Text: John 3:1-17
If you’ve looked at the title of the sermon for today, your first thought may have been, “What in the world is she going to say?” When I got up this morning and began preparing to deliver this sermon, my first thought was, “What in the world was I thinking?!” Here in progressive-Christian-land, we tend to steer away from the words “saved” and “salvation.” Many of us, certainly the Baptists among us, grew up with a traditional understanding of Jesus: he was sent by God to die for our sins and if we accept him as our personal Lord and Savior, we will go to heaven and be with him for eternity. Saving us was why Jesus came. Personal salvation was his purpose for being on earth. Our text for today, John 3:16, was the verse most often quoted as the basis for this theology—in the King James version, of course: For God so loved the world that he (and that God was definitely a “he”) gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life. Many Christians can quote this verse if they can’t quote anything else in the Bible. And this is Lent. We’re headed toward Jerusalem where Jesus will be crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. Isn’t the Easter story all about our personal salvation?
If you attended the Wednesday night program in February when the staff shared how we plan worship each week, you may remember that I said I was preaching on this date because Nancy would be in Nicaragua, and she is. You may not remember that I said my text would be a passage in Ephesians. Well, I changed my mind. What helped me to change it was a session I led in the Care of Creation Sunday school class a few weeks ago about a theology of creation. Using materials provided by Sojourners, the lesson proposed what is needed for a full theology of creation – one that will move us from a theology of human domination over creation past a theology of stewardship in which humans serve in the role of a benevolent manager of creation to a theology of interrelationship between humans and all that God created. It was based on a fine article by Wesley Graberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church. One thing he said caught my attention because it resonated with a belief I’ve held for a long time. If we want to save the planet, we have to move past a theology that teaches the salvation Jesus offered was for individual human beings only.
So this is one of those sermons that simply offers you some ideas to consider, ideas that some of you may find unsettling. It’s an invitation to examine your own understanding of what it means to be “saved.” If you find it uncomfortable, I apologize. Well…actually, I don’t. What I hope is that it will conflict those of you who have a comfortable but unexamined understanding of salvation, and comfort those who have felt conflicted about traditional salvation theology. It’s a complex subject and my time is short, so here goes.
For me, the traditional understanding of what God was up to with Jesus has been deficient for a long time. For one thing, I can’t accept that belief, even a heart-level belief, is the critical requirement of a person’s life. This just doesn’t make sense to me. In Matthew 25, Jesus says individuals and nations will be judged by whether we feed, clothe, visit, and care for “the least of these.” The author of James says faith without works is dead. So how can what we believe be enough to get us eternal life with God? Is what we believe about God’s love more important than how we embody it day-to-day? I don’t think so. Consequently, when Jesus says in John 3:16 “whoever believes in me…” I think he’s talking about something far more radical than mental agreement…and far more radical that what we see among many people who sincerely call themselves followers of Jesus today.
Another problem is that this traditional view of salvation seems to say if we just believe Jesus died for our sins, confess them, and accept him, somehow the world will be a better place. The more people who get “saved,” the better things will be. That is, if we’d all just become Christians, poverty and hunger and violence would go away and the kingdom of God would reign on earth. But what about the Crusades? Or pedophile priests? Or the racism of the white church? Did none of those who committed these dreadful acts believe Jesus had saved them? I’d guess all of them did. And what about the good Christian folks who are willing or even feel called to do acts of charity to help the poor, but refuse to consider challenging the unjust systems that oppress people all over the world and keep them poor? That kind of Christianity doesn’t usher in the kingdom of God. In fact, it can become an obstacle to the radical change essential to God’s shalom. So I think this perspective comes up short; but at least it includes people who care to some degree about what happens to people beyond the salvation of their souls.
Another, more insidious perspective is that it doesn’t really matter what happens on earth because your only goal is to get yourself and everyone else you can into heaven. This was the view of Dwight L. Moody, a 19th century evangelist, who said, “God has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can!’” If this is your view, poverty and hunger and violence don’t really matter much. It’s the view of many Christian Zionists whose support Israel so strongly. Their number one goal is the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem so Jesus can come back and take them to heaven. That the lives of most Palestinians and even many Jews are made miserable in the process is unimportant collateral damage. And perhaps the most harmful aspect of this view that getting to heaven is life’s goal is the total lack of concern for the rest of creation. If this life is only about saving human souls for the next life and you’re praying that Jesus will return today, why does it matter if we’re polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink?
These versions of Christianity abound in our nation today. But many thinking, faithful people see that these perspectives are not only wrong, but sometimes deadly. I learned how deadly at a Congregations for Social Justice meeting on immigration last week. Among the twenty or so bills on immigration submitted in last year’s long session of the N.C. General Assembly was one that would have prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving medical treatment in emergency rooms in our state. Now I can draw no conclusion from this but that the author of the bill was comfortable letting these immigrants die. Yet I would bet Finlator Hall that the legislator who submitted this bill calls himself a born-again Christian and is sitting in a pew somewhere in our state as we speak. Also, last week at a N.C. Justice Center board meeting, I was reminded by one of the staff attorneys that it was 2007 when our good state passed a law requiring growers to provide a mattress for each of their farmworkers. Up to that point, you could hire people to pick your cucumbers or your tobacco twelve hours a day in the blazing sun and force them to sleep on wood or wire or concrete. And just like the legislator who proposed letting undocumented immigrants die on the steps of WakeMed’s ER, I’d bet the farm most of the growers consider themselves to be fine Christian people.
Regarding those who don’t care about the pain and injustice on earth because they are just waiting for Jesus to come back so they can be raptured, I think they have a huge surprise coming. It’s not that I believe they will go to hell. I’m too much of a universalist to believe that. I’m inclined to agree with my systematic theology professor in seminary who said he was absolutely convinced there is a hell. But because of the depth of God’s love, he doesn’t think there’s anybody in it! So I have long had an image in my head of some Christians (Jesse Helms comes to mind) being greeted by God with an exasperated, “What WERE you thinking? How did you get the Jesus thing so wrong?!” Now I’m sure I’ll be met with some holy exasperation as well, but I pray the basis for God’s frustration with me will be something different.
So where did we get this concept of personal salvation? With the help of scholar Marcus Borg, let me offer a very brief bit of history. About eighty years ago, Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén identified three main understandings of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the history of Christian theology. The first and oldest is one he calls Christus Victor, which means “Christ victorious.” It’s an image that understands the central work of Jesus Christ to be triumphing over the powers that hold humans in bondage, including sin, death, and the devil. Says Borg, “Like the exodus story in the Hebrew bible, this image sees the human predicament as bondage and the work of Christ as liberation.”
Aulén then explained that the second major view of salvation is often referred to as “substitutionary atonement,” which pictures the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin required by God that makes forgiveness possible. According to Aulén, this understanding did not become dominant until the Middle Ages. A third understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection portrays Jesus as neither the one who triumphs over the powers nor as the sacrifice for sin, but as “revelation” or “disclosure.” The emphasis is not on Jesus accomplishing something that changes our relationship with God, but upon Jesus revealing something that is true. What is revealed varies from Jesus as the one who shows what God is like to Jesus as a light that beckons us home from exile.
Each of these images draws on important aspects of Jesus, but the early Christian movement was dominated by the “substitution for sin” theory. Thus, says Borg, this story of sin, guilt, sacrifice, and forgiveness is most often the primary story shaping our sense of who we are, our image of Jesus and what God requires, and the nature of Christian life. The point of all this is that multiple ways to understand what Jesus did on the cross have developed over the centuries. No doubt serious followers of Jesus will continue to re-interpret the two thousand year old story we recall every Lent and Easter. Adherents to the traditional view would have you believe that if you don’t accept theirs – which means if you don’t accept Jesus in their way – you’re going to hell. But theirs is not the whole story.
There are a number of ways to challenge the emphasis on personal salvation and I believe one of them is in the words of Jesus himself in our text for today. In the third chapter of John, Jesus has an encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is trying to understand who Jesus is. He has come to Jesus under the dark of night because the conversation feels risky. But he must know if this teacher is a man from God, so he asks, in essence, “Who are you?” In one of the most-used and most-abused statements in the New Testament, Jesus says to Nicodemus: no one can see the kingdom of God without being …. “born again” is what the King James version says as does the New International Version used by conservative Christians. However, the New Revised Standard Version we use, as well as several other translations, say “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
The truth is that the word Jesus uses here is anōthen, a Greek term that means both “from above” and “again,” or “anew.” The word has a double meaning in Greek that doesn’t exist in English, so translators have to pick one or the other. But according to John’s author, Jesus meant both. To be born anōthen speaks of both a time of birth (again) and the place from which this birth is generated (from above). So Jesus describes a radical new birth in time and space… a whole new way of living where “eternal life” is not endless duration of human existence but life lived in the unending presence of God, says Gail O’Day. And in John, this means it’s not just a prize for later but a possible reality now. It is eternal life in the present tense.
Given this radical new life to which Jesus called Nicodemus, believing in Jesus just has to be more than simply accepting that his dying somehow saved me from hell. Salvation, therefore, has to be more than acceptance by individual human beings of something that gets me a reward after I die. It’s more than that, bigger than that, much more radical than that.
Now, all this being said, I do believe Jesus came to save us. So let me explain what I mean.
First, I believe God sent Jesus to show us what a human life full of God looks like. He tried to teach it and demonstrate it, but only a few people understood what he was trying to communicate. His radical love for all and commitment to a just world that values women and children and outcasts wasn’t popular, so the government and religious leaders of the day conspired together to get rid of him. Crucifixion was the method-du-jour, so that’s how they executed him. Eliminating a threat to the status quo was the goal. I don’t think God sent Jesus to die for us. Rather I believe God sent Jesus to straighten us out, but the people of his day didn’t get it and I have no faith that we would be any different. It’s a classic “shoot the messenger” story: Jesus came as a demonstration project to make it very clear what doing God’s work requires – justice, mercy, walking humbly, as the prophets had said – and it was inconvenient for those who benefited from the absence of justice and mercy and humility. So they killed him.
Second, I don’t think Jesus came to save just individual human souls but rather the whole creation. Hebrew bible (Old Testament) images of salvation are focused on healing and wholeness between God and the people and land. Jesus’ most common topic for his teaching was the kingdom of God, and it’s clear from what he said that it is a wholeness that is universal – a place where all have what is needed. It’s where “everyone has enough and no one has too much,” in the words of Anne Thomas Neil. But being part of God’s work of creating this wholeness on earth is very hard work, it requires too much focus beyond the self, so over the centuries it became easier to individualize and spiritualize it. Jesus said, “Love your enemies” but did he really mean persons of another race or class…or someone who killed your children? If you ask the Amish who lost their children in the school shooting in 2006, they would say, “Yes, I have to love even him.” But that’s so hard. This kingdom of God requires so much of us. That’s why Jesus came to save us by showing us what God’s realm looks like in flesh and blood. Says Jurgen Moltmann, “In Jesus the reign of God has a name and a face.”
This salvation he offers in John’s gospel isn’t just about me or even about you. It’s about everything God created and perhaps, more importantly, everything we have created: the social structures, economic and political systems, corporations, ways of working and living and relating to each other… I believe he came to save all of it because all of it is infected by our greed and quest for power and control. To the degree the salvation Jesus offers is for me personally, this gift calls for a radical re-ordering of my life and my way of thinking so that I understand and work for the supreme goal: healing and wholeness for everyone and every thing God created. In the words of Joan Chittister, “Life isn’t about me. Life is about God,” and what God wants for the world.
So on this fourth Sunday in Lent as we journey toward Jerusalem with Jesus, let’s reflect on what it means to be saved. Let’s hear the words of the prophets pleading for a deeper understanding of God’s justice and the will to make it a reality. Jesus didn’t enter life on earth in a vacuum. God’s project of bringing shalom to our planet had been in the making for a long time when Jesus arrived. And if you examine the whole story of humanity’s life with God, it is very clear that this “be-good-now-to-get-a-prize-later” theology doesn’t scratch the surface of the plan God has had for the creation from the beginning. So my mind tells me that this understanding of salvation is way too small. My heart tells me it’s not a faithful rendering of the full gospel of Jesus Christ. I could be wrong, of course. But I’ve decided to bet my life on it anyway. What about you?
Material attributed to Marcus Borg comes from his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).