This was handed to me in a restaurant a few weeks ago. It’s a million-dollar bill, and on the back it poses the million-dollar question: “Are you saved? “ “If you died today would you go to heaven?” And then, there are a couple of paragraphs intended to scare me into salvation. I actually admire the woman who gave me this. She had concern for my soul. But I also want you to know that her concern, if not flawed, was incomplete from our Wesleyan understanding of salvation.
Many people in our culture see “being saved” as a judicial or legal term indicating when one receives Jesus into their heart and then who as their name written in the book of life. In short, salvation is viewed as a “ticket to heaven” or a “get out of hell free” card. We get this ticket when WE make certain claims about what WE believe, and if WE say the write words, with enough sincerity, then WE are saved. This is the dominant understanding of salvation in our culture. And I want to be clear, parts of this understand are important. Salvation does include the assurance of eternal life. It does connect us to heaven. But I also want it to be very clear today that there is much more to salvation.
The word “salvation” means to be “made whole” – to be reconciled or healed or made one with God, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world. We will pray these words again in a few minutes as we call upon the Holy Spirit to bless this bread and cup before us. Salvation is being brought back into God’s presence and God’s love – even now...
Without this relationship, we are lost. It is not so much that we are “bad,” as some assume. It is that we are lost. -- lost in the fear of living and the dread of dying, lost in our attempts to play God and fix things we cannot fix, lost in anger and envy, greed and lust that can bring some much harm into the world. How did Jesus respond to this lostness? He said, “I have compassion upon them, for they are like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.
The story of Zacchaeus provides a great illustration. Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come this to house.” At that moment, Zacchaeus’ life was changed. He was transformed from a focus on money to a focus on relationships; he was transformed from valuing his position in society to using his gifts to connect with others. In this relationship with Jesus, Zacchaeus found true joy, true life. That’s salvation.
It is worth noting how others grumbled and complained about Jesus choosing this man, this sinner, and wanting to eat with him. Why would Jesus want to be with him rather than them? That’s a bad trap to fall into.... which leads us to this notion of grace.
As Paul says, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” The word grace simply means “gift.” That’s how salvation is given – as a gift. We don’t earn this blessing in any way. In fact, any attempt to earn it or prove to God how good we are, is just to bring God down to our level and tell God that salvation is not about grace; it is about reward and us proving that we are worthy; it is about dividing the world into the good and the bad, us and them. If we see salvation through this lens, then we are going to be among those who have trouble with Jesus hanging out with Zacchaeus. Why would Jesus want to waste his time with that guy, when he could hang out with us? This popular “religious” perspective actually blinds us to true religion.
Bono (the leader of the group U2) once had this to say about “being saved.” He said, “You see, at the center of many religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth...But then, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff...in my case (he says) this is very good news, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff...I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to be my judge...I’m holding out for Grace...I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity...” [i]
Paul says, “You are saved by grace, though FAITH.” (And if you read the paraphrase of Wesley’s first sermon in his Standard Sermons, these are the words he deals with – Salvation, Grace, and Faith). At the start of this series, and our attempt to understand our core doctrines and how they lead us into life, it is important for us to reflect on what faith is and is not.
Faith is more than affirming certain creeds or doctrines. As James says in his letter, even demons believe that Jesus is God’s son or that God exist. Just affirming doctrines or saying you believe is not the kind of faith God wants for us. Faith is also more than an trusting in Jesus and making a commitment to follow him, although that is an important part of it. But before that happens, faith is a gift. Our life-changing trust comes after God, by grace, moves in our lives. Faith is a divine conviction, a God-given knowing, deep in our hearts, that God is with us and that God loves us, forgives us, transforms us, and is there to see us through even death itself. This faith comes through Jesus and it changes everything.
It happened for Zacchaeus. Through his guilt and greed, and all that might have caused him to resist, God’s love came in, and with a deep “knowing,” his life was changed. Jesus described this as “salvation coming to him.”
Here’s the way it works. Grace leads us to faith which then leads us into “true holiness” or “true religion.” At the beginning of this series, we want to be clear that “true religion,” through our Wesleyan lens, is not rooted in doctrines or creeds or anything that pits us against others. True religion is rooted a in relationship with God that yield love, joy, peace, and help us to be more patience, and kind, and gentle. Through these virtues and blessings, we are “being saved,” as the scripture says, we are able to “grow IN salvation,” not just “towards” salvation, as if it is only there when we die, but “in”salvation, right now. (See I Cor 1:18, 15:2; I Pet 2:2). [ii]
So, even right now, you are invited to hear the invitation to turn to this God and believe in your heart that God’s grace is able to lead you out of darkness and lead you into light. You are invited into a grace able to swallow up death itself. I invite you to examine your own heart. Is God calling you to this grace? Another way to ask it is, “Are you being saved?” [iii] Amen.
[i] From Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas, by Michka Assayas, copyright © 2005 by Michka Awwayas. Found in Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/augustweb-only/bono-0805.html?start=3 .
[ii] Michael Roberts “Salvation is More than a Decision,” It’s Biblical Series. Arkansas Conference, 2001
[iii] This sermon was inspired by John Wesley’s “Salvation by Faith,” Sermon 1 in his Standard Sermons. It is the first in a series entitle “More Than...” and a part of a yearlong emphasis call “True Religion” where we are used the themes of Wesley’s sermons for inspiration and guidance into faithful and fruitful living. As a part of this emphasis, devotional paraphrases of Wesley’s sermons and reflections for personal devotion and conversation can be found at truereligion.conwayfumc.org