LIVING A SAVED LIFE
sermon preached at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Medina, WA
by Josh Hosler, Associate for Christian Formation
The Fourth Sunday of Easter/ May 15, 2011
When I was in the 7th grade, I had a fabulous Sunday school teacher named Mrs. Nielsen. She did something very simple one day that I will always remember. She drew a stick figure on a piece of paper. The stick figure was climbing some stairs. It looked just like this, except that I’ve blown it up bigger so more of you can see it in this large space.
Mrs. Nielsen showed us her primitive little drawing and said: “Some people think Christianity is like this: that the more good things we do, the more God will love us, and that if we do enough good things, we’ll get to heaven. But this is NOT Christianity! We don’t earn our way to heaven with brownie points! God’s love is a gift, and it has nothing to do with how good we’ve been. God loves you … NO MATTER WHAT.”
I will never forget that Sunday school lesson. Would that every Christian had had a teacher like Mrs. Nielsen! Her simple drawing cuts through all the clutter of popular opinion about Christianity. You can’t earn your way into God’s good graces. You are already there. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more.
This theological point is central to nearly every form of Christianity, at least officially. Whether the average Christian on the street believes it is another matter entirely. Even those of us who have intellectually absorbed it don’t always act as if we believe it. But it’s Good News, and it makes me want to share the news, not just in words that people might find hard to believe, but also in actions that make the words real.
This is what the Jewish Christians did in the earliest days of the Jesus movement. They were coming to understand that the God they had followed and worshipped so faithfully was even more loving and more powerful than they had dared to believe! With fear banished from their lives, they went wild with love. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Jesus’ disciples formed a commune: they pooled all their money and resources to make sure that nobody went hungry. They spent more time in the temple than ever before, and their time in their homes was marked by gratefulness and generosity. Their joy was contagious: “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
When I hear “being saved” in this context, it’s worlds away from the notion of “going to heaven after you die, if you’ve only been good enough.” The people’s lives in the here and now were saved by the immense depth of joy and grace that Jesus had shown them. Jesus had gone to the mat for his friends, his people, and the world. Had he merely died, he would have left only hopelessness and fear; there would have been no explanation for this sudden explosion of joy. But instead, Jesus showed himself to be more alive than he had ever been before—a state he only could have achieved by going through death first. So the people began to live saved lives, and by living in love and generosity, their joy spread to more and more people.
This leads us to today’s reading from the First Letter of Peter. Did you know that a sentence has been left out at the beginning? It’s this one: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly” … etc. Whoa … the audience here is slaves!
Now, I think I understand why this verse has been left out of our lectionary. It was used by the Confederacy during the Civil War to justify the institution of slavery: If the early Christians didn’t specifically say slavery was wrong, then it must be OK. Well, no. Actually, the earliest Christians honestly believed the world was ending. They thought Jesus would be coming back any day or any month now to gather everyone into God’s heavenly Kingdom, so they didn’t see the point of making any big changes. As it turns out, they were mistaken. If the billboard in my neighborhood is to be believed, Jesus will actually return this coming Saturday! Hmmm … that’s the day St. Thomas is throwing me a pre-seminary fundraiser dinner. I trust that’s not significant!
But where were we? Oh yes: in a way, it’s too bad that the verse addressed to slaves has been left out of our lectionary, because it removes the passage from its context. We can all too easily assume that the intended audience is us. Now, if we believe that the Bible is in some way the Word of God, we do need to wrestle with the possibility that it is addressed to us. But that doesn’t mean that every word of every passage of scripture is applicable to our own personal situation all the time. Slaves in this time period had no legal recourse at all. There was no way they could possibly improve their standing in society. The writer’s advice to them, then, is to make the most of a hopeless situation—to draw their strength from God, since clearly they had no other source of strength.
In a more subtle way, though, these words can apply to us today. The appeal to treat abusers with respect is very difficult, and yet it is a necessary part of living a saved life. Most if not all of us have had some experience of being abused by someone in a position of authority, whether it was a parent, a teacher, a boss, or a priest. People aren’t perfect. People abuse other people. And when the abuse happens to us, we need to decide on an appropriate reaction for a person living a saved life.
There are two obvious ways we can deal with being abused: the basic biological urges of fight or flight. We could strike back in self-defense. Or we could avoid conflict as much as possible, hiding ourselves away or building defensive walls to keep the abuser out. Either approach might save our mortal lives, or at least our pride. But neither is likely to lead to anything transformative.
Now, Jesus did use both fight and flight from time to time in his ministry. The moneychangers in the temple made Jesus so angry that he started a riot. But on another occasion, when a crowd tried to throw him off a cliff, Jesus escaped. He challenged the Pharisees directly, thus endangering his life. But when even an adoring crowd got to be too much for him, Jesus slipped away to a quiet place to be alone. Fight and flight are good tools; we are not called to live our lives as doormats. To fight an abuser in court is one possibility for us. To leave an abusive spouse is very often the best course of action.
But when the time came for Jesus to really make his mark on the world once and for all, to transform the entire situation, he didn’t use fight or flight, because preserving his mortal life was no longer his top priority. The time came to step into a much larger picture in which death became the pivotal scene—by no means the final scene.
Yet Jesus didn’t come back and wreak vengeance on those who made themselves his enemies. As far as we know, the Risen Christ didn’t engage with his enemies at all. He sneaked back into the picture just for a little while, just long enough to light some kindling, and then he moved on. It was enough. The flame spread, beginning at the tomb, continuing on the Road to Emmaus, out from Jerusalem at Pentecost and into the world.
Jesus showed us how to live a saved life. He died not so we would never have to, but so that we might know how to follow in his steps. Many people have done so: in our own century, I might name Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero. I didn’t create or save my own life. It was a gift from God. So, like Jesus, I am called to use my life well, to use it abundantly, and if and when necessary, to surrender it, either because (God willing) it has run its course, or because surrendering it will help save others. I am also called never to stoop to the level of the abuser. Revenge is not a Christian virtue. It never has been, and it never will be. But revenge and self-defense are clearly different from each other.
Most of us won’t have to lay down our mortal lives for others. But as Christians, we are called to realize that we have enough, and that giving from what we have will not destroy us. We are called to be non-victims, and this means getting real about what hurts us and what doesn’t. When people slight us in little ways, perhaps our pride gets injured. But living a saved life, we can develop an inner core of self-respect that we know comes not from our own actions or our own perceptions, but from God. If God loves us infinitely, who can take our dignity away from us? This kind of strength means experiencing pain without allowing it to control us. It means knowing that our store of riches is bigger than we or anyone else might imagine. It means knowing that we are supported not just by ourselves, but by God.
Last week on the NPR program This American Life, reporter Nancy Updike took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to ask people about their reactions to the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. Her most common answer was this: “I’d love to talk, but I’m on my way to a meeting.” What meetings were people in such a hurry to get to? Not corporate business meetings, but something bigger: people getting together to decide what kind of country Egypt will become.
Ms. Updike sat in on a number of these meetings. One of them included two very different parties: a secular group of writers, actors, artists and intellectuals who want to keep Egypt secular. The other group was made up of former members of the Gama’a-Islamiyya, an Islamic group that was responsible for or linked to many murders, including the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Some of the secularists in the room with them may have been former targets. The Gama’a-Islamiyya publicly renounced violence fourteen years ago and continues to do so, even going as far as trying to talk Al-Qaeda over to their side.
Now these Islamists and these secularists are sitting down together to get real: to discern whether they can work together to help build a new, more democratic Egypt. If they continue to talk and work together, doubtless people on both sides will experience slights little and big, hurt pride, disappointments, and events that may feel at first like deal-breakers. They may feel that people on the other side have abused them. But their willingness to talk at all gave me a thrill of hope for the future of Egypt.
I believe these non-Christians have caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that Jesus witnessed to. Like Christians, they have been called not to fight, not to run, but to step into the conflict in faith. These Muslims, in renouncing violence, understand that they are called to allow God’s agenda, not their own, to win the day. The secularists may not speak of God, but I believe God is also at work in their desire to create something bigger and more transcendent than their own partisan ideas. God’s agenda runs on reconciliation and resurrection, not on our own human steam, but through divine love and understanding. That agenda runs in and out and through all human communities, breaking into the world in surprising places.
When we can find it in us to rely on the dignity given to us by God, when we can recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us through the gate and out to the good grass, when we can allow God’s rod and staff to redirect us away from the wolves of hate and vengeance toward nobler deeds, we are living life abundantly. We are living on God’s agenda and not our own. We are living saved lives. Amen.