12.25.2016 Preaching Text: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…” (Titus 3:4-5a)
I was talking the other day with a church member who recently attended a funeral at another church. She expressed disappointment. Why? Because the whole service was less about the Resurrection, or even the person who had died, but about salvation.
I conducted a memorial service a few years ago where the same sort of thing happened. A family member got up and warned those in attendance that they needed to get in good with Christ…before it’s too late! It was more an “altar call” than an opportunity to thank God for the gift of the now-deceased person’s life or for the Resurrection unto eternal life.
This year, on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Linda and I attended a worship service at a local nursing home. The pastor talked about the attacks and their devastating effects.
He honed in on one particular photograph, one you may have seen. It shows a man falling through the air upside down, having decided to jump from one of the top floors of the World Trade Center rather than face an otherwise slow and certain death. It’s a very moving photograph and seems to capture the horror of that moment.
The pastor’s take, however, focused on speculation about the man’s spiritual state. Was he a Christian? Had he given his life to Christ? Was his death a moment of salvation or loss? The pastor hoped he was ready for his death.
All of the above reflect a certain theological point of view. The idea is that we must be “saved” if we wish to receive the gift of eternal life.
Aside from the fact that this perspective speaks for God a bit too authoritatively, and with a bit too much certainty, it also tends to dissuade those of us from a different theological tradition from taking seriously the biblical concept of salvation, of being “born again,” or “born anew,” of being given a “new life in Christ,” of being spiritually converted and transformed.
This is a shame. For these biblical concepts are an integral part of Christian faith, which we ignore at great cost.
The gospel does in fact call for us to become new people in response to God’s offer of reconciliation in and through Christ. It’s the very essence not just of Christmas (of God entering our world), but of Christianity itself. At Easter we celebrate the long-lost reuniting of Creator and creature.
In our Old Testament readings this morning we see the hopes of the faithful yearning for this, for the time when God’s promises of reconciliation and peace shall be fulfilled. This is not idle talk.
Many years later, after naming some of the problems life without God may engender, such as “[foolishness], [disobedience], being “led astray,” being “slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another,” New Testament writer, Titus, says this: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us…”
There’s that pesky word again – salvation. It’s not a word we tend to like, much less talk about. As I say, it conjures up images of judgment and damnation.
But in rejecting the fact of salvation, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. By rejecting salvation simply because it’s been misused by others, we fall prey to its opposite, that of rejecting salvation’s inherent value and worth.
In the first church I served we had an American Baptist church two doors over. One day its pastor told me about a call he had received from an inner city storefront church that wanted to use his church’s baptismal pool. As you know, Baptists practice “full immersion,” as opposed to what they good-naturedly refer to as our “sprinkling” of the baptismal waters.
The pastor told me later how amazing the experience had been. As each candidate came forward to be baptized, each would confess to, in specific terms, the wayward life he or she had lived prior to becoming Christian. The list of sins, he said, was long and altogether sobering.
Yet following this litany of sins, they each professed joyfully the new life they had found in Christ, which included an earnest, heartfelt pledge to forsake their former ways. My pastor friend said it was really quite moving.
When most of us hear this kind of thing, we recoil a bit, perhaps not so much because we wish to diminish their experience, but because most of us have never known such a radical conversion.
For one thing, most of us grew up in the church, rather than coming to it later in life. In addition, many of the mistakes to which these newly-minted Christians openly confessed are things we’ve largely avoided. Compared to their faith experiences, or so the logic goes, ours seems less powerful.
To put it slightly differently, because we may never have experienced a “Road to Damascus” moment, that bright-line moment of spiritual clarity, radical conversion, and life-altering repentance, we may conclude that our faith is somehow less authentic.
Then again, in the early church (upon which scripture is based), all Christians were newly converted, by definition. None of them had grown up in the church. They either converted from the Jewish faith or pagan religion.
When I look back on my own faith journey, I can see, however subtly, innumerable ways the church helped shape who I am. Only in retrospect am I able to see the extent to which this helped me avoid certain potentially ruinous life-choices.
Does that then mean that my faith life is less “authentic” than those from, say, the storefront church? Perhaps it’s been a bit less dramatic, though no less real or genuine.
The problem, if there is one, is that we forget that the Christian life, the “new life” we have in Christ, implies a very real difference between us and “the world.” And because it’s all we’ve known, we’re tempted to assume it’s a life everyone else knows as well.
To state the obvious, Christmas is a time to remember the gift of Christ, and the new life, the born-again life, we have in him. This new life is not, as Titus reminds us, based on anything we’ve earned or accomplished, but a gift freely given, as freely given as any Christmas present found under any Christmas tree.
True, our spiritual lives may not be marked by constant, dramatic epiphanies of Christ breaking into our lives, but he is there nonetheless, assuming we seek him. For his mysteries and wonders are all around us.
C.S. Lewis once offered a helpful insight into the Christian life. While admitting that sometimes our experience of worship and prayer seems dry, and appears to yield nothing, such moments are preparing us for something greater.
He cites the example of someone digging channels into the dry desert floor. It would seem to be a pointless task. Yet when the rains come, as surely they will, the water will have someplace to go, precisely because of the seemingly futile preparatory work done previously.
The Christian life is not defined solely by the sudden, extraordinary, revelatory moment, or the unexpected, earth-shattering insight, but by the steady, faithful work of ordinary Christians seeking Christ’s presence amidst everyday life. Often it is in quiet, undramatic ways that we discover the sometimes subtle embodiment of Christ’s ongoing, salvific work. Amen.