By the saving power of Jesus. Amen.
I was sitting in the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport yesterday afternoon with a group of Lutherans discussing Battlestar Gallactica, Harry Potter, and the new Terminator Salvation and somehow, of course, we began talking theology. All of us were in plainclothes, having just spent the last couple of days together at an ELM board retreat north of the cities, and next to us was a solitary man in his black suit and shirt with white tab collar, clergy of some kind, and I could see him trying to listen in our conversation discreetly. I didn’t take offense at his surreptitious eavesdropping; I understand his curiosity all too well. We don’t often stumble across people having explicit conversations about matters of doctrine in the mall or at the airport. I presume he was curious to know if the ideas being passed back and forth between us bore any relationship to the ones he preached on Sunday mornings in the parish.
Ironically, our conversation was about those doctrines that get preached on in mainline Protestant churches, and those that don’t. Specifically, the doctrine of salvation. The contention among the group of Lutherans I was with was that we have grown much more comfortable with conversations in the church about justice, and much less comfortable with conversations about salvation. Salvation, we suppose, almost immediately conjures up its opposite – damnation – and all the negative associations we’ve been told are driving people away from the church: hellfire and brimstone preaching, self-righteous superiority, hypocritical moralizing. Many Protestants have stopped talking about salvation, leaving that theological territory to the fundamentalists, and have focused instead on justice as the goal of Christian living.
That has been a mistake on our part. The Bible is not at all shy about talking about salvation, and if we are going to take the Word of God seriously then we can’t be shy in talking about it either. Lutherans in particular, who have a very different tradition of reading the Bible – one that from the very beginning did not make fundamentalist claims to biblical literalism or inerrancy – need to know how to talk about this most basic of Christian beliefs, that God reaches out through Christ Jesus to save the world.
To do that we need, first of all, to remember a few of the ways that the world of the Bible was different from the world we now live in. Most importantly, perhaps, we need to recognize that the individualism that runs so deeply through our culture – and has for centuries – was not the starting point for the ancient world. When modern Christians begin to talk about salvation, we almost immediately assume that we are talking about the salvation of our individual self, our individual soul. The evangelical question “are you saved?” expresses the commonly held belief that salvation is something worked out individually between a person and God.
But that was not the context in which the Bible was born. The human Jesus was a Jew and was bathed in the stories of the nation of Israel from the moment he was born. As he wandered the countryside and entered the public square proclaiming the good news of the dominion of God, he did so shaped by Hebrew understandings of salvation that were not about individual people – but about people as a whole, people as a collective unit. He drew on the tradition of the prophets of Israel, who spoke a word of hope and restoration to people who had been constantly kicked around not as individuals but as a people. A community whose central stories were the exodus from slavery and the exile into captivity.
The verses we hear from the prophet Ezekiel this morning are an excellent example of this. In the passage leading up to our assigned reading Ezekiel has been chastising the nation of Israel for failing to uphold its covenant with God. Ezekiel was writing as one in exile. Israel had been invaded by the Babylonians. It was not a fair fight. Israel, a tiny nation at the crossroads of power in the ancient world was constantly being trampled on by one foreign power after another – Babylonians, Persians, Romans. Ezekiel was among a group of Israelites that had been taken captive in that conquest and forced into exile. He was trying to explain why God had allowed this to occur, and so he pointed to all the ways Israel had failed to live up to its covenants with God. The covenant was collective, and so was the punishment.
But so, too, was the salvation Ezekiel imagined.
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 17:22-23)
This kind of inclusive vision would have been remarkable if it had been coming from the Babylonians’ prophets, like a kind of amnesty for the defeated. But set on the lips of the God of a defeated people held captive in a foreign land it’s almost unimaginable. If we wanted to build a contemporary parallel we would have to imagine prisoners of war held captive with no hope of release other than what their captors were willing to give. They would have to be prisoners of the most powerful empire known to their time. In other words, they would not be us. No, to try and draw a parallel, you’d have to imagine something like the prisoners of war being held at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp dreaming of the day when not only would they be released from captivity, but also of the day when their God and our God would be the same, and that we would live in the quiet harmony shared by birds resting on the arms of a mighty tree. A vision of freedom for the captive and grace for the captor.
This is the kind of salvation imagined by the prophets of the biblical world, and these are the images of salvation that fed the prophetic voice of Jesus Christ as he told a story, in the form of a parable, about the dominion of God being like seed scattered on the ground that grows automatically, or like a seed so tiny and fragile that it goes almost unnoticed until it grows into the greatest of all shrubs and makes room on its large branches for the birds of the air to rest in its shade. Salvation being described as one of God’s automatic processes, like photosynthesis or osmosis or any other natural process. Something God does, something God is always doing. Salvation being as natural and predictable as seeds taking root and bearing fruit. No hint of God’s need for a decision on our part, a commitment on our part, just stories about grace growing like stalks of grain under the summer sun.
It’s actually not a coincidence then that strains of Christianity such as the one we live within have come to talk about justice when we might expect to hear about salvation. Justice is, at its core, concerned with the relationships between people; and it is the relationships between people, or families, or nations that allows them to see themselves as a whole. Decades of court television – The People’s Court or Di
vorce Court or Judge Judy may have tricked us into thinking that justice is just another form of conflict with its own rules for winning and losing but, in its most noble origins and most useful aspirations, justice is the process of restoring people and communities to right relationship. Without justice we cannot live together, and it is only together that we can be saved.
The Baptist preacher Walter Rauschenbusch, living at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, gave us new language for understanding the vital connection between justice and salvation. As the best remembered preacher of the Social Gospel movement, Rauschenbusch taught that the goal of salvation is “saving the social organism… not human atoms.”[i] That’s a shift in how we imagine ourselves. We, as individuals, are not the whole creature, the whole organism. We are atoms, human atoms, joining together to make cells that join together to make tissues that join together to form muscles or bones or organs that work together as a whole to become a body – perhaps even what we in the church call the body of Christ, the fullness of God fully at home in and among all of humanity. That’s how we get saved – together.
Or, in our own time, it has been said best by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Like Ezekiel held captive in Babylon, but dreaming of a future when God’s Tree of Life will give shade to all the creatures of the earth, Tutu has held on to the conviction that there is no future without forgiveness even in the face of apartheid, even having witnesses the worst that humanity has to offer one another. “The solitary, isolated human being,” he writes, “is really a contradiction in terms…
In Africa recognition of our interdependence is called ubuntu… it is the essence of being human. It speaks about the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness; it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as less than who they are.[ii]
Prophets like Desmond Tutu and Walter Rauschenbusch and Ezekiel and Jesus know that salvation is real, but more than that, they know that it is real only when it becomes reality – when it becomes manifest not just for one of us, or a few of us (as if that were even possible!), but when it becomes the state of being between us. Salvation is the experience for which justice is the precondition.
Which means that salvation is always both now and not yet. Both personal and collective. It means that you and I each have a part to play in salvation, because we are connected to one another in relationships that are torn and need mending. We participate in friendships that are wounded by harsh words or unfair accusations. We belong to families ripped apart by prejudice or the inability to forgive. We work in places where inequalities in pay create disparities in respect and dignity, where some people are treated as though they matter and others as if they were replaceable. We are citizens of countries that pursue the good of their own at the expense of others, as though we could be that neatly separated. We live on a planet teeming with life, but imperiled by our actions, where we have yet to recognize that we are not only vitally connected each to the other, but that we are as a whole completely dependent on an eco-system teetering on the brink of collapse. We have the power, the agency, and the obligation to act in each of these areas to cooperate with God’s plan for salvation, justice, the restoration of right relationships to the whole. A new creation.
But in all of this we can take hope, which is the essence of Christian faith, the water that feeds all our growth, that God is being God. Constantly present, like sunlight, so fully present that we almost fail to perceive it, causing seeds cast on the gr0und to take root and grow and flourish and, in time, to provide enough to feed us all, together.
[i] For an excellent article on the inheritances contemporary Progressive Christianity has received from various previous iterations of the faith, including the Social Gospel movement of Rauschenbusch and others, see Delwin Brown’s “Rediscovering our Progressive Christian Heritage” at: http://transformingtheology.org/blog/2009/03/05/rediscovering-our-progressive-christian-heritage/
[ii] Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 25-26.