By Rev. Ellen Sims
One of our nephews recently started a paramedics program. He’s been learning that to save a life, first responders must first assess whom they are saving and what they’re saving the victim from. Then they decide how to save the person.
To understand what the Bible means about being “saved,” these questions might be helpful:
Who needs saving?
What are we saved from?
How are we saved?
I’ll end with a more personalized question for reflection:
What is it that YOU need to be saved from?
Let’s start with who–or what–needs saving. Many Christians today assume individuals need to be saved and thus salvation is an individualized process. In the church of my childhood, people were understood to be “saved” when they repented of their individual sins or invited Jesus into their very own personal and private hearts. It was all very one-on-one with Jesus, even when in church with other people. Other Christians learned that God saves individuals through the church and specifically through its sacrament of baptism, another individuated event. Again, salvation is bestowed on individuals.
But the Bible was written for and about people who were far less individualistic than we are. The ancient near eastern peoples found their identities within their tribes. In that communal culture, your welfare was tied to your community; your group either brought you honor or shame. In the biblical stories, a whole nation needed saving — from famine, from battle, from bondage. So Moses liberated and led a whole nation into a promised land and the freed people sang of their salvation. Demetrius told us last week that when one Israelite, Miriam, displeased God and was removed temporarily from the community, the whole community halted their journey until she healed and could be reincorporated into the group. Sin—and its consequences—were communal.
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, “the people” as a group sin by complaining, and everyone then endures the consequences: “The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you” (Numbers 21: 7). This was a collective sin. Today we’ve forgotten our communal responsibility. When someone in our community causes harm, we forget that all share in the responsibility for correcting injustices or social ills. When systemic racism or homophobia exists, a “we” is responsible—not one bad cop; not one crazy judge.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus explains God sent the Son into the WORLD so that the WORLD might be saved. God loved the WORLD, did not condemn the WORLD, sent the Son into the WORLD so the WORLD would be saved. Do you hear how big is God’s saving work? Salvation that Jesus talks about is a cosmic event.
Certainly individuals commit individual injuries for which they are responsible. But the “darkness” of this world is rarely the result of a solitary individual. Even the unibomber developed in a system. Evil is a system, a force, a collective action, a mob. And in today’s world that collective often looks like a corporation, or a political or religious organization, even an unhealthy family that passes along moral deformity through the generations. We therefore need a sort of collective salvation. Because we can’t extract the individual from the community. There’s collective injury; so there must be collective salvation.
For instance, it’s becoming clear that women’s empowerment and equality are the keys to lifting entire societies out of direst poverty. If you educate and empower the women, you will transform the whole community. If you give men and women in developing societies the same amount of money and support, the women will create greater good for the community. But if women are not included in the “we” of leadership, all suffer. That’s because women inevitably apportion more to educate and care for the children, which lifts up the society as a whole. (When Women Flourish We Can End Hunger, Bread for the World.
Similarly, for the first time in human history we recognize the systemic ways we are destroying our planet. Thus, we realize that system-wide solutions are necessary to prevent global warming. You alone cannot save planet earth by recycling your household paper and plastics. Collaborative ingenuity and implementation on a vast scale must happen if we’re to find cleaner sources of energy, for instance, and save us from environmental disaster caused by greedy groups and complex systems. Who needs saving? Our Hebrew Bible and Gospel readings say the community, the people, the planet itself needs saving. Salvation is no privatized project within one human heart. It is that. But more.
And what are we being saved from?
Most religions, like modern medicine, purport to be in the business of saving humanity from some fundamental problem. Medicine assumes the human problem is illness and death. Some Eastern religions assume the predicament is lack of mindfulness or awareness. Classical Christianity assumes humanity’s problem is . . . sin. But the Bible has actually understood the human dilemma in various ways. The way you diagnose the human dilemma will determine the way you understand the saving solution.
If you’re a recovering Fundamentalist like me, you haven’t used the word “saved” in years—unless you’re talking about much money you spent on groceries because you used those coupons. If you’re like me, every single sermon of your youth could have been titled “How to Get Saved.” So when I speak the words “sin” and “salvation”—rarely uttered here—I see that some of you are starting to break out in hives. Bear with me.
Most of us were catechized into pat answers about S-I-N based mainly on isolated Bible verses:
Who needs to be saved? (All people. “For ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”)
What do they need to be saved from? (Sin, obviously.)
How can they be saved? (“Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”)
I don’t deny sin and evil exist. People regularly do terrible things. I know. Because I do terrible things. And I neglect the good that needs to be done. When I have harmed someone else I need to own that sin, make amends, ask forgiveness, and grow from that difficult experience. Without indulging in self-recrimination.
But not every problem is a result of sin. Hurricane Katrina was not caused by sinful people in New Orleans. And even when there is a human cause, the really terrible sins are rarely the work of just one person. The sinfulness of our warring presence in Iraq is not one person’s fault. Although we might be able to put fully 70% of the blame on Dick Chaney. Global warming is surely a sin against nature. But again, we can’t blame just one person or even just one industry for environmental sin.
Let’s return to our Gospel reading, specifically John 3:17. “God sent the Son into the world . . . so that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
God sent the Son into the WORLD so that the WORLD (not just everyone but everything) might be SAVED through “the Son.”
HOW does Jesus “the Son” save the world?
See verses 15 and 16: “whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Jesus saves. It’s a bumper sticker I can agree with. How does Jesus save?
Scripture and tradition have offered many metaphors to describe the saving work of Jesus. Some zeroed in on and literalized one barbaric metaphor to conclude this: Jesus’s role was to live a perfect life and die in our place to appease a perfection-demanding. Because we are not perfect, and because the penalty of imperfection is death and eternal punishment, one perfect man had to be killed for us to avoid eternal punishment–according to substitutionary atonement theology.
As popular a notion as that may be, in my opinion, atonement through deadly sacrifice cannot be reconciled with a God of love and a God who presumably made up the rules to begin with.
John 3:16 does not mean, to me, that we are asked to assent to a theory about Jesus in order to receive “eternal life.” You have to admit there’s something compelling about the premise that you can be guaranteed eternal bliss and avoid eternal damnation simply by giving intellectual assent to the idea that God asked the beloved and flawless Son to die in our stead. How easy is that?
I reject that interpretation of John 3:16 on several grounds but mainly because I refuse to worship a God who would exact the death penalty–even for big sins. All mainline Christian denominations oppose capital punishment. Why would we expect less from our God? Besides, there are others ways of interpreting this most famous verse in Christian scripture.
I do believe Jesus saves us when we believe in him. But believing IN him doesn’t mean believing facts ABOUT him. The verb pistou, translated as belief, actually means trust or faith in or having the faith of Jesus. The Greek preposition translated as “in” –believing IN Jesus—can also be translated as believing “into or in or through him.” We are not saved by having certain beliefs ABOUT Jesus. We are saved by having the faith OF Jesus. Jesus saves me, again and again, when I adopt his trustfulness in God, when my faith in God’s love defeats my fear of my own finitude.
You and I are not “saved” in this life and in whatever may come afterward—because we think certain ideas or ascribe to certain alleged facts about Jesus or assent to some proposition that makes no sense. We are saved in this life and in whatever else may come because we’ve cultivated the kind of faith that allowed Jesus to live for God fully and not count the cost, to become part of the light that illuminates the good, to trust that love and light are stronger than hatred and darkness. I imagine others in human history have, like Jesus, given themselves so fully to a God of compassion that it could be said that we can be saved by having faith like theirs, too.
If I learn to live my life to its fullest, eternal life starts right now. If I learn to trust that God is love and life and light—not a crazy tyrant who condemns us to death—I’m not spared potential suffering. Jesus certainly experienced pain and death. But I can participate right now in the upside down ways of God. This reversal of the values of Empire is what Jesus preached and enacted. And why he was executed.
Earlier in John 3, Nicodemus asks Jesus how to receive eternal life. Jesus cryptically alludes to the story of Moses saving his people from the poisonous snakes by putting a bronze serpent on a pole and lifting it high for all to see. The paradox is that the instrument of suffering and death, if faced, could free the people. John’s Gospel here is foreshadowing Jesus’s crucifixion, when Jesus will be “lifted up” in his suffering and death on the cross. Like the bronze serpent, Jesus is lifted up high for the people to see. The cross as a horrific image of torture meant to terrorize Rome’s subjects was, paradoxically, lifted up into a saving symbol, a visual repudiation of imperial power. But whereas the serpents among Moses’ people were the cause of human suffering, Jesus hangs in solidarity with human suffering. Having faith like Jesus means to risk vulnerability, humility, humiliation even, and suffering. Being saved by the cross requires a kind of death to our egos and fears. It is saying “no” to the regimes and systems that control the world and “yes” to Jesus, the Suffering Servant.
In that way we lose our lives in order to find new life in the perfection of love we call the Christ. So that the world might be saved.
God whom Jesus trusted, we pause to ask you: What do we need saving from? We are trusting you as we try to live with Jesus’ abandon.