(Ephesians 2: 1-10)
A week ago, Henry Jones and I attended a Small Church Workshop that was designed to help small churches with a spark of vitality or life survive. I know, that sounds pretty dire and why were we invited? Are we circling the drain? Do we need to be put on some sort of Methodist life support? The answer is no. We learned that over 50% of the Methodist churches in the Pacific Northwest Conference have an average Sunday attendance of fifty people or less and we fall into that category. In the past, the United Methodist Church relied on large churches in order to survive. You know, pay the bills. I think they are coming to the realization that our strength is not in greater numbers but in the number of Methodists who are on fire with the Holy Spirit and are engaged in active ministry. Apparently, the goal of the Pacific Northwest Conference is to identify those churches and make sure they have the resources they need to continue on in God’s service. To me, it begged the question of what are your intentions regarding those churches considered too small to save or that don’t show signs of life? An interesting question but not where I want to go this morning.
As a part of the discussion at the workshop the facilitator handed out a Salvation Worksheet and the first question asked was for us to define salvation. It was one of those uncomfortable silences as everyone looked at the top of their shoes. I’m thinking that my definition of salvations is saving me from myself, but I kept quiet thinking one of the seminary trained clergy members in the room would give the biblically correct answer. The awkward silence continued as everyone thought to themselves that they knew the answer but didn’t want to run the risk of being wrong. And there was always the possibility that it could be a trick question. Well, we fumbled around and came up with terms like redeemed, redemption and saving grace. Henry googled salvation and came up with a definition, much to everyone’s relief. In any event, we learned that salvation is the “why” of what we do. We do what we do so we, and others, can have a saving relationship with God. We endeavor to make God’s saving love tangible, real.
We were asked; How often do we talk about salvation? It’s one of those conversations that can make the unchurched uncomfortable. Am I saved? Saved from what? We’re afraid that if we initiate such a conversation people will think we’re weird or some sort of a Jesus freak. Too often the concept of being “saved” or “born again” is associated with some disingenuous television evangelist who is only interested in your money to support his extravagant lifestyle. We discussed the need to recover or reclaim the language of salvation. So, before we reclaim the language of salvation it would be a good idea to have a working definition. I googled salvation and came up with: preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss. A second theological definition said; deliverance from sin and its consequences, believed by Christians to be brought about by faith in Christ. Synonyms for salvation were: redemption, deliverance, saving, help and reclamation. Antonyms were: damnation, downfall and destruction.
In our scripture reading for this morning, the Apostle Paul talks about being made alive in Christ. He says; As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of the sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. In short, Paul is saying that we were as good as dead due to the fact that our lives were controlled by our transgressions, our wrongs and our sins. Our lives were controlled through the need to satisfy our cravings for those things that were harmful and of no consequence to leading a rich and fulfilling life. We needed to be saved from that which was dominating our lives, we needed to be redeemed and delivered from a life of unhappiness to one of hope and joy.
Our United Methodist Book of Discipline in paragraph 102, Basic Christian Affirmations, says; We hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture witnesses to the redeeming love of God in Jesus’ life and teachings, his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence in history, his triumph over the powers of evil and death, and his promised return. Because God truly loves us in spite of our willful sin, God judges us, summons us to repentance, pardons us, receives us by that grace given to us in Jesus Christ, and gives us hope of life eternal. I like the Methodist approach as just stated. It tells us that God truly loves us in spite of our willful sinning. Yes, he judges us, but he summons us to repentance where we say we’re sorry. He then pardons us, forgives us and receives us by that grace given to us in Jesus Christ. I like that better than those antonyms of damnation, downfall and destruction. Those are the words of the hell-fire and damnation evangelists who scare people out of their wits and then become alienated from church thinking what’s the use? I can’t stop sinning, God will judge me, and I’ll be damned. Our salvation comes out of the love of Jesus Christ, not from some zealot who seeks to control us with a fear from a vengeful God.
Despite our brokenness, we remain creatures brought into being by a just and merciful God. We are God’s workmanship, works of art, his masterpieces. Why would he want to condemn and destroy us? We were created in his image. Our salvation is something God wants and can do through his powerful, creative work in us because he truly loves us.
So, how do we get this salvation? What do we have to do to earn it? Well, we can’t earn it. It’s by the grace of God that we receive this free gift of salvation. The Book of Discipline goes on to say that grace pervades our understanding of Christian faith and life. By grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit. While the grace of God is undivided, it precedes salvation as “prevenient grace,” continues in “justifying grace,” and is brought to fruition in “sanctifying grace.” The restoration of God’s image in our lives requires divining grace to renew our fallen nature.
This is what Paul meant when he said; But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
My study bible described the path to salvation as a freeway. Everyone has sinned and the penalty for our sin is death. Jesus Christ died for sin and in order to be forgiven for our sin, we must believe and confess that Jesus is Lord. Then, salvation comes through Jesus Christ. You just have to take the right exit.
Through this new covenant we have with God through Jesus Christ, God has given us the opportunity for a new life. Sin’s power has been broken, your sin-loving nature has been buried and you are no longer under sin’s control. You now have a new nature where you share a new life in Christ where you look upon your old self as dead and are, instead, alive to God. You have a new freedom where you are not controlled by sin because you have given yourself completely to God. You are free and can choose to be your own master.
We become Christians through God’s unmerited grace, not as a result of any effort, ability, intelligent choice, or act of service on our part. However, out of gratitude for this free gift, we will seek to help and serve others with kindness, love, and gentleness, and not merely to please ourselves. God’s intention is that our salvation will result in acts of service. We are not saved merely for our own benefit but to serve Christ and build up the church so that people will know we are Christians by our love.
We must never forget our past, the condition from which Jesus saved us. Those memories are the best fuel for our gratitude to Christ for all he has done in our behalf. So, maybe when we were asked at the small church workshop to define salvation, what are you saved from, my answer of being saved from myself wasn’t such a bad answer.
Let us pray.
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt. What a gift! What did we ever do to deserve such a gift? This marvelous gift of salvation saved us from the cold waves of sin and despair that threatened our souls with an infinite loss. Our sins, our transgressions, our wrong-doings that have left a stain upon our lives that we cannot hide. We do not despair because the crimson tide of the blood of Jesus can make us whiter than snow. All we have to do is believe and this marvelous gift will be bestowed upon us and we will see the face of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the moment we receive this grace. We praise God for his love and forgiveness and the cleansing power of his grace that is greater than all our sin. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.