Faith Works 11-2-13
Saints, salvation, and some speculations
If you come from a more mainline and progressive tradition, there are words and concepts you don't hear about so often.
My denomination has many evangelical and conservative members, and in most settings I'm counted as one of them, but any church that practices open communion and open membership is going to be called progressive and even liberal sometimes, and those aren't cuss words.
While affirming that aspect of our history, I have to also admit that we've spent a generation or two avoiding certain words in the wider Christian understanding which we really ought to re-explore, and reclaim.
Evangelism is one, and you've heard me talk in this space about that subject, especially thanks to my friend and colleague Martha Grace Reese, whose best-selling "Unbinding the Gospel" has helped un-oxymoron the phrase "mainline evangelism." At least a bit!
Repentance is another good solid word which has some narrow assumptions attached to it that don't really fit the scriptural and spiritual heft "metanoia" should carry for us. And the whole image of blood, and washing . . . well, I've preached that sermon, and it's another column.
What I want to address today is: salvation. Salvation, "saving souls," and "being saved" are concepts that make folks anxious sometimes because they've become associated with a particular way of experiencing . . . well, experiencing what? That lack of grounding is a big part of what has made many faithful and spiritual people back away from salvation language.
Saved . . . from what? Fair question, and a good place to start. Because I believe that conservative or liberal, spiritual or religious, believer or skeptic, we all need salvation. Yep, I just went and said it. So let me try and explain it.
We need to be saved from: ourselves. Yes, "be your own best friend" and "learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all," but seriously, how did that work out for Whitney? Yes, I am being serious. Maybe your mileage varied, but I have not found that I am my own best friend. I may be my own best tempter, by own best goad and gadfly, but more often than not, I need to be saved from myself, and I don't think that's a "me" thing.
We need to be saved from: others. The pack, the herd, the mob; we hear these calls to be thinner, sharper, sexier, cooler, and we're constantly picking up on the message on the general wavelength – we're off course. Get with the program, hang with the cool kids, don't rock the boat. In mass, at the very least, we need to be saved from the voracious appetites of "others."
We need to be saved from: hopelessness. There's no better way to be lost than to believe you cannot be found. When we abandon hope, all we who enter into that dark wood Dante spoke of at the outset of "The Divine Comedy," we enter into a vast and trackless landscape which we cannot escape on our own.
We need to be saved from: meaninglessness. If life has no intrinsic, intended meaning that goes beyond our momentary hungers and passing fancies, then it is the pursuit of pleasure and precious little else. We starve, in this life, for meaning, and to find it is to be fed.
And of course we need to be saved from: death. Not dying, for which we have palliative care and all the comfort and solace medical science can bring, but death, something we experience most directly when it happens to someone else. As Donne said, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." How shall we be saved from that inexorable tolling?
To which I would heartily reply: the problem with salvation and being saved is that we tend to go at it the wrong way 'round. We don't need to be saved FROM as much as we need to see what we are saved FOR. The theological concept of salvation is the gospel proclamation of grace, of God's gift of wanting us, of loving us, of reaching out to us even when we turn away, and taking ahold of us to rescue and preserve and sustain and SAVE us for an eternal weight of glory, not made with hands (2 Cor. 4:17, 5:1). The glory already experienced by those we call this weekend by name of "saints," a company to which we might aspire to belong. I want to be in that number.
God wants to save us FOR something, so we can be in that number. What that number, that parade, that company of saints is, is beyond our imaginings, but it can be glorious to try.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him what salvation means to you at email@example.com or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.