Sermon for 09-12-10: “Salvation, Part 3: Continuing On”

Scripture Text: Philippians 3:4-14

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So there’s an organization calling itself the Freedom From Religion Foundation who will soon be blanketing the metro Atlanta area with billboards promoting anti-religious messages, un-belief, and atheism. They want people in the Bible Belt to join their cause. One of the billboards will urge passers-by to “Sleep in on Sundays.” As a pastor for the past six years, I can say with great confidence that Americans’ right to sleep in on Sundays is not under assault. Unfortunately! No, listen… I would love to simply laugh this group off. But I don’t like these billboards, I’ll be honest. It feels deeply disrespectful and unfair—not to mention intrusive.

I have children who I’m trying to raise as Christians, after all, and now I’ll have to explain to them, as we drive by in the car, the meaning of “Heathens’ Greetings.” I can monitor and control what they watch on TV, what they read, and what they do on the internet, but these billboards are there for everyone to see. So that bothers me.

The group claims that they’re the free-thinkers. Well, if they’re into thinking, I’m confident I can think with the best of them; I would love to invite them to church, and we can reason together. But this is just juvenile. So I want to laugh it off, but it bothers me—in exactly the way they intend to bother people like me. So mission accomplished… Congratulations, FFRF!

But you know what else bothers me? Last Saturday my son Townshend and I are nearing the intersection of North Avenue and Techwood, on our way to the Georgia Tech football game, and there is a guy who is preaching through a megaphone in a very aggressive way about hell and the torment that awaits so many of us passers-by who fail to repent and believe in Jesus in whatever manner he deems acceptable. To be clear, I believes that hell exists—and I believe that hell is a real and troubling possibility for people who don’t have a saving relationship with God through Christ. Fortunately, final judgment is God’s business, not ours; it’s not our job to say who goes there. And since none of us earns heaven by what we do, why should we be proud that we’re going there and others might not be?

It wasn’t simply that this guy was talking about hell. It was that he seemed so eager and happy and pleased with himself that God should send people there! His gospel was not good news; it was bad news—literally a hate-filled message. Think of how children loved Jesus. Children loved him so much that he had to tell his disciples not to send them away. “The kingdom of heaven belongs to children such as these.” By contrast, as we passed this man by, my child said, “That man scares me, Dad!” And just think: Christian literally means “little Christ.” That guy was nowhere close to being like Jesus!

And neither is this pastor in Florida who made headlines threatening to burn Qurans—which is a more offensive gesture to Muslims of good will than these billboards are to Christians. Where does that come from? That kind of hatred? How is that Christian? The Bible says that loving ur enemies is like heaping burning coals on their heads; this preacher his skipped the love part and gone straight for the burning coals! It demonstrates such a massive failure of love. But these are just words and gestures and symbols. Sticks and stones, you know? What about the increasingly widespread sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church and the efforts to cover it up? How badly has this tragic evil harmed that church’s witness for Christ? And before I get on my Protestant high-horse. I was at a Lion’s Club meeting recently. I met a private investigator. I’ve never met one before! Private eye! I’m thinking of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon, you know? So I’m asking him questions about the kind of work he does. He says, completely deadpan, “Many of my clients are preachers’ wives who hire me to find out who their husbands are sleeping with.” I wonder what that private eye thinks about church, about Christians, and about Jesus! It makes me think long and hard about my own witness for Christ.

See, this atheist organization with their billboards bothers me for the reasons I mentioned earlier, but it also bothers me because I’m a little sympathetic! I can imagine why there are people in this world and in our country who think that religion is the root of the problem.

But you and I know better: We know that the root of the problem is the very reason God put his rescue plan for the world through Jesus into effect in the first place: the root problem is sin. As I said two weeks ago: When it comes to sin, we are both victims and perpetrators of it. It is destructive to us and to the rest of God’s good Creation. The promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we and the rest of Creation will be saved from it. Because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross and his resurrection, God has dealt a fatal blow to it. Through faith in Jesus, we get to share freely in Christ’s victory; our sins are forgiven; we become a part of God’s family.

All this happens when we place our faith in Jesus. For most of us—who are children of churchgoers—coming to faith in Christ is a gradual process. We probably don’t even know or remember when we first came to faith. That’s perfectly O.K. If we stood up at confirmation and sincerely said that we believe in Jesus and we’re going to follow him the rest of our lives, that’s good enough! For others of us, it can be a deliberate, dramatic, and life-changing decision, a conversion experience that we remember vividly. Regardless of how it happens, the important point I want to make is that this is only the beginning of salvation.

Sometimes we Christians can make it seem like this first step of salvation is the be all and end all—as if we’ve got our golden ticket, and as soon as we die—in, um, 20 or 30 or 80 years, we’re going to go to heaven. And in the meantime… [pretend to look at watch] Well… what are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to be? How are we supposed to live? What are we saved for?

Do you see the problem with overemphasizing the first part of salvation? The first part is important, by all means: because of what happens in the first part, we may be confident that—like the criminal on the cross next to Jesus—we will at some point in the future, through no merit of our own, be with Christ in Paradise, and that’s wonderful. That’s a great relief, a source of great joy! But the first part can’t be the most important part because why? Because we’re not saved yet! How do we know we’re not fully and finally saved? Because we’re still sinners! Show of hands: Who in here is still a sinner? We’re not proud of that fact; we’re working to change that fact; but it’s the truth!

My pastoral care professor at Emory, Dr. Rodney Hunter—who I loved as one of the kindest and most sweet-hearted souls I’ve ever meet—talked about an A.A. meeting that took place in the basement of the large, affluent Presbyterian church that he attended. He had a friend who was alcoholic who was in this particular A.A. group. Once, while Dr. Hunter was going into the sanctuary for worship—alongside his fellow well-dressed, well-groomed, good-looking, respectable, proper, and elect Presbyterian brethren, he saw this group of rather grungy, unkempt, and desperate-looking alcoholics coming up from their recently-dismissed A.A. meeting down in the basement. Dr. Hunter’s friend was among them. And his friend greeted Dr. Hunter and motioned down to the basement and said, “You’re going the wrong way. The real church meets down there. That’s where church really happens.” That’s where church really happens.

Maybe his friend was onto something. I mean, here is a group of people who know that they are sinners; and they gather together in solidarity with their fellow sinners—with nothing to hide; confessing to one another as best they can the full extent of the damage that they’ve done to themselves, to their spouses, to their family and friends. They know they are helpless and in desperate need of help. They know that they are completely dependent upon God to rescue them from this crisis that their sin has caused. They are trying their best to stay on the wagon and not sin again. They hold one another accountable. And they work to undo the damage that they’ve done. How is that not church?

Except for the fact that we’re too often not like that at all! Groucho Marx famously joked, “I wouldn’t belong to any organization that would have me as a member!” Church exists to be that kind of an organization—we welcome sinners because we are sinners ourselves. Someone said once that sharing our faith with others is, “One beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We’re all beggars. At every moment of our lives, we need God’s grace. At every moment of our lives, we depend on God’s grace. At every moment of our lives, we know that there is nothing we bring to the table that merits the incomprehensible love that God has shown us. It’s all a gift. When we arrive safely in God’s kingdom on the other side of resurrection, even the most saintly saint among us will have gotten there only because of what God has done for that person through Jesus Christ.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to do in the meantime. In fact, the meantime is mostly what being a Christian is mostly about! Getting started through faith and baptism is an incredibly important part of salvation, but what we do between that time and when we die is also incredibly important!

What the world needs to see from the Church is not simply Christians who have been “saved” in the past tense but Christians who are being saved in the present; Christians who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are overcoming sin in their lives; Christians who are bearing witness to the love of Jesus in the world; Christians who are embodying the love of Jesus in the world; Christians who are continuing the ministry of Jesus; Christians who are living under the authority of God’s kingdom now; Christians who, like Paul, are not living as if they’ve already finished the race and obtained the goal, but who are pressing on: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” pressing on “towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

We can change—or, more accurately, the Holy Spirit can change us; but we have a responsibility to take time each day to pray, to read and study our Bibles, to make time for worship, to use the gifts God gave us in Christian ministry. It takes effort. It takes time. It takes discipline. We do it, not because we think we’re earning God’s grace—because we can’t do that. We do it because God knows that through this work we get what we most deeply desire; this work is nothing less than the means by which we find true and lasting happiness in life.

I did something last week that I haven’t done in years… I practiced guitar. Really practiced. What I mean is that I practiced not with the goal of being able to play a particular song, which I already do from time to time, but with the goal of playing any song better. I practiced in order to improve my chops, my skills, my technique, my speed, my ear. Everything. I hope to make this a part of my routine.

I was inspired to practice after attending a friend’s party recently. It was an open mic-type thing and jam session: one person would play and sing a song, and everybody else would play along. There was a guy there playing electric guitar all night—and he was good! Not Gary Wilder good, but good. And I wanted to be like Johnny in the “Devil Went Down to Georgia” and say, “You’re pretty good ol’ son/ But sit down in that chair right there, and let me show you how it’s done.” But I couldn’t!

I wanted to jam; I wanted to solo; I wanted to find just the right note; just the right chord. I wanted my fingers to fly across the fretboard and dazzle the audience. But my fingers couldn’t go where I wanted them to go and do what I wanted them to do. I kept hitting the wrong note; I wasn’t fast enough to find chords I was looking for. Because of my lack of practice, my lack of discipline, I couldn’t do the thing I most wanted to do—the thing that would have brought me joy in that moment. But you know what? That can change. And it’s going to change. I’m going to keep working at it until playing the way I want to play becomes second nature.

This is a little bit like what it means to live a Christian life. We’ve got to work at it. We’ve got to practice. And even when we fail, we have to get back up and keep on running. In fact… we’ve got to keep pressing on.

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