There are two MAJOR examples of God’s salvation in the Hebrew Bible. One is the Exodus story, when God saves the people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, and they move into the Promised Land. The second is found in the story of restoration, when God acts to save the people from bondage of slavery in Babylonia and they return to and restore the city of Jerusalem in the Promised Land. There are big stories, narratives which play out in big and small ways throughout the entirety of the Bible. Both are salvation. God saves the people.
Our text today is text of promise, that was given to the people while they were in exile, and slavery (the second time), promising salvation, healing, wholeness, return, and restoration. The words are gorgeous. The promise is uplifting. And, history tells us, it was fulfilled. The people returned. They wept with joy, the nation did not die off after all.
What I cannot figure out, given this profound history and foundation, is how the heck we got from salvation being about God’s acts in saving the people – together- to something that I’m told is called “personal salvation.” (I seriously had to look this up. I tried calling it “individual salvation” because that made sense to me as a counter to “communal salvation”, but Google soon informed me that people don’t say it that way.) Personal salvation is the most anti-Biblical, and anti-God idea I’ve ever heard. I say this recognizing that it has been a significant theme in Christian history for most of Christian history. And, furthermore, that when I say “significant” theme, I should probably admit “this is what most people think Christianity IS.”
Nevertheless, I’m holding firm. The idea is an atrocity. From what I can surmise, it goes like this. “There are good people in the world and there are bad people in the world. Good people follow God’s rules, as defined in the Bible. Bad people don’t. God, like a human parent, punishes the bad people for being bad and rewards the good people for being good. Therefore, because of mistakes made on earth bad people will suffer for eternity while good people will enjoy the presence of God in heaven for eternity. The utterly unclear line the sand between good people and bad people is drawn by God and is thus fair. After-all, the rules are the rules.”There is also a variation, rather popular, that suggests that the difference between good people and bad people is “declaring your faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.” Salvation, in this understanding is the act of being picked as one of the good people.
I was raised in a rather “normal” United Methodist Church in the suburbs. By the time I went to seminary I had separated myself from the “Good People Salvation” narrative by focusing on God’s nature as love. I would say at that point that if “nothing can separate us from the of of God (in Christ)” then no human action or inaction would be sufficient for God’s condemnation. Therefore, I surmised, I was a “universal salvationist.” When I got to seminary and people were talking about “salvation of all creation, of the entire universe” I was GENUINELY confused. However, I was also embarrassed because I was sure that all of my classmates were better Christians that I was, and knew more than I did, and I kept my mouth shut. (Most of them had double majored in religion and philosophy, and my math major didn’t initially feel like a good background for seminary.)
After a few days though, it all seemed to clear up. Of course salvation is about this life! What a silly idea to think that all that is, all this wonder of creation, all the depth of this life are insignificant!!! And of course it isn’t limited to humans – creation is more than just humans. God’s work to heal and bring wholeness – God’s work with us to more creation into more completion – would apply to everyone. I had thought I was supposed to think salvation was about afterlife, but having another option felt like freedom. Salvation as healing, as wholeness, as God’s work in the world to move creation to completion just made more sense! I haven’t looked back, other than with some horror.
Five years ago, I read John Shelby Spong’s “Eternal Life: A New Vision (Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.” I remember it being rather painfully slow for the first 2/3rd and then like an brain explosion for the final 1/3rd. I’ve recently looked back at the book and I actually marked the point of transition with a note in the margins that says “start of new ideas.” These five years after I first read this book, it is no longer all that shocking, and now it is a lot more convincing.
The new ideas section started with this, “Perhaps the personhood we have ascribed to God is really our own, projected onto God. God might then be conceived not as a being, but as the process that calls us into being; not as a person, but as the process that calls personhood into being.”1 For those who studied math in excess like me, this sounds like the first time I met a “function.” My textbook didn’t seem to describe it ways that made sense to me, but I finally figured out that the function is “what you are going to do to the variable.” It is the process. This seems to me like the suggestion that God is function, the process, and we’ve been confusing God with the output.
Spong goes on to make sense of this new understanding of God:
“Human beings need to understand that we must reconcile the biological drive to survive, which is present in every living thing but achieves self-consciousness only in human life. With the creative thought, emotional feelings, and ability to love others even at the sacrifice of ourselves which are the things that self-conscious creatures alone can choose to do or to have. That is the challenge of humanity. It is in the recognition and reconciliation of this tension that we discover that the way to what human beings have traditionally called God is not through some external projection of our needs, but through entering the depth dimensions of the human experience. The divine we have always sought turns out to be a dimension of the human. Religion ultimately becomes not an activity in which we explore the meaning of God, but an activity through which we explore the meaning of the human.Religion is not a journey into the external deity, but a journey into the heart of our humanity, where we break out of our separation fears and enter the meaning of transcendence, oneness, timelessness, and finally eternity.” 2
When I read these words again, I squealed with joy! YES! YES! This IS what it is about! This isn’t what religion, especially Christianity has been, but it is what it CAN BE! He says later, “The more deeply I live, the more God becomes identified with my life.”3 and “The more deeply I am able to love, the more God becomes part of me.”4 This is the point where the radical and wonderful postmodern theologian John Shelby Spong intersects once again with the “merry little theologian” of nearly 300 years ago, John Wesley. Wesley, amazingly enough, rarely mentions afterlife but talks extensively of salvation. He speaks of it AS the process of letting God’s love grow in us into fullness. Or maybe we can go back to Spong’s words, “Jesus is not absorbed into the holy. Jesus is rather alive with the holy.”5 If so, then we are to do the same. “Our ultimate destiny was never to be religious human beings, as once we thought; it was simply to be fully and totally human.”6
The question then, is: what helps us be fully and totally human? As far as I’ve experienced it, there are two intersecting aspects to the answer. One is relational. We love each other into being, and no one becomes human or whole by themselves. We are communal animals, formed by each other. The second is relational too, but in this case self-relational. We are simply people, right? By our cultural myths we are composed of body, mind, emotions, and spirit/soul, but the greatest of these is mind! Yet we are not just our minds. To become fully and totally human is to live in our bodies, to listen to and care about our emotions, to pay attention to the needs of our spirits and find the way to feed them – and to help others do the same. For me, that’s easiest to accomplish through the process of Nonviolent Communication – shameless plug: stick around for the 2nd hour on September 13th and for an Adult Education series this fall. Learning empathy for myself and others is helping me become more fully and totally human.
The intersections of Nonviolent Communication and faith intrigue me and they seem to fit into one of Spong’s new definitions, “The task of religion is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes to not normally see. It is to seek a humanity that is not governed by the need for security, but is expressed in the ability to give ourselves away.”7
This full, total humanity, this way of living and loving with abundance for ourselves and others, is eternal in that it is so deeply connected to the divine. He says, “True worship has little to do with saying words of praise, but is rather identical with having the courage to be all that I can be. True worship is a process that suggests and celebrates the fact that the more deeply and fully I can be who I am, the more I will make God, understood as being itself, visible.”8 Others have suggested this before him, and it is a beautiful idea. Eternal Life can simply life with the Eternal One, opening up the possibility that the lives we live now, which are lived in and with God are united with eternity. And maybe even are a way of being open to the transition from this life to whatever comes next. He says, “For God is ultimately one, and that means that each of us is a part of that oneness. ‘My me is indeed God.” … I am finite, but I share in infinity. I am mortal, but I share in immortality. I am being, but I share in being itself.”9
Most self-help books are trying to help people become fully human! In that way they are terribly good. However, I don’t know that many of them pay attention to the intersecting human needs of relationships with self AND others! They’re focused on “personal salvation” thought about in new ways. The Bible is hyper focused on “communal salvation,” because we are only whole when we are whole together. Any time the balance is out of wack – too far to the individual and missing the communal or too far to the communal and ignoring the needs of the individual, we are not fully human. Salvation is the healing of the whole universe. All of us together and each of us individually. We participate by becoming fully human, and by giving ourselves to each other. To go back to Jeremiah, God promises,
“They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” (Jeremiah 31:12-13
God’s work is salvation – and it is beautiful!
Finally, I was told last week that if I didn’t answer the question about “Would John Wesley drive a Prius?” then I’d be guilty of false advertising. Apparently, “It was just a good title” got me no where. I spent most of this sermon series thinking that John Wesley would drive a 20 year old Corolla because he’d want to save money to give away and he’d like the reliability, but I’ve changed my mind. Would John Wesley drive a Prius? No. He’d take the bus. It is more eco-friendly, it is more economical, and it is more relational. And, after all, this is a man who was famous for reading books on horseback. I think we can easily imagine what he’d do while waiting at the bus-stop. He’d read John Shelby Spong ;). (Amen)
August 30. 2015