Sermon for 09-19-10: “Salvation, Part 4: Arriving Home”

Sermon Text: Romans 6:1-11

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The following is my original manuscript.

As some of you may recall, I grew up Baptist; my mother remains a Baptist. She still can’t quite accept that I joined the dark side, but here I am… I have deep appreciation for the Baptist tradition. In fact, there’s a Baptist preacher and evangelist I like and respect a great deal named Tony Campolo. Campolo is Baptist, but he’s not one of those types of Baptists, if you know what I mean. He is aware that there are negative stereotypes and misperceptions about Baptists out there, and when he speaks to audiences of people who aren’t Baptists, as he often does, he immediately tries to put them at ease. He says, “I don’t believe you have to be Baptist to go to heaven… but why take that chance?”

I grew up with some friends down the street, brothers Wes and Tim, who were those types of Baptists. Strict, rigid, perhaps a bit judgmental… In fact, one time Wes really hurt my feelings. I was at his birthday party. He turned 11. He whispered something in another friend’s ear, and I knew he was talking about me. I said, “What did you say?” And he reluctantly volunteered he told his friend that I was not saved. And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “Well, I don’t think you’re saved.” If he could only see me now! Ah, who am I kidding? Now that I’m a Methodist minister, I’ve removed all doubt!

Wes and Tim were Christians who didn’t own a television—out of principle. TV was bad—which is why, when they came over to my house all they wanted to do was watch TV. I myself was a major couch potato when I was a kid, unfortunately, but they wore me out! Even I was like, “Guys, you wanna go outside and throw a ball or something?” They also didn’t get to listen to pop music or rock music—or any music that had drums in it. I’m not making that up. They could listen to hymns or “easy listening.” Their mom always had easy-listening music on in the house: a radio station called WPCH—“Peach”—it was Muzak, elevator music. That genre of music hardly exists anymore. They would take the day’s pop hits and orchestrate them with syrupy strings; you could hardly recognize the original song. “Oh, here’s the Muzak version of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”

For these neighbors, and other Christians like them, the world is spiritually dangerous and mostly evil. The devil was always prowling around the corner looking for someone to devour. And if that’s the case, then the safest thing for us Christians to do is just to separate ourselves from the world in order to avoid being contaminated by it. The vast majority of Christians aren’t this extreme, of course, but many of us share that impulse not to get too mixed up in worldly things—to be separate.

You can probably tell by my tone that I disagree with this impulse toward separatism. I personally don’t think that living like the Amish is the best way to approach the Christian life, but not so fast… These Christians are surely right to emphasize sin and evil and just how badly messed up the world is. How many of us, after all, still think that the world is becoming a better, safer, more just, more peaceful place? Where’s the evidence? Even after World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, didn’t the world heave a collective sigh of relief and say, “We’re not going to stand by and let genocide happen again”? But of course, it has happened again—a million dead in the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1970s; 500,000 dead in Rwanda in the ’90s, and elsewhere for all I know. War continues unabated. Nuclear proliferation continues unabated. I heard respectable economists in the booming ’90s say that recessions are now a thing of the past—we know how to bring the markets under control; we know how to eliminate the business cycle—and keep things from cycling downwards. Obviously that didn’t pan out.

There have been positive developments in our world, to be sure, but it’s often one step forward, two steps back. No wonder there are cynical people who say that all that modern science and technology have done is to enable humanity to kill more efficiently and on a grander scale.

No, this was not what the modern world promised us. When I was a kid in the ’70s, I took to heart the words of Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland jingle in the Carousel of Progress: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow/ Shining at the end of every day.” Tomorrow would be made possible by companies like General Electric—and science and technology and the march of progress… At least as long as the Russians didn’t drop the bomb first. And now we don’t worry much about the Russians dropping the bomb, but that fear has been replaced by many other fears.

There are a lot of perfectly justifiable reasons to be pessimistic about this world. I’m sympathetic with Christians like my former neighbors who are fearful, suspicious, and weary of the world and look forward to a future in a heaven that is far, far away from here. And yet… I mostly don’t experience life in this world that way. Just in the past 48 hours, as one small example, my life has been so incredibly good… I mean, if I just stop and think about it. We celebrated Lisa’s birthday Friday night with good friends and family. Those of us who are musically inclined played instruments and sang music, one of my favorite activities in life. I went running on the Alpharetta greenway, which I greatly enjoy. Yesterday—for me—was a good day for watching college football. I enjoyed my children. I enjoyed getting ready for worship this morning, because I love this job that God has called me to do. And it wasn’t even an unusual weekend, really.

The point is, in my experience, I can’t complain much about life. Inasmuch as I suffer in life, it’s usually because I bring it on myself. There is sin and evil and darkness in this world, but in my experience there’s so much more love and beauty and laughter. Singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright wrote a song recently about a hard-living country singer who was thinking about what the epitaph on his tombstone should say. He said, “Just remember I laughed twice as hard as I cried.” I’ve laughed many more times as hard as I’ve cried. Thank God! How can I not be overflowing with gratitude to God? There are no guarantees in life, and I could die tomorrow, but God doesn’t owe me anything. Every moment’s a gift. Life in this world—in spite of everything else—is so incredibly good.

It’s incredibly good but just… incomplete. We feel this incompleteness sometimes… Even our best and happiest experiences can be tinged with sadness. Have you ever had a great conversation with an old friend over coffee or a beer—and maybe you haven’t seen this person in years—and suddenly the time and distance and circumstances that kept you apart just evaporate, and it’s like your best friends all over again, and you think to yourself, “This is exactly the way life should be; just like this. If only we could hold on to this moment.” But you know you can’t.

We parents may feel the incompleteness of life at various times as our children grow up and reach different milestones. When they graduate high school and leave home and go to college and start becoming adults. We want them out of the house; we want them to grow up and be responsible citizens; but why do they have to leave? Why can’t we just hold onto them a little while longer?

We feel the incompleteness of life most acutely when someone we love dies. It doesn’t even have to be a tragic or unexpected death… I conduct a lot of funeral services as part of my job, and even when the person lives to a ripe old age, I almost always think to myself—or say out loud in my funeral sermon—this person had so much more living to do! So many more grandchildren to love on. So many more holes of golf to play. So many more stories to tell family and friends around the dinner table.

The hardest thing about life in this world is not that the world is such a horrible place but that it has to come to an end in the first place!

The good news, of course, is that in Jesus Christ it doesn’t have to end.

Resurrection affirms that. But not only that. It also affirms that this present world is good—so good, in fact, that God intends to save it. Resurrection is not God rescuing us from this wicked world like a firefighter rescuing people trapped in a burning building; it’s God transforming, renewing, restoring, and fulfilling this good Creation. Completing what is incomplete. It is God bringing heaven down to earth. Resurrection affirms that all these good things that we experience in life—love, intimacy, friendship, laughter, children, beauty, great books, music, sports—are genuinely good. And if we see them through a Christian lens, we see that they are signposts pointing us in the direction of our true home—which is heaven and earth becoming one; resurrection.

So what do we do in the meantime? Sit on our hands and wait for the end of the world; wait for God to give birth to this renewed and restored world?

Hardly! According to Paul, we Christians should be living now as if we are already resurrected—even as we look forward to resurrection at the end of history.

How is that possible?

Maybe it’s a little like this: When I was at Georgia Tech I would sometimes work for hours trying to solve engineering problems. These problems were like puzzles. I would draw pictures to help me figure out what was going on, set up variables and equations, think through theory—then it’s as if the light would come on! I would see the solution! It was right there in front of me—even though the final answer was still a little ways off! Even though I still had to plug in the numbers and do the math to arrive at the final answer. The problem was as good as solved. The answer was a foregone conclusion. I’d think to myself, “I just solved the problem. The rest is just calculus. That’s the easy part!” It came as a great relief.

When Paul saw the resurrected Lord, it was as if he saw the sun rising on the East Coast for the first time in a world that had been in darkness for too long. And then he boarded a Concorde jet to tell the people living on the West Coast about their future—a future filled with sunlight. In Christ we’ve seen the dawn. God has shown us our future. The sunlight hasn’t reached us yet, but we know it’s coming. And that knowledge changes everything for us.

How can life ever be the same?

We will be saved! Because of what God has done for us in Christ! Hallelujah!

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