Star Words: Salvation

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10; Ephesians 2:4-10

Maybe you’ve heard of a man named Zacchaeus. You may remember him best as the man who climbed a tree to see Jesus. He worked as a tax collector, a low-level agent of the Roman Empire whose job it was to extract tribute from its unwilling subjects. The advantage of being a tax-collector, of course, was that you also got to demand a little extra on the side, and one could apparently make quite the living that way.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as Jesus traveled through Jericho to Jerusalem. The crowds were big and Zacchaeus was, as they say, a wee little man, so he climbed a nearby tree to see better. Imagine his surprise when Jesus stopped right in front of that tree, shielded his eyes from the sun as he looked up, and said, “Go home and start the coffee, Zacchaeus, I’m coming over.”

He didn’t say anything about Zacchaeus’s unpopular profession. He didn’t say anything about repentance. And yet as Zacchaeus climbed down he said “I promise, Lord, I’ll give half my possessions to the poor – and if I’ve defrauded anyone, I’ll pay them back four times what I took!” And Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”

Salvation – that ultimate churchy word. It is in some sense the reason most of us are here, because we want it for ourselves. And yet we might not all understand that word in the same way, and there may be those of us who aren’t quite sure what it’s really getting at at all. That’s why salvation is our next Star Word, on our list of words we use in church sometimes without really stopping to define them.

I know that when I hear a word like “saved,” I often think of those signs you sometimes see on the side of the highway: If you died tonight, where would you go? One side of the sign usually depicts heaven, with some majestic clouds and angelic light, and the other side depicts the flames of hell. Accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, it promises, and the answer can be different. Sometimes there is a number to call.

I do not happen to personally appreciate this form of evangelism, but I do think the sign expresses something of the way many of us have been taught to understand salvation: that first, it’s about what happens when you die, and second, it’s a big ol’ either-or.  

I don’t think that what happens after we die is irrelevant. And I don’t doubt that along the way there is a choice to be made. I do suspect that if we treat salvation as just a yes or no question, there’s a lot there that we’re missing. 

After all, what did Jesus mean when he said of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house”? Did he mean that as of that moment, a switch flipped, and Zacchaeus was destined for heaven instead of hell? Zacchaeus made no formal statement of faith in Jesus, though he clearly saw something in him he wanted. Jesus recognizes that a shift has occurred – but he doesn’t talk explicitly about life after death.

A few weeks ago you heard me talk about the word grace, and how John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, saw grace at work in our lives. What Wesley believed was this: that we are all created in the image of God. Being created in the image of God doesn’t mean that God also has two arms and some legs and a nose. It means that we are created for love – to love and be loved. Something, however, has gone wrong, because we don’t love God and each other like we are made to. That is sin, that thing we talked about a few weeks ago that is in us and bigger than us. Because of sin, we have lost something of that divine image.[1]

When I thought I was going to be doing this from church this morning, I had a bowl to show you. (You’re going to have to use your imagination with me here.) It’s a pretty pottery bowl, and I accidentally broke it one Christmas Eve when I used it to hold some candles and it fell off the piano, and ever since it’s been my go-to illustration for brokenness and wholeness. It is both beautifully made and broken. You can still see its beauty and goodness. You can still see what it was created for. It even still holds things. But it can’t completely fulfill its purpose.

Wesley believed that God’s prevenient grace is still at work in our lives from the beginning to draw our broken selves back to God. He believed that when we are ready to say no to sin and the forces of evil and yes to God and God’s love, God’s justifying grace reconciles us to God. And God’s sanctifying grace continues to work on us for our whole lives (as we let it) – helping us love better, and restoring us fully in the image of God.[2] The bowl goes back together. Did you hear that verse of the first hymn we sang today? Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee.[3]

What’s more, Wesley believed that that whole process was salvation – that salvation is a journey, and not a destination. He said, in fact, in a sermon on the topic: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness…It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death…The salvation which is here spoken of may be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul until it is consummated in glory.”[4]

When Jesus says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’s house that day, this is what I imagine he means: that Zacchaeus has recognized and accepted God’s unconditional love for him, that he will live differently in light of that from this day forward. And probably he’ll mess up, and try again, and figure it out and learn and grow, but in all of that, life for Zacchaeus will never be the same again.

I preached something along these lines a few years back and one of the comments I got afterwards was: well, that’s nice, but I’m trying to get into heaven here. And I get it, right? That is, perhaps, the ultimate question, at least as far as it relates to our own individual destinies, and may seem especially urgent if the here and now isn’t really cutting it. In Sunday Bible study the question that came up multiple times as we made our way through the New Testament last year was what about people who are good people but who aren’t Christian, who don’t profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior – what happens to them, after? OK, maybe salvation isn’t just about getting into heaven – but at the same time, we’d really like to know the requirements for that.

It is by grace you have been saved through faith, Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians (2:8).

I of course don’t know for sure exactly what happens after this life. People may claim to know how it all works, but I would be skeptical of that. You’re welcome to come explore with us what the Bible has to say about some of these big questions further after worship today in Bible study. What I can say is that by faith, I know a God whose grace is bigger than I could ever imagine, who will search us out when we’re hiding, up in a tree somewhere, who calls us down and wants to come over, even though we’re sinners, who is the creator of new possibilities in us and for us. And I can’t believe that that grace ends with death, and I have to believe that somehow, when all is said and done, the wideness of God’s mercy will be known.

When Paul writes to the Ephesians he is writing to people who didn’t know God – until they met God in Jesus. And who didn’t have reason to count themselves among God’s people – until they did. That was God’s grace; that was their leap of faith; that, to them, was salvation. And it meant that they could no longer live life in the same way as before. Kind of like our friend Zacchaeus.

Salvation: not a box to be checked, or a number to call; not just a yes or a no: but new life, there for the living, now.

Someday, the dead will be raised. Someday, God’s Kingdom will come. But in the meantime, I believe, as we allow our hearts to be shaped in love like God’s own, we can begin to experience it here together. Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place; till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.[5]

[1] John Wesley, “The Image of God” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 13-21.

[2] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 371-380.

[3] Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. The United Methodist Hymnal #384

[4] John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed. Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, p. 372.

[5] Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. The United Methodist Hymnal #384.

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