9 Lies You Hear in Church: #9. Salvation Is About Getting Into Heaven

Part 9 of the series “9 Lies You Hear in Church
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
November 4, 2012
2 Samuel 3:17-19; Ephesians 2:1-9; Matthew 8:23-27

Image courtesy wordle.net

2 Samuel 3:17–19 • Abner then sent word to Israel’s elders. “You’ve wanted David to be your king for some time now,” he said. “It’s time to act because the LORD has said about David: I will rescue my people Israel from the power of the Philistines and all their enemies through my servant David.”
Abner also spoke directly to the Benjaminites. He then went to inform David in person at Hebron regarding everything that all Israel and the house of Benjamin were willing to do.

Ephesians 2:1–9 • At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to act like most people in our world do. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else. [4-5] However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.
You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.

Matthew 8:23–27 • When Jesus got into a boat, his disciples followed him. A huge storm arose on the lake so that waves were sloshing over the boat. But Jesus was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, rescue us! We’re going to drown!”
He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you people of weak faith?” Then he got up and gave orders to the winds and the lake, and there was a great calm.
The people were amazed and said, “What kind of person is this? Even the winds and the lake obey him!”

I. BEGINNING

In the two careers I’ve had, both as an attorney and as a preacher, I’ve taken a fair amount of pride in wordsmithing.  Language has always been a fascination for me, but the ability to wield it correctly and effectively is important to me.

And so, it should not surprise you that among my biggest pet peeves are when people misuse language. And here I’m not referring to things like prepositions at the end of sentences and split infinitives (both of which I support), but using terms in ways that are not appropriate for what they mean.

For example, stay the course means exactly the opposite of what everyone thinks it means.  President Bush the Elder used this in his reelection campaign to mean that it was not time to change directions in the leadership of the country.  Of course, the Elder Bush was not known for his linguistic precision, because what he meant to say was “stay on course”.  To “stay on” means to remain.  To stay something means to stop it.  Like staying an execution.  But it caught on, and then Mel Gibson used it in The Patriot and gave it Revolutionary War credentials.  The amusing thing is that now when people say we should “stay the course” on certain things, I’m inclined to agree, but that’s only because I disagree about what it means to say that.

Beg the question is another one of those. People use it to mean “beg for the question” or “raise the question”. But, to “beg the question” is to commit a logical fallacy by assuming a claim is true without any evidence other than the claim itself.  For example, if I were to say, “I think option A is the right thing to do because it’s the better option” I would have begged the question.  I merely restated my claim.  It’s the kind of thing you used to hear from judges all the time: “Now, couselor, doesn’t that just beg the question?”

Momentarily is another one.  People use it to mean “in a moment” but it really means “for a moment.” The proper word is presently.  If your plane will be landing presently, you’re in good shape. If your plane will be landing momentarily, you might have to jump out on the tarmac.

And, for me, as many of you know, the granddaddy of them all is how people use the word ironic. Even more than how they use literally.  I don’t know that I possess the resources to combat how people use literally, or how people say between you and I when it should be between you and me and those battles may already be lost.  But when it comes to the word ironic, I’m going down swinging.  I refuse to concede that it means what most ESPN commentators do: a coincidence with a largely negative result, such as: “It’s ironic that Smith got injured today; he got injured against this team last year.”  No.  That’s not ironic.

But it occurs to me that there is one word that gets misused all the time and has perhaps even more unfortunate results. And that’s salvation.

II. THE COMMON UNDERSTANDING

Of course, we all know what salvation means, it means going to heaven.  If you’ve ever been handed a missionary tract or evangelism pamphelet, there’s usually a statement like this on them:

The million dollar question: Will you go to Heaven when you die? Here’s a quick test. Have you ever told a lie, stolen anything, or used God’s name in vain? Jesus said, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Have you looked with lust? Will you be guilty on Judgment Day? If you have done those things, God sees you as a lying, thieving, blasphemous, adulterer at heart. The Bible warns that if you are guilty you will end up in Hell. That’s not God’s will. He sent His Son to suffer and die on the cross for you. You broke God’s Law, but Jesus paid your fine. That means He can legally dismiss your case. He can commute your death sentence: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Then He rose from the dead and defeated death. Please, repent (turn from sin) today and trust in Jesus alone, and God will grant you the gift of everlasting life. Then read your Bible daily and obey it. [1]

In this very common perspective, salvation is all about getting that ticket punched, getting into heaven after death.  The phenomenon of “getting saved” is about getting the assurance of that salvation.  So, people will ask you if you’re saved and be asking you if you’ve ever had that moment, that profound experience of suddenly knowing that God had put you on the list for everlasting life.  That moment when you knew that you had nothing to worry about after you died.

That is the common understanding of salvation, but is it the Biblical understanding?

III.  THE BIBLICAL UNDERSTANDING

Much is made in churches, especially around Palm Sunday and Easter, about how the poor misguided Jews (the disciples among them) were expecting the messiah to be a political savior who would liberate them from Roman bondage and oppression.

But were the Jews so wrong to have expected a political savior in the here and now?  Was that understanding of salvation really so deficient?

The Hebrew verb yasha means “to save” and is at the root of Jesus’ own name Yeshua, itself a diminutive of Yehoshuah (Joshua) meaning “Yhwh is Salvation”.  Of the numerous occurrences of the verb yasha and its related noun y’shuah (salvation) throughout the Hebrew Bible, the overwhelming number of the occurrences have to do with a collective (usually, national) salvation in the here and now: deliverance from slavery, deliverance from oppression, deliverance from enemies, and so on.

The passage that we read from 2 Samuel tonight, speaks to this very present expectation of salvation:

“It’s time to act because the LORD has said about David: I will rescue my people Israel from the power of the Philistines and all their enemies through my servant David.”

The verb translated as “I will rescue” is hoshia—a form of yasha, to save.  And this passage is not alone: the salvation that is often referred to throughout the Hebrew Bible is neither after death nor individual.  The writers of scripture were imploring deliverance now, from real political, economic, and personal affliction.

It should be pointed out that even in the New Testament, the word has that meaning.  In the story we heard read from Mark’s Gospel, we hear the following:

When Jesus got into a boat, his disciples followed him. A huge storm arose on the lake so that waves were sloshing over the boat. But Jesus was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, rescue us! We’re going to drown!”

“Rescue us!” they cry to Jesus.  The verb is the Greek verb sozo, upon which the word soteria/Salvation is based.  “Save us!” they cry to him.  It would be a strange thing if Jesus had responded by saying, “Your sins are forgiven and you’re going to heaven” and let them all drown.  No, he rescued them by stilling the wind and the wave.

It seems, that the bulk of the understanding of salvation in the Bible, when you get right down to it, is physical, present, and here. That is, in the Bible, salvation seems to be a material reality, collectively experienced, experienced in the present, on earth.

So, how did we get from that to an understanding of salvation that is spiritual, individual, takes place after you die, and is in heaven?

It’s generally known that the earliest generation of Christians expected to see the Second Coming of Jesus and the arrival of the Kingdom of God in their lifetimes.  When it failed to arrive in a timely fashion and as the decades then centuries, then millennia came and went, there was a trend toward spiritualizing the meaning of salvation.  No longer did it take place on earth, but in heaven.  No longer was it a material reality, but a spiritual one.  No longer was expected now, but after you die.

Of course, once we’ve spiritualized salvation away, it becomes that much easier to individualize it, too.  Salvation becomes something that we can obtain on an individual basis.  Each of us can “get saved” and we can know that in the next world, everything will work out alright.  Gone is the sense that it is the entirety of the creation that will be saved.  Gone is the sense that we are saved as a people.  But as Charles Pégny said, “We must be saved together. We cannot go to God alone, else he would ask, ‘Where are the others?’” [2]  This is a destructive trend in Christianity: spiritualizing our faith leads to individualizing it.  And as Wesley wrote: “to turn [Christianity] into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.” [3]

IV. THE NATURE OF SALVATION

But if you were to ask the average person on the street, what they would understand salvation to be about, their answer would likely be the “dying and going to heaven” version.  And it would likely be on an individualistic basis. But this individualistic, spiritualized, future, other-worldly definition of salvation is not the Biblical norm nor is it the heart of our faith.

None of this is to say that the Christian message does not include the promise of eternal life or that the idea of eternal life in the Resurrection is not important.  Of course it is; the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the assurance of God’s victory over death and the promise that we are not abandoned to brokenness and decay and injustice.  That God wins. Life wins.  Hope wins.  The Resurrection and the promise for life out of death is a central part of our faith.  But it would be a mistake to argue that salvation was limited alone to obtaining the promise of eternal life.

And lest you think these are the rantings of 21st Century post-modern progressive Christian alone, I give you the words of 18th Century, Tory, monarchist, and evangelical Protestant, John Wesley, who wrote:

And, first, let us inquire, What is salvation? The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven eternal happiness. It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not a blessing which lies on the other side of death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: “Ye are saved.”  It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. [4]

Here, Wesley addresses the nature of salvation reminding us that salvation is not something that lies on the other side of death; it is something experienced in the here and now.  He quotes from the same Ephesians text that we heard read from earlier, “You are saved by God’s grace!”. Wesley points out that the tense of the verb is in the present tense, and that it could just as easily be rendered “You are being saved”.

Salvation is a present reality; it is the lifelong process of our sanctification, our growth in the knowledge of God, our growth in works of piety and mercy, of personal and social holiness.  It is not a one-time accomplishment; it is a lifelong work of God in our lives.  As Wesley points out, the scripture tells us that “You are saved”—not will be, not might be, not can be.  Are.  Now.

When salvation is equated with the afterlife alone, it is robbed of its theological depth and richness.  The Greek word for salvation—soteria—is related to the word “healing” implying something much deeper than the awarding of a particular status after death. Healing implies transformation and wholeness. It is, as Wesley said, ‘not something at a distance’, it is something meant for the here and now.  Barbara Brown Taylor noted that the Jewish understanding of salvation has been lost in Christian thought.  “The point of human life on earth, as any son or daughter of the Torah can tell you, is to assist God in the redeeming of this world now.” The salvation we proclaim is a salvation of the entire world, a transformation of the Creation itself, which we are called to proclaim and to witness to. [5]

V.   THE MANNER OF OUR SALVATION

But this begs the question… I mean, raises the question: if the nature of our salvation is present, physical, earthly, and collective then what is the manner by which we are saved?

I have to say, I do agree with the authors of those little tracts that get handed out in this: the manner of our salvation comes through the cross of Christ.  But I don’t see it in quite the same way that so many of them do: as a payment in blood for the satisfaction of a bloodthirsty God.  I see the cross as a demonstration of the solidarity of God even unto the very depths of human existence.

The cross represents that which is most broken about the world: injustice, violence, rejection, death.  And there in the middle of it, at the heart of it is the Word of God made flesh. At the heart of all this brokenness is Christ.  And in that presence is a radical declaration of solidarity.

And in that solidarity is salvation.

Anyone who has ever suffered a loss or other affliction can testify to the power of solidarity in healing.  In times of heartbreak, in times of grief, in times of confusion and pain, knowing that someone is there by your side is not just comforting, it’s healing.  All of us have experienced that healing power of having someone stand with us in times of need.

That’s the secret of group therapy, after all: sharing in brokenness with others and realizing that you’re not alone.  That realization is powerful.  And healing.  And in our healing we are saved.

The solidarity of God heals us in the here and now.  It heals us in our spiritual and our physical being, because it impacts the very physical lives that we lead.  It heals us in the present, not a delayed salvation at some indeterminate time after death.  It is a powerful understanding of salvation.

VI. ALL SAINTS

Today is All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate our “blessed communion” that “fellowship divine” with all those who have gone on before us in faith. But we do them and ourselves an injustice if we imagine that the saints are merely those who have died already and who constitute a list of those who have gotten into heaven.  We do them a disservice if we imagine that what we celebrate is that they all managed to make it.  That their afterlife experience is working out well for them.

No, those we remember having gone on before us did far more than simply arrange their own successful and peaceful afterlife.  They witnessed, they testified, they proclaimed the Kingdom of God.  They struggled for justice.  They witnessed to peace.  They reached out to the suffering in compassion and mercy.  They built community and places of welcome and refuge.  They lifted people up in praise and worship of God.  They loved God and humanity.  They cared for the ‘least of these’.  They tended God’s good planting and exercised stewardship over the earth.  They participated in the salvation of the world.  They sought and worked for the healing of the nations.  They did so by standing in solidarity with the oppressed, and the sick, and the suffering, and the heartbroken, and the afflicted.  They shared with others the solidarity that God has shared with us.  And for that reason we celebrate their legacy.

The world is indeed a broken and hurting place and we do await its final consummation when the trumpet shall sound, the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and the Kingdom of God, a reign of peace and justice, shall be established on earth.  But while we await, we are not removed from experiencing salvation in the here and now.  A salvation we know in the solidarity that God has with us and that we, in the image of God, have with one another.

 


[1] http://www.livingwaters.com/index.php?page=shop.product_details&flypage=flypage.tpl&product_id=141&category_id=8&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=199
[2] Quoted in Common Prayer: A Liturgy of Ordinary Radicals
[3] W. Stephen Gunter, ed., The Quotable Mr. Wesley. Emory University Press, Atlanta: 2003, 56.
[4] “Scripture Way of Salvation”, John Wesley,
[5] Sara Emmerich, “Salvation” citing, From Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor (Cowley Publications, 2000).

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