I have a little quiz for you this morning. How many of you can recite John 3:16 by memory? You don’t have to do it now, I trust you, but give me a show of hands if its one that rattles off your tongue fairly easily. If my suspicions are correct, a good 50% or higher of this church know this one. Perhaps you learned it in elementary school, or in confirmation classes. Lately, there has be a resurgence of interest in the verse, a verse that some refer to as the Gospel in a nutshell, thanks to the newest football sensation Tim Tebow, who adds it as uniform regulation, like his helmet and shoulder pads to his eyeblack at gametime. In fact, in 2009 after playing a championship game, over 92 million people googled John 3:16 to see exactly what Tebow was trying to convey [www.huffingtonpostreligion.com]. Last week I sat in the line of a drive-thru at McDonalds and saw that the Escalade in front of me had a perfectly centered John 3:16 bumpersticker placed on their back window. So John 3:16, for better or worse, seems to have become a codeword for Christians, a phrase that we see and nod knowingly. John 3:16? Gotcha.
But how often do we really unpack the verse? Or how many of us can recite John 3:17 after it? For while 3:16 does pack a punch, while it does sum things up pretty nicely, there is more that must be said, for we can’t live our faith only according to trendy bumperstickers and eyeblack.
Samantha read for you the scripture from the Living Version of the Bible, the way in which you’re used to hearing it. But this morning I would like to add a reading from The Message, Eugene Peterson’s modern day translation of scripture. Hear his words, and listen in a new way: This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need to be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind son of God when introduced to him. This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they are not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But everyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.
Wow. I love the spin that Peterson puts on it, the way his words indict me. For without saying the words directly, without spelling it out, what this scripture is actually talking about is salvation. And how God offers salvation. And what it means.
I don’t know about you, but when someone asks me about my salvation I get a little weirded out. It’s a pretty personal topic isn’t it? And more often than not, those folks who are asking if I am saved generally wouldn’t be too convinced if I told them the answer of what has saved me. The question, “Are you saved?” has been used in some communities as a “yes” or “no” answer, a litmus test of the faithful, a box that needs to be checked so that the rest of life can be lived. And I’m not convinced it works that way.
The Hebrew and Greek translations of “salvation” actually have less to do with theology and more to do with the secular culture of the time, particularly the military culture. In the Hebrew and the Greek the word “salvation” literally meant, “to make wide” or “to make sufficient.” Salvation wasn’t just a one-time affair. It referred to those times in life where the path of life was made wider so that new insight could be seen, to a time when recognition came that things were well. But, as often happens, the word has become co-opted, reclaimed, and now it’s a word we don’t know how to use without sounding like televangelists or itinerant revivalists.
So on this Lenten Sunday, I’m going to take a stand here. I’m going to use the privilege of the pulpit to pronounce some Gospel truth, brothers and sisters. This morning, I am here to demand that we reclaim salvation, and listen for what it can mean for us today. Can I get an Amen?
Because I believe we need to be saved. I do.
Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking, writes this: Salvation is an experience first and a doctrine second. Doing the work you’re best at doing and like to do best, hearing great music, having great fun, seeing something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else’s tragedy—all these experiences are related to the experience of salvation because in all of them two things happen. (1) you lose yourself, and (2) you find that you are more fully yourself than usual. [Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. p.102-103] And I have come to believe that this is what salvation is truly about. I think salvation happens when we recognize God’s abundant, grace-filled, extravagant love for us and then when we separate ourselves from the illusion that we are not beloved. I think salvation happens when we so fully immerse ourselves in grace that we can do none other than be stunned into silent awe. I think salvation happens when we recognize that we are called to be fully transparent with God, that the light of God’s grace may shine right through us. But how do we let this happen? I think we begin by asking a simple question: What is saving my life right now?
The question comes from the pen of Barbara Brown Taylor, former Episcopal preacher turned Homiletics professor. In both her books Leaving Church and An Altar in the World she tells the story of being invited to speak at a church in Alabama. When she asked her host, a wise old priest, what he would like her to preach on he said, “Come tell us what is saving your life now.” Barbara Brown Taylor went on to say, “It was such a good question that I have made a practice of asking others to answer it even as I continue to answer it myself. Salvation is so much more than many of its proponents would have us believe…Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name.” She goes on to say, “To be saved is not only to recognize an alternative to the deadliness pressing down upon us but also to be able to act upon it.” [Taylor, Barbara Brown. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, p. 226]
And so I ask you this morning. What is saving you today? Perhaps it is a deeply held conviction that you live your life by. Perhaps it is spiritual discipline which centers and grounds you. Perhaps it is a ritual or routine whereby you connect to God. But perhaps you also listen to that question and think, “I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea” and instead of embracing the transparency of a relationship of intimacy, of seeking a way to something which gives you life, you realize the ways in which you are enmeshed in life-denying actions and ways of being.
At perhaps the hardest time in my life, as I was going through a divorce, as decisions were being made about my future in pastoral ministry that I felt were being made without my input, what saved me was my front porch. After work each afternoon, I sat on that porch, which was hidden by evergreens and I watched the sun set. No matter the weather, no matter the season. I made my way to that porch where I sat in silence. And at that point in my life, it saved me. At other times in my life I shake my head, recognizing that there may not have been a life-saving practice. But I have come to believe it is an important question, perhaps the most important question that deserves an answer as people of faith. What is saving your life now? And how do you invite God to be part of that salvation? The God who extends extravagant grace and begs to live transparently with us in the light of love.
Throughout the week as I’ve been considering that question I have been reading the web logs and articles of other theologians and mystics who consider this important question and I found this honest account from a young father, a Unitarian minister in Minneapolis. He writes: Here is one of the things that is “saving my life” right now. Putting our son down for a nap. Crazy, right?!? Maybe you’re wondering: “How is this life saving, exactly?” Here’s the story: I’ve had some time off…this has meant that I’ve been home during the day and thus able to put our son down for his name. He is not a big fan of the nap, but he absolutely needs it, or else he’s a wreck by 6 p.m. And the best way for me to get him down is to hold and rock him, sitting on the edge of the bed or in a chair. He fights pretty hard for the first ten minutes or so, kicking, crying, telling me he’s hungry, or needs to get down to “go for a walk.”…It’s an intense experience, gently restraining him as he struggles, being clear that it is a nap time, and that I love him. After a little while, he settles down into my arms, still awake, but not struggling. His breathing deepens. He lets me rest my face in his hair. He smells like sweat, and shampoo, and something beautiful I can’t even begin to describe, and the warmth and smell of his head touches something deep inside me. As he relaxes in my arms, and moves more deeply toward sleep, I feel grounded in the present moment, my arms gently holding my three-year-old son…This is saving my life because it is a reminder that things won’t always be this way. Soon, I won’t be able to hold and cradle him…It’s saving my life because it brings us together in a way that nothing else does…It’s saving my life because it’s giving me new insight, meaning, and connection. It help me feel whole.” (http://wellswedidnotdig.blogspot.com)
So what saves your life today? What brings your brilliantly into the transparent light of God’s love? What opens you to true awareness of Jesus’s journey this Lenten season? For God so loved the world that he gave abundantly…
And we can be saved.