Saturday, May 15, 2010

What Must We Do to Be Saved?

[This sermon was prepared for the people of Saint Faith's Anglican Church in Vancouver, BC and focuses on Acts 16.16-34, the first reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.]

“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” With this question we hear the fundamental question of human beings throughout the centuries. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles the jailor is confronting a threat to his existence on two fronts. His very life is in danger because of the practice of executing jailors who allowed their prisoners to escape. This, in and of itself, is a serious threat, but the more fundamental threat is to the jailor’s understanding of the forces that shape our lives and the whole creation. An earthquake, to him, was more than a physical phenomenon; it was understood to betoken something supernatural, something that was outside human understanding and control.

For the jailor the physical threat of death by execution quickly passes, but it is the psychological and spiritual threat to his worldview posed by the earthquake that continues to trouble him. The conversion of the jailor and of his family to belief in Jesus as Lord comes at the intersection of these two needs in his life, the physical and the spiritual. He does not tarry to avail himself of the gift that Paul and Silas offer him, first the gift of his life, second the gift of the new life found in Jesus.

When we hear the jailor’s question in our own English language, we may immediately leap to certain images of what it means to be ‘saved’. For Luke, the probable author or editor of what we know as the Acts of the Apostles, the Greek verb he uses has several meanings.

• To be ‘saved’ can mean to be rescued from impending danger or
• To be ‘saved’ can mean to be preserved and protected over a longer period from various dangers and evils or
• To be ‘saved’ can mean to be healed or to be made whole.

In this reading from the Acts all three meanings are in play, but it is the third meaning that I want to hold before you today: “Sirs, what must I do to be healed and made whole?” It is this third meaning that I believe holds the most promise for us here at Saint Faith’s as we imagine what our future will be.

To be made whole, the jailor is told that he must confess that Jesus is Lord. In other words, he must commit himself to believing that Jesus is the authoritative encounter with the living God and that faith in Jesus involves acting in the same way that Jesus is described as acting in the Gospels. To be made whole is not about abstract theological presuppositions; it is the commitment of one’s whole being to a new way of living, a new way of being in the world.

When most of our contemporaries hear the question, “What must I do to be saved?”, they tend immediately to think that the question has a missing prepositional phrase.

• What must I do to be saved from eternal death?
• What must I do to be saved from sin?
• What must I do to be saved from God’s disapproval?

They tend to think that any religious discussion of salvation focuses on salvation as a matter of rescue or preservation from dangers, known and unknown, that involve the soul. This is not the prepositional phrase that the first Christians heard. They heard, “What must I do to be saved for?” In other words, our faith as Christians is not about being rescued, even if we may harbour such thoughts from time to time, or about being preserved from the tumults of life.

The good news of God in Jesus is that we are saved for a purpose, that in Christ and through the Spirit we are healed, made whole, to participate in the kingdom that God has made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth. We have been made whole and are being made whole in order to be witnesses to this kingdom, a kingdom that is not in some indefinite future but in the definite present. The institution that you and I know as the Diocese of New Westminster has a role to play in witnessing to that kingdom, but we should never confuse the institution with the kingdom. What God is doing in the world today exceeds what any institution, whether civil or religious, can achieve.

When we gather here to hear the Word proclaimed, to offer our intercessions, petitions and thanksgivings and to share in the bread broken and the wine poured, we do so not to be rescued or preserved. We gather here to be made whole, to grow into our true selves as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. We gather here to worship the God who is alive and active in our neighbourhoods, our homes and our workplaces. We gather here to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and our strength to witness to the kingdom that is already in our midst.

All around us are people who are in need of healing and wholeness. The consumer-driven and success-obsessed culture of North America leaves its victims scattered all over the place. The flat world inhabited by many people cannot sustain them in the challenges of daily life. Despite the frequent use of the word ‘community’, few people know who their neighbours are and what the needs of their community might actually be.

In such a society as ours what we have to offer is ‘salvation’, a vision of what it means to be a human being fully alive, a vision of what God is doing in our own lives and in the lives of others whom we know. Rather than abstract and contentious discussions of what is and is not Christian faith, what we can offer is what the faith of Christians does.

It is a faith that leads people to live the risen life of Jesus, to bring life to others, to give light to the world so that we and all God’s children may be free, free from the delusions and counterfeits that diminish human freedom and potential. This is what God has been doing and is doing right now, right here, all the time. When we witness to God’s kingdom in our midst by telling others what God is doing in our lives, we are healed. When we witness to God’s kingdom in our midst by serving others as Jesus has served us, we are being made whole. What those who are not members of this assembly need for their salvation, their healing and wholeness, is not religion or institutional survival but the witness of our lives to the living God working in and through us to achieve God’s purposes. If what we do together in this place enables that witness, then let us give God thanks and praise, for that is surely what we are here to do. If what we do together in this place obscures or hinders our witness, then let us ask God to give us the wisdom to discern new directions and the courage to walk in those paths.

Unlike our jailor today, we are not facing possible execution, but we experiencing a cultural earthquake. The foundations of what has been the cultural world of the church in previous decades, even centuries, are being shaken and can no longer bear the weight of the institution we have built. For some, this comes as a threat, but to those who are committed to the way of healing and wholeness that we find in following the way of Jesus, the present cultural earthquake will leave us shaken but not shattered. In fact, when the dust settles, we may even find some treasures that we thought had been lost but are now unearthed.

What must we do to be saved? Trust in the God whose kingdom is being unearthed even as I speak. Follow Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life. Remember that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. If we do these things, then we shall be made whole. Amen.

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