"Salvation: Punishment or Grace"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
April 21, 2019 -- Easter Sunday
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12
We are all aware by now of the fire that destroyed parts of one of the best-known landmarks of Christendom this past Monday. The Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris is as emblematic to Western Christianity as the world trade towers were to Western Capitalism and the Pentagon is to American Imperial Power. Thankfully the cathedral fire does not appear to have been set deliberately to make a statement. But sadly, it perhaps catalyzed the attacks on four churches in Sri Lanka this morning.
I appreciate the grandeur, beauty, and symbolism of the Gothic cathedrals. I’ve never been to Paris – it’s on my bucket list. I might be sadder, but for two reasons. First, if French President Macron gets his way, the cathedral will reopen within five years. Is it because they are a deeply faithful nation – followers of Jesus? Not likely. Is it because their economy needs tourism to thrive? More likely. Over a billion Euros have already been pledged for the reconstruction. Just imagine what could be done with a billion Euros.
I can hear the echo of Judas voice from two weeks ago. “Why was this expensive ointment not sold and the money used to feed the poor?”
This is the other reason that I’m not as upset as some are about the damage done to such a religious and cultural landmark. Its construction was made possible only by channeling enormous wealth and assets away from the common people. Intangible benefits possibly accrued to the common people. Perhaps civic pride was one such benefit. There was an explicit competition going on for centuries between each major European city to build the tallest, the most light-filled, the greatest cathedral. Notre Dame did not ultimately win any of those contests, but it won the devotion of even the poorest of the poor who sacrificed to contribute their meagre offerings. The most dramatic image from the conflagration was the collapse of its tallest element in flames – the spire over the crossing of the nave and transepts. The video images could have been taken directly from the film “The Lord of the Rings” when the tower of the evil Sauron finally collapsed. The spire itself is only about two hundred years old and was probably financed largely from the profits of colonialism and slave trade. The cathedral, the fire, and the destruction are somehow emblematic of our times. In the effort to preserve the past, its monuments, and its traditions, sometimes we destroy what we intended to protect.
The cathedral will have its own resurrection. It will be saved.
On Easter Sunday we proclaim the resurrection of Christ. There is a temptation as well – in our skeptical, empirical, disenchanted world today – to try to explain the resurrection of Christ as well. I’m not going to try to do that. For one thing, resurrection is inherently and literally beyond mortal understanding. For another, just as with any world-changing event, there is more than one way to understand it. There were many things going on in the resurrection of Christ, and any one of us cannot see and make sense of all of them. Nor do we need to agree on exactly what happened. The Gospel accounts don’t even line up exactly. Resurrection is important – it’s deeply consequential. In fact, it is so important that it holds a superfluity of meaning. The resurrection of Christ is overflowing with meaning. We can never approach or contain its full import.
The apostle Paul said of the resurrection,
“…if Christ has not been raised, then all of our preaching has been meaningless – and everything you’ve believed has been just as meaningless. Indeed, we are shown to be false witnesses of God, for we solemnly swore that God raised Christ from the dead … and if Christ is not raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead. If our hopes in Christ are limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of people. But as it is, Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Personally, I think Paul’s argument has never been convincing. It’s as if he is saying, “It must be true, because if it’s not, then we were wrong, and it would be really embarrassing that we have sacrificed so much for this empty promise.”
More interesting to me, and more important than the mechanics of resurrection, is why it happened, and what it was supposed to do. In that sense, resurrection is subsidiary to its objective, which is salvation. We don’t talk much about salvation – for two main reasons, I think. One is that we don’t like to talk about sin, which is the presumed precondition that salvation addresses. We don’t like to talk about sin, in part because it has been used as a justification to enforce a narrow range of acceptable identity and behavior. We reject the idea of sin because it is tethered to intention, and we do not believe that our intentions are wrong. We dismiss sin because we equate it with evil. And even though many of us struggle at times with inadequacy and low self-worth, we just don’t understand ourselves as being captive to sin. We deny that guilt has anything to do with us.
Admission of guilt puts us at risk.
Another reason we don’t talk much about salvation is that most of us here in this room spend most of our lives free from true need or want. Especially in our Western cultural context, which worships self-sufficiency and sees success as a sign of worth, the condition of needing salvation is deeply shameful. We know, for instance, that many who qualify for assistance from the food bank are ashamed of their need – exactly when salvation could bring new life.
Shame diminishes us.
There’s more to why we don’t talk about salvation. We have a warped picture of salvation that often offends or repels us. Part of that warped picture is that humanity is so broken that we can only be rescued and repaired through deicide – that is the death of God. This idea of salvation is built on the presumption of original sin articulated primarily by Augustine, and not until the fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine seems to have been motivated by both guilt and shame. By extension, all humanity is depraved. His understanding of salvation is analogous to the penal system – a system of sin, guilt, conviction, and punishment, with only one hope of release or freedom. It requires the assumption that we are inherently sinful, that our sin is our individual fault, that God operates in a closed system as a judge and punisher, and that the only acquittal – the only release – comes through a prisoner exchange of the highest order. Jesus had to be mortal in order to be executed, and equally had to be divine in order for the execution to freely and fully outweigh all human depravity forever. This punitive paradigm of salvation proposes a system of conviction, imprisonment, and release.
I see it another way, and I think the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, did too. Especially in this year when our Gospel readings have been primarily from Luke, we are reminded that Jesus was constantly overturning expectations. The punitive paradigm was overturned by Jesus, and Wesley keyed in on this in his understanding of grace. The grace understanding of salvation turns the world’s expectations upside down. Instead of conviction, imprisonment, and release, there is blessing, reconciliation, and wholeness. The goal of this paradigm of salvation is to restore wholeness to all creation. The means are to be in community that is equitable and mutual. The starting point is the freedom of the original blessing – of God’s proclamation that creation is good, and, in particular, creation with humanity in it is very good. This picture of salvation is painted beautifully by Isaiah – a peaceable kin-dom in which adversaries are transformed into companions – eating bread side by side. All creation thrives, from the stars to the atoms to living beings and systems.
“For I am about to create
new heavens and a new earth!
The things of the past
will not be remembered or come to mind!
Be glad and rejoice forever and ever in what I create,
because I now create Jerusalem to be a joy
and its people to be a delight!
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it
or the cry of distress.
No longer will there be in it an infant
who lives but a few days,
or old people who do not live out their days.
They die as mere youths
who reach but a hundred years,
and those who fall short of a hundred
will be thought accursed.
At last they will live in the houses they build,
and eat the fruit of the vineyard they plant.
They will not build for another to inhabit;
they will not plant for another to eat.
For the days of my people
will be like the days of a tree,
and my chosen ones will enjoy
the fruit of their labors.
They will not labor in vain
or bear children doomed to die;
for they and their descendants
are a people blessed by God.
Even before they call upon me, I will answer;
and while they speak, I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed side by side;
the lion will eat straw like an ox.
Serpents will be content to crawl on the ground;
they will not injure or destroy
in all my holy mountain,” says YHWH.
This is salvation. And why should it wait for the afterlife? Why should the effect of the resurrection have to wait? At the heart of our faith, resurrection is an invitation to salvation now.
Beloved, whatever else the resurrection is, however we understand it or dismiss it, it is a repudiation of the forces of separation and oppression, and an affirmation of God’s unconditional love and the goodness of creation.
Thanks be to God for the miraculous and the mundane.
In Christ we are risen.