“Salvation is…” Part 3 of the Sermon Series, What It Means to Be Christian Rev Dr Durrell Watkins I think a lot of us grew up hearing that faith was something we had to get right, and if we didn’t get it right before we died, we’d be in big trouble forever and ever and […]
Part 3 of the Sermon Series, What It Means to Be Christian
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
I think a lot of us grew up hearing that faith was something we had to get right, and if we didn’t get it right before we died, we’d be in big trouble forever and ever and ever. It didn’t matter that some people lived 14 years and others lived 99 years. Even if you got short changed in the longevity department, you still had to figure it out and get it right before the end of your life or you’d be punished forever after death. And this attitude has done some real psychological, and let’s be honest, physical damage to people in our world.
I once visited a young man in a care facility. His mother was a member of a fundamentalist church and she couldn’t reach out to her church to minister to her gay son dying from AIDS complications (they wouldn’t be receptive to her); so she reached out to me. I visited her son, and he was so weak, so sick, so exhausted, but he was too afraid to die. The only thing keeping him alive was fear of meeting a judgmental deity after death whom he was sure was prepared to reject him and send him to a hell of never ending torment, simply because he was gay.
If there was anything that would send you to a never ending torture chamber, does it make sense that same-gender love and attraction would be it? Even some vigorous slap and tickle…you might not approve, but that deserves an everlasting smack-down? How ridiculous does that even sound?
Anyway, I didn’t have time to teach this young man about the omnipresence that God is, the unconditional love that God is, a love that could never let him go, a love that would never create a hell, much less abandon anyone to it.
What I did do was remind him that his mother loved him, unconditionally. His mother loved him so much that she wouldn’t rest until she found a minister who would visit him and offer him comfort. I asked him, “do you trust that your mother loves you and always will?” He said, “yes.”
I then said, “don’t you think God loves you at least as much, that God would never stop loving you, that God would never abandon you?” He said, “I would like to believe that.”
And I quoted Isaiah 66, where we read the writer imagining God saying, “Like a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”
And then I said, “I promise you, God loves you at least as much as your mother does. Your mother would never abandon you, and neither will God.”
He was willing to consider that just maybe, God was better than he had been told, that God was love, and that love would never reject anyone for any reason. That night, he died peacefully in his sleep.
That young man was saved that day; not from an afterlife hell, which I could never believe exists, but form the hell in his own mind, the hell of believing that in the ocean of life, God was a bloodthirsty sea monster.
The last words he heard in this life were words of comfort, words affirming his sacred value, words telling of divine Love that would never let him go. Oh he was saved, but not from an afterlife prison, but rather from fear of an afterlife prison.
Just a couple of years ago I received an email from a woman whose ex-husband had died. She was afraid that the circumstances of his death meant that her ex-husband, the father of her children, would be judged, condemned, and rejected by God.
I assured her, “God is omnipresent; that means that God is present everywhere, God is fully present everywhere. There’s not a spot where God is not. And so your ex-husband couldn’t possibly be separated from God. God was with him when he took his last breath, and God was with him the second after that and forever.”
She thanked me for the words of comfort. She was saved from the fearful belief that God would ever abandon anyone for any reason.
Oh, I believe in salvation, but salvation for me isn’t fire insurance. It isn’t trying to persuade God to keep some of God’s children from spending forever in a hell that God created. That is a scenario I don’t buy and one I certainly won’t sell.
The idea of a good God and a destructive spirit battling for souls with the faithful going to paradise after they die and the wicked being damned is an idea that comes from Zoroastrianism. The language of that mythology was adopted by those who had been exposed to Persian culture, and so we see some of that language in our New Testament.
However, when we look at the whole of our scriptures, we see that our biblical writers weren’t terribly concerned with an afterlife. Hades and Sheol just meant “death”, and Hell (named for the Norse goddess of death), was used sometimes as a metaphor to imply mental anguish, but sometimes also to translate Hades and Sheol, words that just meant “death.”
When Jesus tells Peter to build a movement against which the gates of death shall not prevail, the King James mistranslates that as “hell.”
In his book, Convictions, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg tells us that in scripture and in early Christianity, salvation wasn’t about escaping a literal hell or earning a place in a literal heaven. Grace, he reminds us, is a free gift, unearned, unmerited. We can’t win it and we can’t lose it. We don’t have to believe a thing or do a thing or belong to a group to receive the grace that is freely given to all life.
Ephesians 2.8 tells us, “You have been saved by grace through faith…”
Far too many have understood that to mean that if we hold the right beliefs or do what our faith tradition demands, we will be saved. But that isn’t grace, that is a successful barter or exchange. Saved by grace through faith means that we are saved by God’s grace, a free gift that can’t be earned, won, or lost.
But what about “through faith”? Faith is trust. God trusts that we are good enough, that we deserve the gift of grace simply because we are part of the creation that God calls very good. It isn’t our faith that seals the deal; it’s God’s faith in God’s own handiwork, which we are. We are saved, that is, we are whole, perfect, and complete, by the free gift of grace, which is given to us because God has faith in us as God’s own creation. The faith that imparts the grace is God’s faith in us!
Now, let us assume that we are good enough, that God will never abandon us or give up on us, that we are forever, as Emerson said, part and parcel of God. That means we don’t have to be saved from an afterlife hell. So from what are we saved?
Marcus Borg, in his book Convictions, asks the question, “If God loves us, if grace is real, can we imagine that God punishes some people in hell forever?”
Sometimes the fire and brimstone crowd will say, “Yes, like a parent, God loves us, but also like a parent, God will punish us.” They forget that a good parent disciplines, but discipline isn’t mere punishment. Punishment is revenge…making someone pay for violating a rule or offending someone. Discipline teaches us something.
Discipline makes us think about things differently so we grow and become better than we were. Punishment is just being forced to pay a price; discipline teaches us something to make us better. Disciples, which means students, are learners. Discipline helps us learn; not suffer, but learn. We become better, not more miserable, from discipline.
Discipline doesn’t last forever and it isn’t about making us suffer; it’s about making us better so that we suffer less as time goes on. No disciplinary action involves torture, and no disciplinary action lasts forever. If we want to compare God to a loving parent, then everlasting torture can’t even be part of the discussion!
The worst of parents wouldn’t punish a child forever!
Discipline teaches, and once the lesson is learned, the disciplinary action is over. The threat of everlasting torment does not allow for learning, for improvement, for restoration, or for the time of discipline to come to an end.
The bible talks about salvation as
~ the kin-dom of God, which is this world becoming the world of justice and peace it is meant to be.
~ as personal transformation, where an individual becomes better than she or he once seemed to be.
~ as being rescued or liberated from oppression.
~ as healing and wholeness.
~ and as enlightenment, insights that lead us to deeper understandings and a broader vision of life.
All of these experiences are what is meant by “salvation” and they have to do with living in the here and now. We don’t need to be saved from the next life, because that will take care of itself. God is good and will love us and hold us in this life and in whatever lies beyond this life.
What we need to be saved from is degradation, despair, fear, and hopelessness in this world so that we can live the blessed, abundant lives we are meant to live.
We all have sacred value. We can never be separated from God.
God is unconditional, all-inclusive, everlasting Love.
This is salvation, we all get it, and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
I am a person of sacred value.
I am saved from despair, degradation, and hopelessness.
I am forever safe in the Love that God is.
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