The Sunday Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 2, 2017
Scripture: John 3:16
Lent Five: Soteriology
Two more feasts left to us this Lent. Today and next week, Palm Sunday, the fist day of the Holiest Week of our Christian lives. I hope you’re eating your fill, giving deeper and more meaningful thought those church doctrines that far too often constrain us. In two short weeks it’ll be Easter Sunday and we’ll revel in the miracle of Resurrection as we’ve always done. My sincere hope this year is that maybe – just maybe – we’ll be able to revel in it with a deeper, richer understanding of the implications that Resurrection has for our lives today. Because we’ve been reveling in a deeper, richer understanding of “God” – the Sacred, the Divine, the Holy at work in the world, at work in Jesus, at work in us, and at work in the community called the church, maybe we can actually understand Resurrection as something much more than “something supernatural that happened two thousand years ago to someone else.”
But … that’s in two weeks. We still have a few tables to set, a few feast to share before then. Today: Soteriology.
A month ago, when the list of our Lenten “feasts” fist appeared in our bulletin insert, a number of you asked about this Sunday, the fifth feast. What is “soteriology?” Well, simply put, Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation and the way in which Jesus “saves us.” But, before we feast, let us pray …
Soteriology, salvation. Now, like all the ideas, all the mysteries, that we’ve been exploring this Lent, salvation is loaded and multilayered. But, like all of the doctrines we’ve looked at so far – God, Christ, Humanity, and the Church – we have a pretty simple and one-dimensional understanding and interpretation of it. And with that simple and one-dimensional interpretation of salvation, our lives are lived “while we wait” – while we wait for someone, or something, else to do something and while we wait for a better place, somewhere else, to be. The most common associations we make when we think of, or hear, the word “salvation” actually hides the rich meanings of the term in Scripture, and even in our church’s tradition.
When I say “salvation,” my bet is almost all of you think of “heaven” or “going to heaven.” The question “Are you saved?” most often means “Are you confident that you’ll go to heaven when you die?” Salvation is almost always, and only, about the next world. The problem with this meager meal is that, while “salvation” is a central concern in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, “heaven” as someplace we go in life after death is not!
Jesus did have some notion of and belief in an “afterlife,” we can be fairly certain of that. The oldest references of some sort of afterlife for him is the same as ours, from the book of Daniel. But he didn’t talk about “life after death” very much, hardly at all. His message was not really about “how to get to heaven,” if heaven is understood solely as “someplace else,” arrived at only after death. That was (and still is) the message of an institutional church overly concerned with orthodoxy and obedience. No, Jesus’ message was first and foremost about a transformation, a “salvation,” in this world and about “everlasting life” in the Kingdom of God on earth … here and now.
Which brings us almost (I know some of you wish this was always sooner in my messages, but almost now) to our scripture reading. You’ve seen it “looming” there. John 3:16. You’re waiting now to hear it, again, either to confirm the certainty and identity you’ve accepted, or to confirm the ambiguity and the exclusivity you’ve rejected. John 3:16 …
Listen for the Word of God. Read John 3:16 … The Word of the Lord.
I truly believe this can be one of the most loving, inclusive, and life-affirming verses in our whole bible, for everyone, inside and outside the fold. But that’s possible only when “eternal life” is recognized as something more than getting to heaven and when Jesus as Christ is understood as more than a requirement for admittance; when what it means to be “saved” is understood as something that happens for this life. So let’s try to dig deeper, and set the table with richer fare.
I’ve remarked to Brandon and Christiaan, both undergoing their Seminary study right now, that if I could go back with all the energy and time I had in my own years of formal study, I would take infinitely more language classes so I could confidently and faithfully translate and interpret the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic writing in our bible for myself. As it is, I rely on others, trusted and respected, and pray that they (and I) offer more help than harm! Marcus Borg is one of those “others” for this verse, John 3:16. He opens this verse up in ways that both confirm and challenge us as Christians.
The English phrase “eternal life,” he notes, translates a Greek phrase, which in turn attempts to express a Jewish concept. (Buckle up, now. It’s worth it.) Eternal life means “the life of the age to come,” which has, understandably, been understood by the church, the community, that formed in the centuries that followed, as “the life later,” the “afterlife, “ the “not this life, but the next life.” But the Gospels, every one of them including John, confess that, in Jesus, the “life of the age to come” has come, is here. Eternal life in Jesus is not about sometime beyond death, but about right now. John himself, through Jesus’ prayer in chapter seventeen, says, “This is eternal life, to know God.” Jesus knew God. And we know God. Not fully, we acknowledged that as we began setting the table this Lent – ultimately “God” is a mystery, but we do know God. We are, then, according to John, experiencing eternal life right now!
For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have the life of the age to come … now.
That’s exhausting. Preparing feasts is always exhausting. A simple ham sandwich is much easier. Why bother if we have to work so hard. Well … because, as Harry Emerson Fosdick reminded us on the first Sunday of Lent at our first feast, “My friends, nothing in all the world is so much worth thinking of as God, Christ, the Bible, sin and salvation, the divine purposes for humankind, and life everlasting.”
This morning we add another table, now set more fully and more extravagantly. Salvation is primarily about what happens to us, and then what happens from us, here and now. But even as we understand that salvation is for right now, we still wonder, “What is it? What does look like?” Here are just a few responses. Salvation is:
Light in the darkness.
Sight to the blind.
Liberation to the captives.
Return from exile.
The healing of illnesses.
Food for the hungry and water for the thirsty.
And so much more. The table is so full our stomachs growl and our minds spin. We hope faithfully for a Salvation that will come, but we live faithfully in a Salvation that is ours now, if we would only accept it.
Which brings us to the second concern of Soteriology. How does Jesus save us?
Again, there are the immediate responses that almost instantly come to mind: Jesus saves us by dying for our sins, by sacrificing himself for us. Or Jesus saves us by substituting himself for us. Please rid yourself of that one, the substitutionary idea. Take it off the feast table. It is not scriptural and it gives you indigestion. But the first response is an interpretation of Jesus’ death found in the New Testament. But it’s not the only one! Jesus saves us by saying “no” to worldly empires and “yes” to God. Jesus saves us by exposing the moral failure of the powers of this world. Jesus saves us by revealing “the Way,” of dying and rising to new life. All of these understandings, and more, describe salvation in a way that makes it a instrument for our lives right now.
Here it is in a nutshell: The thing entrusted to us by God in Jesus Christ is sacrificial love. However else it happens, Jesus saves us by showing us how to love. And we must do that loving her and now, in this life, our lives, right now. This is a feast that we feed to whole world, for God so loves the world …
If you’ve been coming to the table every week this Lent, then you realize that every meal has been set out to strengthen us for our lives together. However else God is, God “is” within us, among us, and at work far beyond us. We must follow. Whoever else Christ “is,” Christ is God in the world. We must follow. Whatever else we’ve become, we were created to be God’s anointed ones in the world. We gather together as “church” to confirm that identity and to challenge that life. We are saved as we love as Jesus loves. The only left is the “end-times,” the Kingdom of God. The last feast is being prepared.
This week, the table that contains our feast of salvation is literally set before us. Moments from now, when you hear that world remember – “in remembrance” and “remember,” don’t simply recall what God in Jesus did and does for us. Remember … what God in us must do for the world.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 2, 2017