Friday, 27 April 2012

What does it mean to be saved?

Peter Lockhart

“There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

What does it mean to be saved?

And more specifically, what was Peter on about, filled with the Holy Spirit, when he made this claim?

Salvation means different things to different people. Talking to people these days it can mean:

1. Being healed from some distress or pain in this life now.
2. Getting to go to heaven.
3. Getting to avoid hell! (which are of course two different things)
4. Knowing God and his Son Jesus
5. Being drawn into God’s life
6. Serving God
7. Being accepted back into the community we long for
8. And various combinations of the above.

What determines how any of us talk about salvation is usually determined by what we have been taught and or what is happening in our lives, that is to say the particular moment we find ourselves in.

If we are facing illness salvation will be healing, if we are facing death salvation may involve a hope in heaven or a fear of hell, if we are immersed in war or conflict salvation will mean homecoming and peace, if we are lost and alone salvation will mean being found and restored to community.

This week the media has once again challenged us to think deeply on the meaning of salvation and its implications for we who are Christians. We may have remembered the horror and sorrow of war on ANZAC Day; we may have considered the questions of the future of this planet as we listened to Bob Brown on Q&A or on the ABC special about Climate Change; we have been challenged by the mystery of the disappearance of a friend; we have heard of the potential loss of jobs and livelihoods.

These are just to mention a few of the stories of our lives and the world around us, for each of us is confronted by the brokenness in our own lives and of the world. These personal challenges alongside the global disarray which are the backdrop to our lives can sap our souls. What does it mean to speak of salvation?

When we listen to Peter speaking in the book of Acts there is a danger that we hear that salvation is only meant for an exclusive group and too often people that think in this way also think that their group is the one group that will be saved.

On his blog D. Mark Davis writes that he thinks of this particular verse as the most misused piece of scripture in the Bible. I actually suspect there are a few contenders for this title, but his point his clear. He writes, “This verse seems to bring out the worst of Christian triumphalism and intolerance. It has been used to deny the legitimacy of any other form of faith or religious insight, even those religions which would have been unknown to Peter when he made this claim.”

The issues raised by Davis about what salvation means are explored a little more fully by Rob Bell in his controversial book “Love Wins”.

The problems for us who are reading the story away from its context miss its subtlety and its background. We miss significance of the confrontation between the temple authorities and this pair of rag tag itinerant so called prophets. We quick possibly slip out of the specifics of the healing of the paralysed man as a witness to Jesus’ authority and into making generalisations. We forget too that we have lived for almost 1600 years with the authority of Christendom a amnesia that has come upon us quickly as we find ourselves as Christians no longer in the centre.

So what does Peter mean when he declares, “There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

In thinking about this one thing which we should consider carefully is that the word saved can also be translated as healed. If we look at the scriptures and the language which is used the word translated as salvation often simply, and somewhat at times miraculously, meant healed. In ancient times healing and restoration to community were very much at the heart of salvation.

Salvation was the healing of those who were sick, the breaking of drought with rain and a good harvest, the defeat of an enemy.

So given the context, maybe Peter was saying, “There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be healed.”

The healing of the paralysed man would have restored him to the community. It would have given him the opportunity to function again, alongside others, to live an abundant life. In the act of healing though there was also witness to Jesus as the author of that healing and as the one in whose name God longs for salvation for all peoples.

Reading the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia we hear about what God was up to in Jesus:

Jesus himself, in his life and death, made the response of humility, obedience and trust which God had long sought in vain. In raising him to live and reign, God confirmed and completed the witness which Jesus bore to God on earth, reasserted claim over the whole of creation, pardoned sinners, and made in Jesus a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love.

God’s completed work in and through Jesus is the reconciliation of God with the whole creation and the beginning of a new order of righteousness and love.

If we connect the work of church with Jesus’ life and the vision of salvation as healing it is little wonder that the church has done so much in history to seek to heal others.

At the beginning of his book “Atheist delusions” David Bentley Hart briefly outlines the care of Christians for lepers and the sick through the ages. We remember the beginnings of hospitals of we know them.

Salvation is about healing and not just physical. Quoting once again from the Basis of Union:

The Church's call is ... to be a fellowship of reconciliation.

The reconciliation of God is the peace established between God and humanity but the benefits which flow are the breaking in of abundant life now. Not simply when people are healed of illness, but when peace is restored, when the sick are fed, when the prisoners are visited, when the lost are found.

The healings and reconciliation done in Jesus name are signs, signs of the promise of God’s healing in Jesus, for the whole creation.

The Church lives between the time of Christ's death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.

When salvation occurs anywhere it can be used as sign of God’s promise of salvation: salvation which is tangibly experienced as we wait for the fullness of the coming of the new creation. It is a coming that may occur beyond our own death but in the resurrection of Jesus we find hope that we will be included in this promised future.

These glimpses of this future are celebrated and deepened in our gathered worship when we come to worship our risen and ascended Lord, when we hear the Word preached and taste of the eternal feast in the bread and the wine.

Our worship gives us hope not because we like the style of music, or because we find we have some psycho-spiritual needs met but because here we remember and name Jesus as the one who is the source of healing and hope for all peoples. There is no other name under which people are healed, or saved, and in our naming of that the whole earth can find hope again.

Salvation is the promise and province of God. This week as I have struggled personally through a difficult week I have been reminded by the scriptures that God’s will for salvation is not just something out there and our longing for salvation is not about dying and getting to go to heaven. Salvation is about being healed of the pains of this life and living in the fullness of life.

This is what we long for. It is what we hope for. Whilst there may be some limitations of our experience of the fullness of God’s grace as we face the mystery of suffering in our own lives and the world around us, we can and do see that God does break in to give us hope even amidst the most terrible of situations and gives us the reassurances of a future when all of the suffering of this age will pass.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Psalm 23

Peter Lockhart

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”

Is this really so?
Is this how you experience and think about life?

I know that ‘I want’ and that I live in a society that plays deeply on those wants. Just think about it for a moment... what do you want, what are you taught to want?

Psalm 23 begins with the notion that the sheep will not want because they have things provided for them by the Shepherd: a chance to rest, green pastures and still waters.

We live in a consumerist society that thrives on teaching us to want. Wanting more and more and more:

I want a new car.
I want a flat screen TV and a Blue Ray player.
I want more apps for my iphone.
I want to win lotto.
I want a bigger house.
I want it all...

But it’s not just that we want possessions either – we want things of an emotional and spiritual nature as well.

I want a happy life.
I want to live in safety and security.
I want to be left alone.
I want someone to show that they care about me.
I want someone to visit me.
I want the best for my children and my grandchildren.
I want my husband to be more considerate.
I want my wife to understand me.
I want worship to be more fun.
I want to know God loves me.
And I want to die peacefully in my bed.

I want and I want and I want.

All this wanting seems somewhat ironic when you think about how comparatively wealthy and free we are in Australia. When you consider our access to housing, to food, to education, to healthcare, to freedom in worship and so on.

One would think we would have realised that we do not really want for much. It brings to my mind that great Rolling Stones song, “I can’t get no satisfaction”.

There are signs of this everywhere: the increasing size of houses, people constantly upgrading their technology, a growing proportion of the population with obesity, the increase of anxiety disorders in our Western culture.

The cost of saying “I want” is great. Not just to our culture but also to those places around the world where our Western materialism is propped up by people who earn next to nothing, who could even be considered slaves and sometimes literally are, who live in squalor and poverty to provide us with the things that we want.

So with all of this wanting around us and in our own lives us wel and with the consequences it brings. How do we read those well loved words?

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”

For so many of us this Psalm is so special.  We hold it dear: it has been a source of comfort for us in difficult times.  In my experience, it is the most commonly requested Psalm for funerals.

Yet it is precisely this familiarity with the words and possibly even our sentimentality about them that makes it difficult to hear just how challenging they are.

Often they come across like just another platitude; words to make us feel good when we are feeling down.

For those of us with faith continuing to want. Whether it be at a material, emotional or even spiritual level somehow seems at odds with the message:

“I shall not want”

As much as we would desire our faith to be a straightforward thing being realistic for most of us it comes with just a little more than a modicum of confusion and struggle. Most of us seek to keep up our appearances in terms of our faith. We avoid exposing our doubts or fears or the fact that we want all these things.  When the 23rd Psalm seems to tell us we should no longer want anymore.

Maybe it would help us to think in a different direction as we consider what it means not to want.

The context given for the Psalmist not wanting is:

“The Lord is my shepherd”

As Christians we naturally read the idea that the Lord is Shepherd through the lens of the 10th chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus says:

“I am the good shepherd”

In John’s gospel this becomes a clear point of contention with Jesus’ audience who do not miss the connection that Jesus’ makes between the notion of the Lord, that is to say God, being a Shepherd and Jesus claiming to be the Good Shepherd.  In the same chapter Jesus goes on to make the claim, “I and the Father are one”.

It is here that we begin to tread on Trinitarian ground.  The unity of the Father and Son is expressed in their common title of Shepherd and Lord who watch over the sheep so that they do not want.

Returning to Jesus’ word, “I am the good shepherd.” He then goes on to assert, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Given we have just traversed Good Friday and the Easter story the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection remains fresh. What does it mean for Jesus to lay his life down for us as the Good Shepherd?

It means that Jesus himself becomes one of the sheep as is inferred in Isaiah 53.  This is often read on Good Friday:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

This is completely consistent with the opening theme of John’s gospel, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” or of the words in Philippians 2 which describes the self emptying of Jesus as he takes on our human flesh and shares in all that being human means:

Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Here is something astounding and amazing which comes to us as good news, "The Lord who is my Shepherd" exposes himself in Jesus to all of the fears and anxieties, our sense of alienation and yes even our Godforsakeness in death and so says to us, "There is nothing that you will face that I have not.  There is no where that you will go that I have not been."

Understanding what it means that Jesus is both the Shepherd and also identifies himself with the sheep have a couple important implications in terms of all of those things that we think we want.

First, We will not be left wanting for a God that does not understand us.  We not be left wanting for a God who wants to stay at arm’s length, in heaven, as it were, untouched by what means to be created. God’s love for us is just so deep that Jesus, the Shepherd himself, walks through valley of the shadow of death as one of the sheep.

This connection of Jesus life with ours is a two way street.  Not only does Jesus becomes one with us but we become one with him in both his death and his risen life.
Jesus, in John 12, indicating the kind of death he is going to die, declares

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all people to myself.”

Being drawn into Jesus’ death means that we are also given a share in his risen life.  No longer counted as lost sheep we have been led home in him.

The Spirit poured out on the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection, that same Spirit that came upon the people at Pentecost, opens our hearts and minds to this new reality.

This is a message of hope, that our relationship with God has been reconciled and restored, that God does not desert us when our enemies are before us nor when we are facing the horror of our mortality.  God has lived and died with us as one of us – he is both shepherd and sheep - and so we are not left wanting in our relationship with God.

Secondly, when we consider all of the things we want we can put them in a new perspective.

Given that we know the good news that God has reconciled and renewed us in and through Jesus we can begin to understand that life isn’t just about what I think “I want”.
Just as Jesus gave himself for the sake of the world, so we who have encountered this good news are challenged to think upon our not wanting. Not simply because what we want has been provided by God but because it is the starting point for considering whether what we want should be the focus of our existence rr whether we should first consider what others need.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

These words can reassure us: the Shepherd walks with us; we are not alone. In our union with Jesus we can say with confidence

I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

These words can also call us to share in Jesus ministry, reaching out to those who are in desperate need and as we do so proclaim God’s compassion for those whom may not yet know Jesus as their Shepherd, even though he has already laid his life down from them.
As Jesus declares in John 10 verse 15 and 16

And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also,
and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Words of love, of hope, of compassion, of challenge, of liberation for all peoples on the earth.

So I wonder, in the midst of your wanting on this day, "What do you hear in these simple yet profound words of hope?"

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Who then is saved?

by Peter Lockhart

Salvation is one of those tricky terms that is interpreted in a range of different ways.  In the sermon I posted here I suggested that their was not necessarily a direct correlation between belief in God and salvation, as if it were our 'belief' which saved us.  Thinking later about this I was reminded of the quote by Alexander Khomiakof the Russian Orthodox theologian who wrote the following sometime in the middle of the 19th century.

“The rest of mankind (sic), whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her, she leaves to the judgment of the great day. The Church on earth judges herself only, according to the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (Khomiakoff in Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church During the Last Fifty Years, p.194)

I particularly like the phrase "united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her".  It carries with it a sense of humility, as opposed to oft found hubris in claims made by various churches about who is in and who is out.  It also reminds me that being drawn into the life of Christ involves acting as the priesthood all believers, which is to say we are given the task of interceding for the world, rather than making decisions or judgments about people who believe differently to me.

This is played out in the liturgy of the church not simply in saying prayers for the world but in our prayer of confession which involves our joining Christ's prayer "Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

Friday, 20 April 2012

The world does not know us

By Peter Lockhart

“The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1 John 3:1)
On the Monday night following Easter I made a conscious decision to avoid watching Q & A which had invited Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell to be panel members. Both are dogmaticians and crusaders for their chosen beliefs, yet neither has much to say which appeals to my thinking or understanding about life, the universe and everything. I anticipated the show would produce the same tired diatribe between atheism and fundamentalism and contribute little to furthering humanity in our relationship with God or each other in any way.

Interestingly the ripples of the debate echoed through the Global Atheism conference held in Melbourne last week into this week’s episode of Q & A. A young woman from the audience asked the question, “Given that 76% of the participants from last week’s qanda-vote agreed that religious belief does not make the world a better place, does the panel believe that religion's blatant discrimination against members of the Australian community has finally become an unwelcome part of Australia's politics, policy & society?”

It would have been interesting to have the atheist author of “Religion for Atheists”, Alain de Botton, answer this question, but even if he or anyone else can prove that religion is good for the world it misses the point and reduces faith and belief to a function of our humanity.

Almost 2000 years ago the infant church was receiving a far more hostile response to its presence in the world. As the earliest witnesses sought to theologise the problem John wrote these insightful words, “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”

It should be of little surprise to us 2000 years on “the world does not know us”. No logical argument can prove God, mind you neither, at least in my humble opinion, can any logical argument disprove God. The great theologian Karl Barth writing in the mid 20th century saw it was not simply a pointless exercise to engage in debate with atheists about the existence of God it was actually counter-productive inasmuch as it gave validity to their position.

No amount of logical and reasoned debate will lead people into a realised and enlightened relationship with God. This comes to us as a gift.

Again John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are children of God by virtue of a gift from God. I will not deny there is exclusivity to this gift, to do otherwise would be naive and the struggle about why some respond to the message of grace whilst others reject it remains a mystery to me.

Having said this I do not necessarily think there is a direct correlation between belief and salvation as if it was our belief in God that saved us. No the action of salvation comes from its author not its recipients, “See what love the Father has given us.”

Through the centuries this has been a real conundrum for Christians of all different allegiances because when any of us respond to God we are more likely to think it is the way that we do this that counts. We have a tendency to define our response and our understanding as the only right one. The result is of course the shattering of the church into the scattered fragments we see strewn across the world today.

It is a shattering and dissension that makes us an easy target for atheists and presents us with another paradox. A paradox that is found in John’s letter, “You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” Once I move beyond the personal confrontation with my own impiety and consider I am yet to meet someone who does not sin, even amongst my most pious of friends, I wonder what John was playing at. Is he simply setting the bar too high? Especially, that given elsewhere in his letter, he seems to be expecting the people within the church will sin.

Maybe Martin Luther’s explanation of Christians at one and the same time sinners and righteous may help us with this reality is that we can see sin and its consequences all around us. Yet despite this reality John’s words confront us with the paradox of what our lives maybe should be. There is no glib acceptance of sin as the way things should be.

Living within the conundrum and paradox of Christianity can make people of faith, no matter how pious and well meaning, appear as hypocrites and meddlers in the lives of others so what is it that we should be doing?

As sons and daughters of God, those who have been the gift of insight into God’s love for the world, we listen for Jesus and his instruction to the disciples.

In his appearance to this disciples following his death we are told by Luke Jesus, “opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’”

The task of we who believe is to be witnesses to what God has already done in Jesus.

Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

The messages of repentance and forgiveness of sins are not easy ones to share in a world that is hostile to even the notion of God’s existence, yet this is our twofold task.

Let me tackle each of these notions separately.

First, the idea of repentance. Repentance is one of our well worn pieces of Christian jargon that we can easily forget is a completely foreign concept to those who are outside the church community.

What does it mean? Well literally turning back to God, turning our faces and our life’s directions towards the one who made us.

As I have said this is a strange concept for anyone but a person who already believes that there is a God. No amount of logic or reason can help us argue this to a person who does not believe or see any necessity for belief in God.

This means that engaging in debate about God’s existence is pointless our task rather is to simply find ways of declaring the faith and hope we have, trusting that God may speak through us.

Let me give one example. The act of saying sorry to the indigenous people of Australia, in particular to the stolen generation, can be used as a parable for what it means for us to be people who turn back to God. We believe in a God who seeks renewal and reconciliation for all people on earth, for the healing of lives and of communities.

In the act of saying sorry to indigenous people the Australian government owned the wrong done and created new possibilities for community and a future together. As imperfect as this may have been and continues to be to me this is what living towards God is about: creating pathways to new possibilities in community via reconciliation.

So if turning back to God is one part of the story what does it mean to proclaim forgiveness of sin?

Well the first thing it means is to deal with the issue that many people do not particularly like the concept of sin nor do we understand it that well.

The word sin is another of those inaccessible jargon terms that can evoke all sorts of responses.

On the ABC Religion and Ethics website one person commented something along the lines that telling children that they were sinners was tantamount to child abuse.

Depending on how the child is told this, when and by whom the person who put the comment up may in fact be right but this does not mean that sin is not a pervasive and difficult issue that all of us, including children, face as human beings.

For me sin is about being in discord with how we are meant to live in God’s creation with one another. Often we reduce sin to the things we do wrong but this glosses over the depth of the problem. The things we do wrong are more like the symptom of the bigger problem.

Declaring forgiveness of sin then to people who do not understand the concept invites into the world of parables again.

Consider the story we are constantly sold in our Western culture that if we have more money and own more things we will be happier. In his book, The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding quotes a number of studies that indicate that this is not actually the case and says that once people have reached a certain level in which their needs are met having more money and more stuff does not actually make us any happier. Moreover, this continued delusion that having more will make us happier has negative consequences on the environment and the culture.

This is what sin is. It is about living in ways which deceive us to what our lives are about. It is always easier to talk about sin as those gross things that other people commit, like theft and murder, than deal with the complexity of our lives which are almost constantly out of kilter with God.

The hope of Christianity that we are called to declare is that in Jesus we are forgiven for our inability to live constructively and faithfully as God’s people in this world and that this forgiveness is to be is “to be proclaimed in his name to all nations”.

None can put parameters on the extent of God’s grace, all we can do is proclaim this good news as we have been called to proclaim it and place our trust in God.

The answer as to why some will respond to the proclamation of God’s love and others do not, does not seem to have any logic to it in my mind, it remains a mystery. A mystery that should be no surprise to any of us because for 2000 years there have been people who simply do not know us nor know or understand anything about the God we proclaim.

Yet this does not mean we simply take a back seat and leave our faith on idle for we are witnesses to this God who loved the world so much that in Jesus he became one of us and who has opened our minds so that we too might share the good news and mystery of our faith, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”