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Carolyn L. Roberts
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This Week's Sermon (for recent sermons, please click here)

Creation and Salvation

13 July 2014
Glen Pearcy 

A few weeks ago my wife Susan asked me what my sermon topic for today would be, and I answered “Creation and Salvation.” “Wow,” she said, “that’s kind of a big one.” I guess it is. Here goes:

Let’s start with what may currently be the most famous “salvation” Bible verse, John 3:16. I call it The End Zone Verse, because it was popularized in the seventies and eighties by guys in the end zone seats at televised football games holding up a big placard that read, in giant letters, JOHN 3:16. In the early days of this practice they often had rainbow colored Afro wigs on, but that tradition seems to have passed. Anyway, the unspoken message was clear: this is the UBER-text, the ONE verse, sign on here or forever forfeit Salvation. You all know it, you can recite it by heart:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

The beauty of this short verse is that it describes Salvation so concisely. Salvation at the hand of God, through Jesus Christ. Or, to be more precise, Salvation at the hand of God through BELIEF in Jesus Christ.

There can be little doubt that the Belief part is what John intended. Just look at the following verses:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever BELIEVES in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

I know I argue with an Evangelist at my own peril, but these verses make me uneasy. Because they put not just responsibility for Salvation in my hands - but also the power for Salvation: I have the Responsibility and the Power to achieve my own Salvation through Belief in Jesus Christ.

Really? Rather, is it not God alone who possesses the Power to achieve Salvation? Yours? Mine? The world’s? Isn’t it a cornerstone of our Protestant tradition that we are powerless to achieve our own salvation? That we are saved solely through the Grace of God?

Then how do we account for John’s theology here?

As with much else in the Bible, historical context is important. The early church was fighting for survival. Initially welcomed in some synagogues, after a while the early church’s belief that Jesus was Messiah became too much for the orthodox Jewish community to accept, and by John’s time that welcome had become expulsion in many cases. Jews like Saul were actively persecuting the Jesus followers. Reception was no better in the wider Roman Empire, where being a Christian could mean death.

Now if the rest of the world is defining you by your BELIEF in Jesus, it’s easy to see how that becomes normative for you as well. And if the rest of the world is often hostile to you because of that belief, sometimes to the point of persecution or even death, that belief itself better be life saving. And those who deny that belief - your persecutors - will soon be seen as condemned for lacking it.

I just mentioned Saul. What about him after Damascus, when he becomes Paul - is Belief the key to salvation for Paul?

Not so much. Rather than requiring belief in Jesus Christ, rather than seeing it as the means to salvation, Paul proclaims Jesus as Christ, as God’s chosen instrument for salvation. Here from Romans chapter 8:

31b If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died— more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now if Paul were here I would ask him: Does the list of things that cannot separate us from the love of God include unbelief? Uncertain belief? What about simple ignorance of what God has done? I’m not sure what Paul would answer, but I think he might say “Yes - I said nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Remember, Paul is the one who says “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (Gal 3:28) - none of the old divisions can separate us from God; so he might be willing to add “neither belief nor unbelief, neither wisdom nor ignorance”, etc.

Where else can I turn to support my understanding of Salvation? How about Job?

Job??!! The Job who God plays with like a cat with a mouse in an ugly game of “I’ll Show You” with the Devil? The God who takes everything away from Job and subjects him to horrible afflictions to prove to the Devil he, Job, will remain faithful? Yes, that Job, that God, that story.

Listen to what God says hen Job finally reaches his limit and protests his treatment:

38 Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: 2 “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? 6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone— 7 while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”

Of course: When it comes to Creation, it’s preposterous for us humans to believe we had anything to do with it. As if Creation were dependent on our consent, on our participation. On our Belief? Ridiculous.

But if Creation, why is the same not true of Salvation? Why should we propose that Salvation is dependent on our consent, on our participation, on our Belief? Is that not equally ridiculous?

God does what God does. God does what God wills. And God has saved us and all the world through Grace. It has been done, it has been accomplished. In our understanding, in our tradition, in our belief, as Paul says, it has been done through “the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But to suppose that Salvation - any more than Creation - is dependent on that human belief seems to me to be both arrogant and preposterous.

So, in the reverse of our current UCC practice - which says “Never put a period where God has put a comma,” - I would like to rewrite John by doing exactly that: putting a period where he, John, has put a comma:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son. PERIOD.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. PERIOD.

That’s Good News.

Thanks be to God.

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