, God-fearing, Christ-like, atonement, and, for the really devout, expiation and propitiation. Plus, the most abused word of all, salvation. I resolved a long, long time ago, to limit my use of these words everywhere, but especially in sermons. Which is not an easy task, considering the fondness of Paul in his letters for using them. And Martin Luther's enshrining of the biggest code word of all in his catchphrase for Protestantism, that we are saved by grace through faith. Which, as you can see from the passage above, is Martin's steal from Paul.
Saved. My goal here is to breathe some humanity into that word. No one doubts its divinity, but plenty of us wonder about its relevance to the lives we lead.
Beloved Hugenot-become-Episcopalian seminary professor of Old Testament Samuel Terrien explained to us that salvation at its root means to be wide, spacious. Dr. Terrien envisioned salvation as stepping into a large and commodious room after being cooped up. Prisoners understand: with the freedom and exhilaration they feel in stepping outside the barbed wire topped walls. Critically injured patients understand, when at last the orderlies' wheelchairs deliver them to the front door of the hospital and the cars waiting to take them home. Soldiers understand, when after months in the battle zone they step off the plane returning them to cheers, kisses, and mom's home cooking. College seniors understand, when after cramming for finals, they step to the dais, are handed their sheepskins, the families applaud and whistle, the mortar boards are tossed into the air, and the future opens before them.
Transitions from confinement to wide open possibilities, that's what salvation means to convey.
But too often we, custodians of the Gospel's treasures, have projected a considerably narrower vision of salvation. We craft our images with other-worldly references, the New Jerusalem, the heavenly banquet feast, the everlasting arms of Abraham, the big reunion in the glorious hereafter, all of which are certainly Biblical, but... well... beyond relevance to many a mortal imagination. Consider, for instance, the plight of a stick-in-the-mud like me: sometimes my dear wife is convinced I'd rather sit in front of my computer tickling the keys instead of cruising the Caribbean sipping piña coladas on our way to an island paradise and a great hall with a glorious feast in full swing. We, the aforementioned custodians, tend to modify our salvation stories with the adjective "eternal." And we lose any audience we might have had with those sincerely trying to understand what we believe.
When we should be balancing last things with "present" moments of salvation.
Let me conjure up some scenes of salvation that do a riff on the standard images but with a distinctly down-home feel to them. Like a Saturday afternoon in the sanctuary of a friend's home enjoying a variety of libations with our soppressata and cappicola antipasto over good conversation and nostalgia while dining on tenderloin strips and mashed potatoes. Salvation: stepping into a room redolent of savory food and resonant with friendly conversation.
Or sitting in the balcony of a large hall for a symphony, say, of Beethoven's Ninth (or if you prefer your exaltation secular, try Carl Orff's blatantly naughty "Carmina Burana") and as the chorus swells you find you are transported out of yourself for a few rapturous moments during which nary a thought of the day's worries, the pain in your bones or your wallet, intrudes, and you suspect, when later you reflect on that moment, you had an inkling of the joy of the angels in chorus before the throne of grace (oh, please forgive me for this lapse back into code words!). Salvation: stepping outside of yourself into the harmony of others.
And spending leisurely hours in the company of grandchildren, the small variety, marveling at their precocity (aren't everybody's grandchildren precocious?), warmed by their affection, and tearing up just a little bit when they volunteer, "I love you, Poppy/Grammy." Time stands still, the sun shines, the birds sing, and you think but never say it, that it doesn't get any better than this! Salvation: stepping into the broad and beautiful vista of a child's world, one that you once occupied, and now return to, taken there by the hand of your grandchild.
Salvation isn't a solo exercise; it's being found in strong, positive connection with your own soul, your neighbors, your world, and, in consequence and consummation, with God.
Always, however, in the shadow of a cross. Salvic raptures are momentary. They last no longer than the soppressata and plum brandy. They fade with the final note of the symphony. They stop short when the little ones scream into a tantrum. Mortality and self-centeredness, stupidity and cupidity ever afflict us, however sainted we think we are.
A parishioner years ago presented me with a Precious Moments figurine. I couldn't find it today; probably lost it in in our move north. But in my mind's eye, I see it on my desk in the office in the parish house, a child crusader angel with a Bandaid on his knee and a sword in his hand, with the inscription, "I lub you lots." Something like that. The giver attended my Tuesday morning Bible Class, during the time of her marital confusion, out of which she eventually emerged. She credited me with helping her navigate her way into a wider world. I'm not sure I deserved (or wanted) the credit. A year or two beyond the Precious Moment for some precious moments she came down with pancreatic cancer. I visited her several times in a hospice unit at a local hospital. There at bedside we had a few more precious moments over which the shadow of the cross was amply evident.
Adelaide Procter catches the sentiment just right, about these moments on earth when we glimpse the promise that inspired the deity at the beginning to create us for love and joy (salvation), that "we have enough, yet not too much, to long for more."
Yes, eternal salvation would be doable with a supply of Italian salamis, in the presence of those one loves and enjoys, while the music plays lofty and lowly melodies... and the cross no longer casts a shadow.