It's like those Christians have a different word for everything: 1) Salvation
Hespeler, 3 January, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 14:22-33, Acts 16:25-34; Psalm 106:6-13, 19-21
ne of my favourite Steve Martin comedy routines goes like this: “Let me give you a warning, okay.” he says on his album, A Wild and Crazy Guy. “I was in Paris about two months ago and – it was just a little vacation, I was on the east coast, I had seven days off and said ‘Well, I’ll just go over there and go to Paris.’ But let me give you a warning if you’re going over there. Here’s an example: chapeau means hat. Œuf means egg. It’s like those French have a different word for everything! See, you never appreciate your language till you go to a foreign country that doesn’t have the courtesy to speak
I like that routine because it is an important reminder that language matters and sets us apart from one another. But, even more important, it reminds us that when you live in a unilingual environment – when, in your day-to-day life, you go without meeting people who can’t speak your language as most people in North America do – it is so easy to forget the huge barrier that language can be. It becomes a bit of a shock to realize that there are other people in the world who cannot speak like you do.
I thought that was rather interesting because it seems to me that, in many ways, the church today is dealing with the same issue. The Christian church in North America has a language that we speak amongst ourselves that is largely unintelligible to the world around us. But, because we live in the unilingual world of the church, it can be easy for us to forget that and to be shocked when other people don’t understand or misunderstand what we are saying.
It is not that the church has “a different word for everything” though. In most cases, we actually seem to make sense to the world, but the world is understanding something completely different from our words.
Another symptom of this issue is that it also creates problems of misunderstanding inside the church too. Our own people become unsure of exactly what we mean by some of the things we say. Let’s take one simple word that we use all of the time in the church: the word salvation. Salvation is a very common word in the world around us. Salvation is, after all, just a word that means the act of saving. And people talk about saving all the time.
People probably talk most often about saving with the meaning of setting things aside or storing things up: “I saved up my money for my retirement.” or “I saved $100 at the Boxing Day sale,” someone might say. People also talk about saving in terms of rescuing people from dangerous situations: “The fire department saved twenty people when the building caught on fire.” or “Batman saved the citizens of Gotham City from the Joker.”
But when we talk about salvation in the church, when we talk about being saved and needing a saviour, do we mean that same thing? Not really. Most of the time we have some very particular saving in mind. In the church, it seems, people only need saving from one thing: sin – or maybe two things: sin and hell.
It is a major limitation on the meaning of a very rich and full word when you narrow it down to only apply to being saved from one very specific thing. But that is what salvation seems to mean in the church. It is what it means to call Jesus saviour. And our restrictions on the meaning of the word sometimes cause us problems. I remember, for example, back in my university days, I went away to an Evangelical Christian conference for about week. Most of the plenary sessions took place in a large conference hall and, part way through the week, the organizers noted that people trying to get all of their friends to sit together were causing problems by reserving large blocks of seats and not letting anyone else sit in them. So, about half way through the conference, a sign went up at the entrances to the hall: “Saving seats is not permitted in the assembly hall.”
Well, people complained immediately. “Are we not evangelicals,” they asked. “Do we not believe that Jesus came as the saviour of the whole world? Who are these organizers to say that seats cannot be saved? We will preach the gospel to the seats too!” Okay, I know, they were just joking. But it does immediately show up the key differences between how the world uses the word and how we use it.
But it is not just a problem that comes up with seats. I remember, back in those days I saw myself as bit of an evangelist. I thought it was my task to convince everybody I met that they needed Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. (I have mellowed a bit on that account in the years since university but I was very much into it at the time.) But you know what I discovered? Sometimes the kind of salvation I was offering wasn’t the kind of salvation that people were looking for.
I remember one long conversation with a woman who was very deeply involved in the women’s movement. For years she had been on the front lines of standing up for women’s rights in Canada and around the world – doing things to help save women from oppression. And here I was trying to convince her that, all these years, she had been chasing after saving herself and others from the wrong thing and that she needed to be concerned instead with saving herself (with Jesus’ help) from her personal sin. I didn’t get very far with her and, I think, rightfully so.
As I think back on it now, that is just an extreme example of something that happens more than we might think. How often does it happen that we are offering to save people from one thing when they are actually looking to be saved from something else? Now, I’m not saying that salvation from sin is not necessary, it is. And, in fact, when that woman that I was talking to was fighting against the oppression of women around the world, what was she truly fighting against if not sin? She was fighting against an insidious sinful attitude that has infected society for a very long time – the attitude that women are of somewhat less value than men. It is a sinful attitude that has led to much evil in the world. And the fact of the matter is that if we are going to identify Jesus as the one who saves us from sin, it is time that we think about how Jesus saves us from the sin that make women less equal than men. We need to talk about how Jesus saves us from the sin of racial inequality and economic inequality and all other attitudes that make one group more valuable than another.
So, there is a problem in that even when we talk about Jesus saving us from sin, we are thinking too small about sin. (We will look closer at our concept of sin next week.) But there is also another problem. If we’re going to call Jesus a saviour, should we not acknowledge that there are things other than sin that people need saving from. Take the story that we read from the gospel this morning. Peter is out on top of the water – walking around in the midst of the stormy waves when all of a sudden (and maybe quite understandably) he realizes that this is not supposed to be possible and he panics and he starts to sink. And what does he do? He prays. He talks to Jesus (that is the definition of prayer, after all) and he says, “Lord, save me.”
It is, perhaps, the shortest prayer in the Bible. It is also very clearly a prayer to Jesus for salvation. But let me ask you, if Jesus had answered Peter and said, “Oh, Peter, I’m glad you have called on me as your saviour. Just confess your sins to me and I’d be glad to save you from them,” would that have been an answer to Peter’s prayer? Of course not! As much as Peter had sins that he needed to be saved from, Jesus knew very well that there was something much more urgent that he needed to be saved from in the moment. Jesus responded most appropriately to Peter’s prayer by simply sticking out his hand and grabbing onto him to keep him from sinking.
In the same way, when the jailer in the story from the Book of Acts asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he is referring to a major crisis in his life that might well lead to his death or poverty. His job security, among other things, has just been reduced to rubble with the prison. Salvation means many things to him in that moment and yet Paul and Silas assure him that Jesus can give him whatever salvation he really needs.
And that is how Jesus operates. His salvation is not a one-size-fits-all salvation. He offers to people the salvation that they need most urgently. We see this throughout his life and ministry. When he meets the sick, he offers them healing and not just forgiveness of their sins. When he meets the blind, he offers them sight. When he meets that spiritually blind, he offers them enlightenment and wisdom.
And when we step back from the ministry of Jesus and take a look at the overall story of the scriptures, we see a God who has been working in many ways throughout history to save his people and all people. Sometimes that includes saving them from sin and from the effects of sin, but God’s salvation is never so limited in its scope. Our psalm reading this morning is a great example. The psalm does acknowledge the problem of sin. Indeed, our reading begins with a confession: “Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.” The sin they are confessing is, in fact, their failure to recongnize the love and greatness of God.
But when they talk about God saving them, what kind of salvation do they have in mind? God has saved them, the people declare, by getting them out of slavery and mistreatment in Egypt. Salvation, in this psalm, is salvation from oppression. And so, when you are talking to people suffering under oppression, what do you think that the Bible is teaching you about the kind of saviour that they need?
It is true that part of our job as Christians is to offer people salvation. It is true that Jesus has come to us as our saviour and the saviour of the whole world. What has happened down through the centuries, however, is that we have limited that notion of salvation far too much. We have presented to the world a saviour who really only saves people from one thing that people sometimes haven’t felt a great need to be saved from and who may be in rather urgent need to be saved from something else. Is it any wonder that the church finds itself struggling these days with a sense that the world finds us somewhat irrelevant?
I believe that we ought not to be afraid to proclaim to the world that we have a saviour – a saviour who is for everyone and anyone. But how do you proclaim that? Not by going out with the message, “This is what we think you ought to be saved from and so you had better start being concerned about this!” No, to introduce somebody to a saviour, you have to first really listen to that person and find out what they are struggling with and what they need to be saved from. And then you have to seriously ask yourself how Jesus (or his followers today) might intercede to save that person in the way that responds to what they are struggling with.
Here, then, my challenge to you. This week, really listen to someone – anyone. Listen to what they are struggling with in their life. Or maybe listen to what they are struggling for in this world. And try and figure out how Jesus can be a saviour to them. I’m not saying that you have to tell them what you come up with, just try and understand their struggle for salvation. If you can’t figure out how Jesus can be a saviour to that person in their situation, maybe, just maybe, your understanding of the salvation that Jesus offers is too small.