Monday, August 30, 2010

What is Salvation?

What does it mean to be saved? What does the word “salvation” mean? Over the course of my ministry I did some informal polling on this question, asking Christians what they think salvation means. And invariably the answer is, “Salvation is going to heaven when you die.” When we ask, “Is this person saved?” what we’re asking is, “Have they done what is necessary in order to go to heaven when they die?” We tend to talk about salvation as a future expectation for individual people. We talk about salvation as a means of escaping this world and going to a better world.

The hope of going to heaven when I die brings me great comfort, but that is not the meaning of the concept of salvation in any of the gospels. It is simply not defined that way.

Stories of salvation in the gospels are about restoration. Jesus heals, and forgives, and restores. In every story the person touched by Jesus is restored to God, their family, and their community. Salvation is God giving back to us life and peace and community and trust.

The word we translate as “salvation” in the New Testament has a depth of meaning: life, deliverance, preservation, restoration, wholeness, soundness, health, and peace. And what are we saved from? Sin, death, guilt, sickness, loneliness, ignorance, fear, hell, despair, alienation, and meaninglessness.

So let’s take this word “salvation” out for a test drive through Luke’s Gospel.

In Luke 7:11-15 we read the story of Jesus raising a young man from the dead. If you had been a journalist on the scene, your headline would probably have read, “Jesus raises a young man from the dead.” But I want you to notice that Luke phrases this in such a way that the point of the story is Jesus giving back to a hopeless woman her status in the community. If you were a woman whose husband and only son died, leaving you all alone, you were in big trouble - you had no status, no voice, no income - and in this story Jesus saw her, had compassion on her, and the miracle here is the return of the son to the mother so that she can be restored to her community, and we’ll read that story a hundred times, and miss the point.

Also in chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel (vss 36-50) Jesus is anointed by a “sinful” woman at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. This woman understood God’s love and Simon never got it, and what’s interesting is the last thing Jesus said to her: “You faith has saved you; go in peace.”

In the Hebrew community and language the word “peace” is “shalom” - one of the most important words and concepts in the Bible. “Shalom” is wholeness, completeness, fullness. To live in shalom (peace) is to live in harmony with God and with humanity and with nature.

So when Jesus tells this sinful woman to, “Go in peace,” he’s not just saying, “Have a nice day.” He’s saying something profound. He’s talking to her in a such a way that she knows, and Simon knows, and everyone at the table knows, and everyone eavesdropping outside knows that she has been embraced by God, and because God has embraced her, her community, who knows her reputation, must also embrace her and forgive her and love her. Jesus restored her to her community. That is the meaning of salvation in this story.

In the following chapter (8:40-48) we read a similar story. Here again we come across a woman who is an outcast. Because of her uncleanness she has no community, no position, no standing, no voice - and Jesus heals her, he saves her, and he calls her “daughter” – and once again, this very public affirmation has the result of restoring her to her community.

All of these stories are, in one way or another, salvation stories.

My favorite salvation story in Luke’s Gospel takes place in chapter 19:vss 1-10. In short, as Jesus entered Jericho, Zacchaeus, who was a tax collector, and thus an outcast from his community, grabs Jesus’ attention. Jesus addresses him: “I must stay at your house today.”

Salvation came into that house literally and figuratively, and when Jesus said, in the presence of everybody, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham,” he is saying, “This man (Zacchaeus) is not an outsider. He is once again part of this community, he can be trusted, he can be loved, he can be forgiven and accepted again.”

Salvation cannot just be about a future expectation, it also has to be about present reality. If we let the future expectation of salvation dominate how we think and talk about salvation we are not being true to the way salvation is described in scripture, we’re not being true to the way Jesus spoke about salvation, and we will never function effectively as his body on earth. Salvation must be experienced here and now.

The church needs to ask some very difficult salvific questions. If we do not place ourselves in the loving and forgiving and salvation affirming shoes of Jesus, Christians can easily roll off phrases like, “I forgive you,” along with, “But sin has consequences” in the same confusing sentence with no apparent sense of irony or awareness of their mischaracterizing the gospel.

What does salvation look like for a divorced mother?
What does salvation look like for the family who’s been knocked out of their home by a hurricane?
What does salvation look like for the mother of 3 kids in Africa who has AIDS?
What does salvation look like to people in the Sudan who have nothing but contaminated water to drink?
What does salvation look like to people in Dallas who have no air conditioner in the summer?
What does salvation look like to people in our community with no food?
What does salvation look like to people addicted to drugs?
What does salvation look like for a church leader who has sinned?

What if salvation walked into their house?
What if Jesus walked into their community?

What if we’re supposed to be Jesus?

Salvation, for those people, had better not be a “see ya in heaven someday” pat on the back!
Salvation is a new house.
Salvation is food.
Salvation is medicine.
Salvation is clean water.
Salvation is restored trust
Salvation is peace.

What is salvation for you?


David said...

Nice one. Luke 19 and Luke 4 have always been very influential to me on how I think about salvation as well, though I too have missed the point of the first part of Luke 7. In both those passages salvation has come TODAY. When seen from this vantage point, it makes the question, "Am I saved?" a silly question or at least one that has different implications. Don't get me wrong, going to heaven is important. Put the church would have more of an impact on helping people get to heaven if we thought of salvation as a more case by case, present tense thing then something that's taken care of when we get people in the water.

Charles North said...

Part of the problem is that we have a watered down (pun intended) baptism equals salvation understanding that presents salvation as event rather than process.