Last Sunday after Pentecost
In the name of Christ, our savior. Amen.
I didn’t grow up in an Evangelical Christian tradition of any sort, but I did grow up in a part of the world where there were a lot of people who did practice this faith that way. It was not entirely uncommon to be in a conversation with someone – particularly between two people who were just getting to know one another – to have one of them blurt out, seemingly from out of nowhere: “Have you been saved?” Or, perhaps, drawing on even more undue assumption, “When were you saved?” or “Where were you saved?”.
For someone like me, who grew up in a mainline, sort of run-of-the-mill tradition by broad, American standards, the question always fell on me like a sort of assault – like it was the only way to judge the legitimacy of faith. Where I grew up, we didn’t talk about our faith that way. In fact, I’ve never really quite understood what they meant by it. There’s a degree to which it means, “Have you made an adult profession of faith?”. In our tradition, we’d often call that confirmation. But still, there’s some nuance to it. Evangelicals would not see our approach to confirmation as rendering its participants “saved”. There’s a degree to which it means, “Have you been baptized?”. But again, Evangelicals wouldn’t see our approach to baptism as sufficient to meet their understanding of what it means to be “saved”.
As I understand it, Evangelical approaches to being “saved” involve adult professions of faith and baptism, but also there’s some inexplicable spiritual element that can’t quite be codified into liturgy. Some ecstatic experience that is both performed for the community, but also is believed to leave the individual with a changed perspective.
One of my friends from seminary loved to tell the story about the church she grew up in. It was definitely evangelical in its approach to faith, and every service ended with an altar call. As she tells the story, the altar call would go on until someone got “saved”. The problem is, it was a pretty small, rural church. There wasn’t an endless pool of people to draw from to keep having these moments of ecstasy and conversion. They were already converted.
So, as she told the story, the youth of the church would basically take turns being “saved”. If the altar call started going on a little too long and it looked like it was becoming a hostage situation, whoever’s turn it was would, as my friend put it, “take one for the team.”
Can you imagine if worship in this church didn’t end until someone came down each week and spontaneously wanted to be baptized? Or until someone came forward to cry out about the ways that worship that day had changed their life?
I’m not suggesting that evangelical worship can’t be real or meaningful for its participants – I’m just pointing out how foreign that world is for us.
I thought of that this week while reading this gospel lesson and hearing that word “saved” come up again and again. As Jesus hung on the cross, “the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself…” And the soldiers mocked him, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
Even one of the criminals who hung next to him joined in. “Are you not the Messiah?” he asked, “Save yourself and us!”.
I’ve always heard this story with the implication in mind that Jesus chose to use his power in another way. That he chose not to save himself. That he chose not to save the others hanging beside him. But maybe the real truth is that I, like the leaders of the people, like the soldiers, like all who were waiting on the Messiah – maybe we’ve all just misunderstood what it means to be saved.
It’s like that scene from the Princess Bride. Vizzini keeps referring to things as “inconceivable”, when in fact, they are quite able to be conceived – often even sort of commonplace. At one point, Iñigo Montoya stops him and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
Maybe we’ve just been misunderstanding what it means for Jesus to save himself, and others. Maybe we’ve been misunderstanding what it means for Jesus to save us.
Jesus died as he lived. His life was about reconciling creation with God – showing us that God was here. He did this by showing us over and over again that God can be found in unlikely places. In a woman about to be stoned to death for her community’s perception of her sinfulness. In a foreign heretic who showed compassion where respected religious leaders had failed. In mere fishermen and laborers and women who were called to be the first heralds of the good news that God is with us.
Then, even at the hour of his death, Jesus is still showing us that God is found in unlikely places. This time at the cross. This time, in the community of criminals.
Next week, the story starts again as we begin this process of preparing and waiting for the birth of God in Christ – the realization of “God with us”. And it will, once again, show that God is found in unlikely places and with unlikely people. A young, unmarried woman. A stable. Surrounded by shepherds and foreign astrologers.
In his death, Jesus saved himself and all the others by remaining faithful to his commitment to following the path that God had set out for him – from his first breath to his last.
That word, salvation, may not mean what we think it means. It may not mean release from trouble. It may not mean fits of ecstasy and joy. It may not mean the things we do in church to remind ourselves of the nearness of God.
Perhaps true salvation is discerning how God is calling us, and holding steady to that path. Holding steady, even when we’re surprised about where it takes us. Holding steady, even when we feel lost. Holding steady, even when it’s tough.
One truth we learn from Jesus is that God is in those places and people we don’t expect. Following our joy and comfort may not take us there, but following the path that God has laid out for us will.
Next Sunday we start a new year in church. We go back to the beginning of the story. We go back to the beginning of the path – at least this one aspect of our path. It is tempting to stray, but try to stick with it. When you do, you will meet God where you never expected to. Amen.