Sermon for Mattins on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 15th October 2017

Isaiah 50:4-10; Luke 13:22-30 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375138685 for the readings

‘O Lord, shew thy mercy upon us
And grant us thy salvation’ (or in the Cathedral style, as we are learning, ‘salvat-i-on’).

What is salvat-i-on? A couple of years ago I was invited to a pub lunch by a man whom I’d got to know locally, who was – and who is – active in local charities, and a churchgoer, although not usually in our congregation. The idea was to try to get to know one another better, and see if there were any projects which we could work on together.

We met up and enjoyed a nice lunch, with lots of ideas going back and forth. And then, all of a sudden, my friend turned to me and looked very seriously into my eyes. ‘Now tell me, Hugh,’ he said, ‘have you been saved?’

‘Have you been saved?’ Golly. What to say? Surely he knew I was pretty regular, straight down the line, C of E? But no. I realised he wanted to know whether, like John Wesley, my ‘heart had been strangely warmed’, whether I had had a conversion experience. Well, never mind John Wesley – think of what happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus. I had to confess that, if that was what salvation, being saved, was, well, I hadn’t been.

I could tell that he was a bit disappointed, but not really surprised. I wasn’t really animated enough for him. I hadn’t really ‘got’ it; (whatever ‘it’ was). It is something that I do think about, periodically. The lesson from St Luke about entering in ‘at the strait gate’, and the first one from Isaiah, turning his back to the ‘smiters’, not hiding his face from ‘shame and spitting’, both describe ways of making the grade, winning God’s approval, being saved.

The picture in St Luke is very much a picture of getting into heaven. Only a few will be ‘saved’. Others will be left on the outside – in hell, presumably – where there will be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. And the criteria for admission to heaven, to the kingdom of God, will be counterintuitive: ‘there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last’.

So there is a sense in which salvation is something which belongs to eschatology, to considerations about the end of the world; or, it could be, to what happens to each of us at our own end, at our own death. According to what Jesus appears to be saying, not everyone – in fact, only a minority – will be chosen, will be saved. The rest will be damned eternally.
And that is perhaps why some of us have come to church. We might see coming to church as an insurance policy, a way of avoiding going to hell at the end.

But there are various things which make this not a particularly attractive – or even, really, believable – way to understand ‘salvation’. First of all, it doesn’t seem to square with everything else we believe about God as a result of our knowledge of Jesus: that God is a god of love, that indeed God has demonstrated his love for us by sending Jesus and giving us a priceless gift, by taking upon himself our guilt, our sin, on the cross.

But if that supreme witness, supreme sacrifice, was only for a small minority, for the ‘elect’, for the chosen few, surely it can’t mean what we have taken it to mean. If Jesus didn’t come upon earth and become a man, if he didn’t suffer and die, for all mankind, for the whole human race, but only for some of us, I don’t think that we would be justified in our faith.

Again, rather similarly, I don’t think that the God of love in which we believe would inflict such suffering, as it implies He would do, if he condemned the majority of people to eternal damnation.

So I would argue – even though there are indeed passages in the Bible where indeed Jesus does describe a last judgment – for example the famous passage in St Matthew 25 (vv 31-46) where the Son of Man in all his glory separates the sheep from the goats, and the ones he lets into the kingdom, on his right hand, are the ones who have ‘done it unto one of the least of these my brethren’.

‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.’ They got life eternal, whereas the goats, the ones who hadn’t shown love, ‘shall go away into eternal punishment’ [25:46]. Not but what I would hope that that passage is more an encouragement to us to love our neighbours, more than to fear eternal damnation.

Then again this brings up the whole question when the kingdom of God will come in. I think that the picture in Isaiah of the prophet relying on God to protect and vindicate him, right there, in the midst of the smiting and the spitting, is something we ought to consider. There’s a strong argument that, following Jesus’ time with us, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the kingdom of God is here, now. There may also be an end time, an Apocalypse. But God’s Holy Spirit is here already. Indeed, that may be why some people do experience personal revelations, conversion experiences, such as my friend was looking for me to have had.

Bishop Jo’s husband, Revd Dr Sam Wells, who is the vicar of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, has written a fascinating article in the Church Times about salvation, entitled ‘It’s about abundant life, not hell-avoidance’. [See https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/6-october/comment/opinion/it-s-about-abundant-life-not-hell-avoidance%5D

He quotes Jesus’ saying in St John’s Gospel (10:10), ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ In that passage, Jesus is again the shepherd of the sheep, but not sorting out the sheep from the goats. Sam Wells writes, ‘Jesus is our model of abundant life; his life, death and resurrection chart the transformation from the scarcity of sin and death to the abundance of healing and resurrection; he longs to bring all humankind into reconciled and flourishing relationship with God, one another, themselves and all creation.’

This view of what we could believe God is doing in our world, Sam Wells argues, would produce a different kind of church. No longer would church be a place where we cut ourselves off from the sinful world outside and become ‘a mechanism for delivering people from the perils of damnation to the joys of the Elysian Fields’, but rather ‘The central purpose of the Church … is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them. God embraces them for their own sake, not for some ulterior purpose.’

This approach would lead to greater, rather than lesser, involvement in society. ‘It should be about capturing … imagination with a form of social practice so authentic and so inspiring that, instead of being embarrassed that their Church is so off the pace, [teenagers] are, instead, attracted by a community whose form of relating is striding boldly ahead of their culture rather than dragging grudgingly behind it.’

It would change the way we use our churches. Instead of the church being empty for most of the week, we would aim to make our church a place ‘that advances abundant life locally, within which liturgical worship should take an honoured but not unduly privileged place.’

This is very much what our our St Mary’s vision of community engagement will bring. Dr Wells has offered an exciting theological basis for it. He says, ‘I’m describing what happens when we cease to use God as a device for acquiring the ultimate goods that we can’t secure for ourselves, and start to adore and imitate the God who in Jesus models, offers, and advances abundant life, now and for evermore.’

It sounds good to me. As we explore our vision, it’s a very positive way to look at how salvation might work for us. Abundant life. Maybe I have been saved, after all. And you, too.

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