Sunday, November 14, 2010
While serving as an intern pastor at a church in Kenya, I lived with the installed pastor, his wife, and their cousin who helped care for the home and host guests which were common in the pastor's home. Frieda was the cousin's name, and while I was there we became quite close. Even though she lived with Alfred and Mary full-time, in a sense we both shared the experience of living in someone else's home. I think we bonded over that experience.
Despite her living arrangements, Frieda wasn't very active in the church community. I appreciated that she came to worship the Sundays that I preached while serving there, and even more I appreciated the conversations we had afterward. Frieda and I could talk more openly about our experiences of the church, our questions, our hopes, and our doubts than either of us felt comfortable expressing in other circles during my internship.
One day when we were sharing our stories about growing up she asked me, "When were you saved?" Now, growing up in the sort-of South I had heard this question or variations on the theme more than once. It was always one that made my friends from the Presbyterian youth group and me sort of cock our heads to the side and shrug. We weren't sure. Well, we were pretty sure we were saved, although Presbyterians aren't known for talking about it like that so boldly. But we weren't sure when it had happened.
Most of us had been baptized as infants, raised in the church Sunday School, performed in the Christmas pageants, nurtured in youth group, tortured in confirmation, I mean, taught in confirmation. When in all of that were we saved? And more importantly, why hadn't anyone told us that was when it happened?!?!?
One of the characteristics of the Presbyterian flavor of Reformed theology is that we are more concerned about the glory of God and the coming of God's reign than the salvation of souls. This is why that question can be so hard for us to answer. We don't see salovation as our primary job. I understand that's a provocative, if not controversial statement. Some may even say it's downright heretical, but hear me out.
I didn't say we don't believe in the salvation of souls. I didn't say we don't care about it at all. I said we don't focus as much on it as we do on enjoying and celebrating the glory of God and the coming of God's reign, the demonstration of God's will and kingdom. The reason for this goes all the way back to my theme in the first sermon in this series -- the sovereignty of God. When it comes to salvation, it is all up to God. The work of salvation, forgiving sins and reconciling our broken relationship with the divine, is solely in the hands of the Triune God.
We cannot save ourselves, and we certainly cannot save others. It is impossible for us to do, and therefore it is not our job. It is not our job to bring about salvation in any human being's life, not even our own. That is God's job in Jesus Christ, and God's job alone. Nothing we can do or leave undone will save us. No work we perform, no mission we carry out, no task we complete, no words we say. Nothing we do on our own will save us from separation from God. Only God can and does bring us graciously back into relationship. Not even our faith saves us. Jesus saves us.
In the interest of full disclosure, this belief and understanding of how salvation occurs and what our role is in the whole thing, it has not always been good for us Presbyterians. Sometimes we have a tendency to cling to this understanding of God's sovereignty and hold it up as an excuse to keep quiet about what we believe. It has been a barrier to us when it comes time to talk about evangelism. We think that if God is doing all the saving, than there really isn't much we need or should do. God's got it under control without us; we can just live our lives, believe our beliefs, and don't need to engage with the rest of the world, believers or not. We wrongly think that we can be faithful disciples tucked away in our own corners of the world, making no attempts to show or speak of God's love, our salvation, God's desire for both justice in the world and personal relationships with each of us. But this just isn't how it works.
Our job, definitely, is not to bring about salvation in ourselves or in others. but our job, when we believe in God who saves us, when we believe that God does save us, is to live with thankful faith in the One who is faithful to us. Likewise, faith is our response to salvation; it is not what brings us salvation. Faith is not a mental exercise or an emotion of the heart. It is the way we live since we know who God our creator is and what God does in Jesus. It is our response to the Spirit which fills us with comfort and knowledge of God's grace and goodness. Faith is focusing on the glory of God, reveling in the glory of God, trusting in the glory of God, pointing to the glory of God, that others may be aware of what we know and experience. Our job is not to save souls; our job, our calling from God, is to live faithfully and share our faith with others.
Thirty-one years ago, the Rev. Stephen Jones, an American Baptist pastor, wrote a book called "Faith Shaping, Youth and the Experience of Faith." Not too many books about the practice of youth ministry last 31 years, but Jones hit on some very important aspects of how faith is shaped which then informs how we should go about sharing our faith, pointing to the glory of God and living into the coming reign of God. One thing in particular that Jones noted is that young people, and I would say ANY people, learn about faith by both nearness and directness.
Nearness, to use our Scripture readings from this morning as examples, is what happened in the gospel according to Mark. Nearness is what happened when the friend who was lying on the mat felt the four corners start to lift up around him as he was raised up off the ground. Nearness is what happened when he looked into their determined faces as they groaned and grunted under the awkward weight of their friend on the mat between them. Nearness is what happened when, seeing no other option, they dug through the roof to take their friend to Jesus, and, seeing their faith, he healed their friend. Nearness is when the life of faith is demonstrated day in and day out by the actions one takes and the habits one practices.
Practical theologian Rodger Nishioka tells the story of how on an airplane he stops to say grace over a bag of peanuts. This faith practice takes place because of nearness. It is something he learned from his fathr who relentlessly made his children say grace over every meal they shared, at home or away. It was something that embarrassed him completely in his teenage years, having to stop to say grace with his family even while sitting at McDonald's. Yet this everyday faith and its committed practice made an impression on him. It shaped it his own faith.
Nearness is what caused a young boy, about nine years old, to call his father out audibly in the worship service led by a colleague in Iowa one Sunday. The father had faithfully, as long as his son had any memory, written out a check and placed it in the offering plate every single Sunday. The son was distressed when one Sunday the father didn't do it. "But, Daddy, we give money." The father replied, "Of course, we give money, son. I gave money for the whole month last week." Sitting near to his father in worship for nine years, the son's faith was shaped by what his father did. He learned the values of his parents, his tradition. It spoke to him and was written on his very being what being faithful to God, faithful to the faith community means in his family, all just by being near his faithful father.
But alongside nearness is the importance of sharing faith directly that others may hear the issues of faith presented clearly. In order to share our faith fully, to communicate our understanding of what we have experienced in the grace of Jesus, the love of God, the movement of the Spirit, we do sometimes have to use our words , something I know is hard for us Presbyterians. This is where our understanding of our job versus God's job can get in the way. We think we don't need to say anything because it's not our job to save people. We think our words don't matter because we aren't responsible for the salvation of another persons soul.
But our words do matter. There are times when the issues of faith must be presented directly. The message of the gospel must be presented in an appealing, fair, and meaningful way, appropriate to the age an stage of the one hearing it, so that she can be aware of ways God is working in her life, so that he can make a decision about the grace he has experienced, not in order that they save themselves, but in order that they may choose for themselves how they will respond to this gift of God freely given. Upon experiencing God's salvation we must have the words with which to speak of it, that we may make a decision about how we will live going forward.
Paul's letters, although sometimes to us the language doesn't seem so clear and appealing, are examples of direct faith shaping. The debate was going on in Galatia about whether or not one needed to become Jewish first in order to be a follower of Christ, a Christian. Paul, himself a Jewish believer, preached long and hard about the sufficiency of Christ's grace for salvation, but nearness wasn't going to work for this debate. Nearness wasn't going to express this important message.
He need to communicate directly to share this aspect of his faith. He needed to say out loud what was important for him to believe and share. Nearness is important. It's important to live our faith and allow our actions speak for and communicate the love of God, but nearness isn't enough on its own. Our actions must be coupled with a careful and loving, direct sharing of our faith, too. Paul knew when he had to speak clearly about what he believed in order to shape the faith of new communities, new believers. "It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
While the work of salvation is most definitely the work of God and not human beings, we are not off the hook. We do still have a job to do in the kingdom of God. We have a role to play as people of faith, God's servants who live in joy and peace with the knowledge of God's grace and our salvation. Even if it is not our job to go out and single-handedly save other souls we have a job to do to proclaim God's glory to exhibit the coming of Christ's reign, pointing to the one who alone can bring salvation to us and others.
A good friend once told me the story one day of how her two year old son climbed up on the couch next to her husband. The boy then pulled his mom down to sit next to him on the other side. Surrounded by his parents and snuggled in between them, he then looked up at his mother, pulled her head near his, and made the sign of the cross on her forehead, saying "Child of God." Then he did the same to his dad, "Child of God."
Every night since his birth his mom and dad have done this exact same thing to their boy, made the sign of the cross on his forehead and speak these very important words. Near to him they show him what they believe; with this holy action they display their faith and trust in the salvation they experience. Directly they tell him what they know is true, what they believe above everything else. Directly, they tell him what the whole world needs to see in our actions and hear in our words, "You are a child of God."