Faith United Methodist Church
April 30, 2017
Third Sunday of Easter
Rev. Kristabeth Atwood
Scripture: Acts 2:14a, 36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23
Prayer for Illumination (Unison):
We will pay our vows to the Lord, in the presence of God’s people. We will pay our vows to the Lord, as we purify our souls through obedience to God’s enduring word. Amen.
And may the words that I speak and the thoughts that we form be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.
Sermon: What Does It Mean to be Saved?
A while back, while shopping in the chip aisle of the grocery store, a woman asked me, “Are you saved?” At first I was taken-aback. That’s not the kind of question I’m used to fielding while deciding between Nacho Cheese and Cool Ranch Doritos. I managed to mumble out a, “Yes,” after which I received a series of follow-up questions. It was at that point that I realized that she and I had completely different ideas of what it means to be saved.
The questions she asked me were about the things that I do and the things that I believe that would, to her, “prove” I’ve been saved. Do you go to church every Sunday? Do you read the Bible every day? Do you pray? Tithe? Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven? You see, I don’t believe that we have to do anything to be saved. I believe that God’s love saves us and God’s love isn’t something we can earn or deserve. It is a gift. As we teach our Confirmation youth, God’s grace is a free gift given to us without price. We can’t tithe our way into heaven or pray our way into heaven or read our way into heaven or even believe our way into heaven. We are not saved because of anything that we do. Our salvation is all God’s doing.
Yet, for us mainline Protestants the “Are you saved?” question can get a little tricky. Even today it feels a bit presumptuous to me to answer, “Yes.” I mean, I can hope….but how can I presume to know the will of God. And I’ve had this conversation before when the questioner has asked for details. When? Where? How was I saved? I was raised a United Methodist from birth. There is no single moment I can point to when I knew God’s saving love was for me. It was more of a gradual thing, happening between Sunday school and church camp and potluck dinners.
I was about 12 when I first felt what I would later come to define as a call to ministry. Yet even now, thirty years later, I still have moments when I feel I understand God’s saving love in new and surprising ways. For me, to say that I was saved at a particular moment, in a particular place, would diminish God’s continuing work in my life. But that’s just me. I know others have very different experiences of salvation, which is part of the beauty of God’s individual, specific love for each of us. God gives us what we each truly need.
Indeed, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, appreciated the variety of believers’ experiences of salvation. Wesley didn’t profess a simple formula for salvation, but rather, a way of salvation. The way for one person may be much different than the way for another. One may experience an earth shattering moment of conversion, while another comes to a gradual realization of God’s love, like my experience. As Peter promised the crowds in our reading from Acts, “….you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The work of the Holy Spirit is not one-size-fits-all, but personal to each one of us. Yet even within this variety, Wesley affirmed that, while the scenery might be different, the way leads in the same general direction.
The way always starts with us in all our humanity, what we Christians call sin. Sin can manifest itself in all sorts of different ways. Charles Welsey, in his hymn Depth of Mercy, writes, “I have long withstood his grace, / long provoked him to his face, / would not hearken to his calls, / grieved him by a thousand falls. / I my Master have denied, / I afresh have crucified, / oft profaned his hallowed name, / put him to an open shame.” Does any of that sound familiar? We sin when we do things we shouldn’t do and fail to do things we should. If we take a look at all our sin, in the many ways it manifests itself, it’s hard to believe God would give us a second look.
But God does. God gives us a first look, and a second look, and a third look. God works in our life through little ‘nudges’ before we are even aware of it. ‘Nudges’ that help us see where we might have gone off the right path. ‘Nudges’ that encourage us to take a fresh look at our life. Your ‘nudges’ might be different than mine. But, if we follow them, these ‘nudges’ can lead us to see our life in a new way and desire to change, a new way to live. This is what some people call being born again, or being born of the Spirit. As Peter wrote to the early Christians, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”
Australian theologian William Loader explains it this way, “Being born of the spirit is talking not about a new mystical height of experience but about a way of living out of the life of God in the world…The focus is life. The means is relationship. The motive is love.” In this way salvation happens in this life, not just the life to come. Living in love, born out of the experience of God’s grace, is the way of salvation.
I am thankful that Wesley affirmed that, even within the way of salvation, the work of the Spirit can be surprising and not at all predictable. So with all this ambiguity and unpredictability, how can we know if we are saved? That’s a good question. It isn’t possible, in our humanity, to understand how God could love us so much. That is the mystery of it all. As William Willimon preached in a sermon during Lent in 1999, “We are on the way to the cross, not because of what we have done or left undone, but because of what God has done.” Our salvation is all God’s doing
The new friend I met in the grocery store chip-aisle probably didn’t get what she hoped for out of me. I image she probably wanted me to attend her church. I told her that I am pretty busy on Sunday mornings, but I would pray for her and her church. But still, our conversation got me thinking, and maybe it got her thinking, too. While I wouldn’t say that attending church or reading the Bible or tithing or praying prove that we are saved, I would say that all of those things can be fruits of our salvation. Things that we do because we want to grow closer to God that, over time, become things that we do out of joy because we are so grateful for what God has done for us.
So, with that in mind, how would you answer the question of the day? Are you saved? Today I might answer that, “Yes, by God’s great and incomprehensible grace, I am journeying on the way of salvation.” Thanks be to God! Amen.