Speaking of Sin: Salvation
“Are you saved?”
A few years ago someone asked me that question…and I didn’t know what to say.
That’s what an evangelical childhood plus a seminary education will do to you.
I didn’t know how to answer what seemed to the questioner a pretty straightforward query. That’s because salvation is a word fraught with contradictions and misunderstandings. But it’s a concept inherent in everything God is doing in our world. It’s why we’re here and why we believe; it’s why we stick around even when we’re pretty sure we don’t believe. “Salvation is the yearning, desire, hope and purpose of the Christian life.” But it seems we’re not really clear about what the word means.
Today is the final Sunday in our Speaking of Sin series for Lent. Over these past weeks in worship we’ve been reexamining the language some of us have almost abandoned because it’s been so misunderstood and misused to hurt and exclude. Words like sin, redemption, hell, penance…they don’t often jibe with our image of a loving God.
But we need the language of sin; we need to be able to talk about sin. Because our lives are broken, too. We fail, we disappoint, we hurt. And, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, without finding a language to speak of sin, we cannot finally speak…of grace. So today, salvation.
When I was in elementary school my parents hosted a Good News Club in our garage. Every Tuesday afternoon after school, Mr. and Mrs. Schaefer, missionaries who had moved all the way from some place called Virginia to the Hawaiian Islands to tell all of us children about Jesus, would spread out mats on the garage floor and set up the felt board on an easel. All the neighborhood kids would gather in the garage and we’d sit there, enthralled, while Mrs. Schaefer put felt figures up on the board and told us Bible stories.
Just as we’d start to eye the graham crackers and Dixie cups of warm koolaid for snack, Mr. Schaefer (who had been napping in a lawn chair in the back of the garage) would rouse and come to the front of the garage, where he would explain to us that we were going to hell—which wasn’t really defined that I can recall, but we all knew it was really, really bad—unless we asked Jesus to come into our hearts and got saved.
He would often pull out a Wordless Book—any of you know what that is? His was made of felt: black, red, white, yellow and green. He’d explain that the black meant we had all sinned, and deserved to go to hell. Red meant Jesus died and there was a lot of blood that paid for our sin. White meant Jesus washed our sin away; yellow, that if we believe in Jesus we can go to heaven, where the streets were made of gold! And green, for growing in the Christian life.
Then we had to bow our heads and close our eyes while Mr. Schaefer talked about hell and getting saved some more. If we wanted to be saved, he told us every week, we had to ask Jesus to come into our hearts by repeating a certain prayer. We could repeat it silently, but with our heads bowed and eyes closed, but we should raise our hands so Mr. and Mrs. Schaefer would know we had gotten saved.
I’m not exactly sure how many times I got saved, but it was a lot.
And that’s pretty much it: that’s what the word salvation has come to mean in our evangelical Christian context. It’s a word that’s personal and exclusive, all about who is in and who is out. It’s the end product of a religion of rules and rewards, where the ultimate goal is going to heaven after we die.
That being the case, it’s curious to note that salvation in the biblical sense is almost always about what happens here on earth. Salvation in the Bible is almost unrecognizable to what I just described. Instead, it’s an idea about transformation here and now, both in your life and mine individually, and in the world as a whole. Throughout the biblical story, salvation means liberation from bondage, return from exile, rescue from peril, well-being out of infirmity, trust from fear, justice from injustice. Here. For you and for me and for all of us together.
And as these contrasting views of salvation collide in our heads this morning, the biblical story guiding our thought is the very last of the signs in John’s gospel: the raising of Lazarus. The story only appears in John’s gospel, and after this we’re headed straight for the events of holy week, leading up to the cross.
Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus’, has taken ill. His sisters, Mary and Martha, send for Jesus because things had gotten dire. They felt sure that if Jesus could get there, Lazarus could be saved. And you know what happened. Jesus delayed his trip and Lazarus died.
When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, the town whose name means “House of Affliction,” he is reprimanded by Mary and Martha both, who tell him they don’t know why he took his time; he should have come directly. Lazarus by now had been dead four days—and in Jewish tradition where the spirit left the body after three days—that was really, truly dead. No hope for salvation at all.
And as the group gathered there, together, crying—even Jesus, weeping for what had been lost, he raised his voice and called: “Lazarus, come out!”
Then, it seems, there was a scene from The Walking Dead, or something akin to the excellent drama our children staged for us this morning. Out of the tomb comes Lazarus, not dead, in fact, wrapped in burial clothes but very much alive.
And as we look a little more closely at this story we might begin to get a hint that the way we think of salvation, as Mr. and Mrs. Schaefer taught us kids every Tuesday afternoon in the garage, is not exactly the kind of salvation that Jesus acted out over and over in the biblical story.
We have the tendency to read the Lazarus story and marvel at the miracle—a dead man brought back to life, saved. But the whole rich and varied story is filled with individuals and a whole community, having experiences of salvation. In a region filled with political strife, people unsure about their security and scared about the future, a man gets sick. The occasion of his illness and death brings all kinds of people together: Jesus, his disciples, Mary and Martha, townspeople in Bethany. They come together to argue and wonder, to grapple with the mysteries of life, to grieve the urgent pain and fear of human living, to learn again that love is stronger than death…together.
The disciples: by now pretty sure this movement they’ve joined is headed for trouble, follow Jesus anyway. Salvation.
Martha, voicing her anger, frustration, and fear—and then believing. Salvation.
Mary, choking out her grief, and being comforted. Salvation.
The crowds, grief stricken and afraid, wailing at the loss of a friend, amazed by the possibilities of new life. Salvation.
Jesus, weeping for all he’s lost and all he’s about to lose, comforted by the presence and promise of God. Salvation.
And the whole group, together, welcoming the miracle of Lazarus’ new life.
One might say it was Lazarus here who was saved, but maybe this story isn’t really about Lazarus at all. In the grief of his death the people who loved him came together, believing and hoping, to witness and experience transformation. They emerge better, stronger, together…to face what’s ahead, maybe what the Bible means when it talks about…salvation.
And though this was just one little story in all the stories gathered about the life and ministry of Jesus, it reminds us that the themes of salvation that run through the biblical story are actually not about saying the sinners’ prayer with your head bowed and eyes closed so that you won’t end up in hell. Salvation is about wholeness, about coming together and loving each other, about the transformation of our hearts and our world, about, remember, liberation from bondage, return from exile, rescue from peril, well-being out of infirmity, trust from fear, justice from injustice.
God’s ongoing work of salvation is taking place here and now, all over this world. God is ever moving us to healing and wholeness and hope. Even in the grief and pain of the present, a larger narrative is being written, an arc of salvation in which God is ever calling us to participate.
Lest you think this talk of salvation is all fun and happiness, bunnies and baby chicks, I want to caution you. Salvation, the ongoing, redemptive work of God in the world, is dangerous business.
The compilers of our lectionary, the list of passages we read each Sunday from the Bible, finish our reading of Lazarus’ story at verse 45, which is such a nice and tidy place for the story to end. But as we leave today thinking about the meaning of salvation, I think we have to read the very end of the story. Because while salvation is wonderful and beautiful, it is also deeply subversive. Wholeness and reconciliation offends our worldly orders of power and domination, and as such it’s dangerous business. Here’s what the last few verses we didn’t read say:
“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
This week is the 20th anniversary of the devastating genocide in the country of Rwanda. On April 7, 1994, members of the majority Hutu tribe in the country of Rwanda launched a 100 day slaughter of rival Tutsi tribe members, resulting in the deaths of almost a million Rwandans, over 20% of the country’s entire population. This week, events marking that terrible time are going on all over the world. It was one of the most horrible acts of genocide in the 20th century, a heartbreaking example of the brutality human beings can exercise toward each another.
And still, 20 years later, it’s clear that the ongoing work of salvation in this world has not been stalled. In the face of horror and terror and death, the possibility of transformation glimmers in the darkness, calling all of humanity to peace, reconciliation, wholeness, love.
Peter Gwin, writer/expeditions editor at National Geographic Magazine is in Rwanda right now, telling the story. Under a recent picture post he wrote: “Is this kid Hutu of Tutsi? That’s really what it comes down to, right? The Tutsi’s were the victims, and the Hutus the perpetrators. So you get off the plane and start trying to figure out who is who. Tutsis are tall and thin (you’ve read that somewhere), except when they aren’t. Hutus have broad noses (someone told you that), except when they have narrow noses. The main giveaway, however is that traditionally Tutsis are herders, and Hutus are farmers, except for the Tutsis who grow crops and the Hutus who keep cattle. In fact, they speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, worship the same Christian God, eat the same food, and root for the same football teams. It’s so difficult to tell them apart that even the Tutsis and Hutus struggle.
There is a famous story that Hutu militiamen attacked a group of school children and ordered them to divide themselves by ethnicity—Hutus on one side, Tutsis on the other. The children refused. So the militia killed them all. Today the government has implemented a campaign to discard these labels…instead, the idea is: we are all Rwandans….”
God’s work of salvation in this world is dangerous business. It threatens the powers that be; it turns the orders of the world on their heads.
But it keeps going. Over and over, in every space and time, God’s persistent work of claiming each of us and the whole world, for his hopeful imagination. Salvation—it’s dangerous business.
And it could be our only hope.
 Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin