Last Monday, I was walking back from a game of tennis on the Heath when I came upon a group of four young people. They were having a good laugh about something, but it was only when I got close-up that I realised what the cause of their mirth was. “Hear the words of the Lord Jesus…” said one of them, reading from a sheet of paper which was clearly some kind of extreme evangelical tract. What followed – to much amusement – was a call on them to believe now or else face the fires of hell. Salvation was at hand – if only they would believe!
I had mixed emotions witnessing all this. My first reaction was to wince at the mockery. I hated hearing Jesus’ name ridiculed like that. But I also felt a wave of sympathy for their rejection of what I passionately believe to be an abuse of the gospel. I also felt irritation, anger even, at the fact that many church-goers, as well as “non-believers”, see such calls as the authentic message of the gospel. That message can be summarised as: “believe and say the right things; do the right things – especially go to church and do some good works: and you will be assured of a place in heaven – but woe betide you if you don’t say and do these things.”
Part of my anger stems for the awkward truth that the church is in large part responsible for this misrepresentation and still connives at it, to some degree. This leave me feeling some despair that whatever we, who view things differently do, we will be misunderstood – and more importantly, the gospel will be misunderstood.
To be clear, Jesus did say some pretty frightening things. Take this, for instance, from Matthew’s gospel:
“The Son of Man will send his angels and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”
It would be quite wrong to deny the force of these words. We believe that we all of us face judgement, and will be asked to give an account of our lives. I do not doubt for one second that to look into the face of God and know the truth will be profoundly uncomfortable and painful. But it would be also quite wrong to give these words undue emphasis and to isolate them from the broad thrust of Jesus’ message. For it is clear from what he said that the God who judges is not only merciful but also profoundly gracious in always wanting the best for us, such that he is constantly inviting us to be drawn to him in ever greater joy and depth of life.
This is the essential context for understanding what we mean by the word “salvation”. It is evident in today’s readings. In John’s gospel, Jesus refers to himself as both the good shepherd and the gate to the pasture for his sheep. Those who enter by him will be “saved” because “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”.
If we are in any doubt that Jesus is referring here to salvation as something that we are promised in the here and now, consider his great manifesto in Luke’s gospel. There, he says that he came to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and release to the captives. In other words, he came to rescue men and women – in this life – from all that holds them back from the fullness of life that God promises. That’s what salvation means.
And that’s exactly what the first Christians took his teaching to mean. You can see that in today’s reading from Acts. The early church was so inspired by Jesus, and energised by his resurrection, that they sold their possessions, held things in common and distributed the proceeds according to need. You can only imagine the impact that would have had on the poor, the weak, the lame and the destitute. Salvation indeed.
But – and this is crucial – salvation, properly understood, is not something easily achieved. It’s not a one-off thing and how could it be? Think again about Jesus’ mission and how it plays out in the gospels. All he did was about freeing men and women from their shackles. Obviously, and most dramatically, this involved healing physical and mental illness and feeding the poor and the hungry. But underlying all this was a profound understanding of the debilitating impact of sin on human life.
Now sin, like salvation, is one of those words that just invites misunderstanding. It is no more and no less than our propensity to get things wrong, to screw things up. It’s the sum total of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, our wrong attitudes and false values. And here, we are truly bound because we are often sinful without knowing, without thinking, without realising it, so deeply ingrained is sin within us. That we are truly helpless in the face of it is something that Paul reflects on so brilliantly in his letter to the Romans:
“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. “
This sinfulness of ours not only hurts and damages others, but hold us back as well, hobbling and spoiling our lives. That’s why Jesus’ physical and mental healings were often accompanied by his forgiving sins. Jesus was acutely aware that healing such outward ailments was only one step on a person’s salvation journey, and that something deeper was required.
One of the things that makes sin so very hard to root out is that it’s particular to each of us. In the gospels, you see Jesus going to the heart of ailments that are individual and psychological and spiritual, as well as physical. Take the story of the rich young man that appears in the gospels. He’s so good, honourable and praiseworthy in so many ways, but his life is hobbled by his attachment to his possessions to the extent that he is possessed by them. This is a problem that is particular to him and it’s one that he can’t bear to face – at least, not during the time in which he meets Jesus – so he walks away disconsolate, unable to accept the changes he needs to make in his life.
The deep-seated nature of human sin and its distorting effects on our lives inevitably means that salvation is a process. More than that, it is a painful process of growing in self-awareness of our weakness and vulnerability.
The American Catholic and mystic Thomas Merton wrote a book called “Thoughts in Solitude” in which he makes the apparently perverse observation that we need to learn to love our weakness and sinfulness precisely because it is the means whereby we come to know God’s love for us in his total, gracious forgiveness. It’s a crazy, paradoxical thought that you must learn to love that of which you are most ashamed about yourself, but it’s true. The more it dawns on us that there is nothing about us that God doesn’t forgive, the more we learn to accept and forgive ourselves, and with that comes the unshackling, the freeing of those burdens that keep us down.
Salvation, as described here, could not be more different from the promise of salvation that caused such hilarity amongst those I passed by on my walk home last Monday. The grace offered by that model is what the great, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: believe the right things, do the right things and you’re with the ‘in’ crowd and on your way to heaven, whereas the unbelievers and non-church goers are among the damned. Such smugness is deeply unattractive, and deservedly so.
Real, costly grace comes from true discipleship, and that requires ever greater depths of humility as we grow in awareness of our need of God. Such a process is unlikely to be complete at the end of our time on earth, for God is forever drawing us into his life and into ever greater fullness and joy, if we will but allow him to do so.
I began this sermon bemoaning the extent to which the gospel is misunderstood by so many. There is no easy answer to this, especially given that the costly grace of which I have spoken is not easy to communicate to others and requires a lifetime’s effort, in contrast to cheap grace, which is easily acquired but, in reality, not worth very much. But perhaps all this is a necessary lesson in humility in itself, reminding us as it does of the limits of our powers.
But of one thing we can be sure: little will be achieved without our being serious about discipleship, and if we can undertake that in good faith, then perhaps we should be content to leave the rest to God.