By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
March 31, 2019
Scripture: Ephesians 2:8-10
The title of this sermon is “World’s Shortest Sermon.” You’re welcome. This week as I was preparing, I had fantasies of standing up, saying two words, and then sitting back down. In my fantasy, you were very disappointed. But as you can see, now that we are about 100 words in, I ditched that idea, so settle in folks. It’s going to be a long one.
I came up with this two-word thing because I was reading a sermon by John Wesley. As you know, Wesley is the founder of the Methodist movement, and he’s a personal hero of mine. The sermon was called “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” Wesley wrote it in 1765. In it, he writes that “two little words” (and I’m quoting here – bear with me on the 18th century language), “two little words…include the substance of all the Bible, the marrow, as it were, of the whole Scripture.”
Two little words capture the substance of the whole Bible.
So what are they? Now, if you’ve read “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” and you already know the answer, I’m going to ask you to hold back. (What? You haven’t? Well, a girl can hope.) I am going to invite you to guess. There is no wrong answer here. What two words would you say, are the marrow, the most essential part, of scripture?
For Wesley, those two words were salvation and faith. He looks at them as a means and an end. The end is salvation, and the means to attain it is faith. The whole Bible, according to Wesley, is about how faith leads to salvation.
Now, when we hear the word salvation, I would guess the first thing that pops into mind is eternal salvation in the life-after-death sense. In fact, this is one traditional way to think about salvation: that we are saved after death FROM eternal separation from God, and we are saved FOR eternal life with God.
Before I went to church as an adult, that’s how I thought of salvation. In fact, my understanding of salvation was probably a caricature of that: a distorted view. The idea I had of salvation was from my childhood. It was a child’s view of salvation. Salvation seemed sort of like a “get-out-of-hell-free” card in the Game of Life.
One of the reasons I didn’t go to church for so long as an adult was because it didn’t make sense to me why a God whose name and nature is love would make my whole life primarily about avoiding hell and getting myself into heaven. It sounded pretty selfish actually: like I was supposed to spend my life doing God’s will just to save myself. And what was the point of being alive anyway if we were just waiting to be with God when we died? Like I said, it was a child’s understanding – but that’s what salvation sounded like to me.
Then I started going to First United Methodist Church here in Omaha. I started hearing this radical idea that salvation was not all about an escape from eternal damnation. It was actually about living a new kind of life in the here and now. And I thought, “Well, this must be some new-fangled idea of salvation. How very 21st-Century of them!” It blew my mind. It seemed so radical!
So I went off to seminary, and I started studying Methodist theology and Methodist history, and guess what? I found out that this this was NOT some 21st-century innovation. Those radicals at FUMC were not being radicals. They were being METHODISTS!
John Wesley, in the 18th Century was saying the same darn thing! This is what he writes about the scripture we heard today:
“And first let us inquire, What is salvation? 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 of death, or (as we usually speak) in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question. ‘Ye are saved.’ It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.” (from “The Scripture Way of Salvation”)
Folks, that was all Wesley. For Methodists, Wesley is pretty much the guy. Everybody wants to be Wesleyan. This understanding of salvation, as something not in the future after death but something we experience right now, in this life, is thoroughly orthodox Methodism. We Methodists believe that we experience salvation in this life, right now. Or at least John Wesley and I do.
So what about this second word, “faith?”
How does this word “faith” lead to salvation? Well, Wesley knew his Bible. He would have said that Scripture is the very foundation of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral – his way of thinking about theological topics. What Wesley did was he took scripture, and then he used the other parts of the Quadrilateral to flesh it out, to make sense of it. We’ve been talking about this, so I know you know what those other parts of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral are. We’ve got Scripture. The others are Reason, Experience, and Tradition.
I think in this case, Wesley is leaning hard on the Experience quadrant. Wesley was a keen observer of humans and of their religious experience. He used his own experience of salvation and what he observed and studied of the experiences of others, and he described how that process of salvation happens.
It starts to happen because of God’s grace. This is what Wesley called prevenient grace, and it is the gift of God’s presence. This grace, this presence, is at work in our lives from the very beginning. It is that presence which causes us to long to know God (maybe it’s why you are here today). It is that presence that enables us to do good, even before we would name our faith as a reason we do good.
At some point in the journey, we are justified. (That’s your bonus big word for today: Justification.) This is where Wesley would say salvation first happens. At that very point “Ye are saved.” What that means is that we recognize God’s presence at work in us. We become aware of the ways God has been leading us and the ways we have been living in concert with God’s compassion for the world. We also become conscious of the ways we have not, the ways we have been letting the priorities of the world move us rather than be moved by the priorities of God. We call this sin. When we are justified, we turn away from sin. We turn toward God, and we say “Yes, make us more like you.”
But the process doesn’t stop there. This graceful presence of God continues to grow in us, enabling us become wholly fashioned in the image of God, the image of Christ. We can see this reality when we love God, when we love our neighbor, when we seek justice, and when we offer mercy. Wesley believed that we could grow to be living more and more in Christ, so that all of our desires and actions could be in concert with God’s dream for the world. He believed that we actually become participants in the divine nature – in this life! But this only happens because we have faith that God is with us and that God empowers us to be transformed.
That is Wesley’s way of salvation through faith. I think it is a pretty fabulous description of how we are saved in this life through faith. Yet one might look at the Bible, the variety and complexity of scripture in our tradition, and legitimately ask the question of “How you could claim that the entirety of the Bible points to this way of salvation?” In his sermon, Wesley doesn’t really address that issue. But I’m going to give it a try.
Right now, we are being saved through faith in Jesus Christ because faith frees us to participate in God’s story – which is a story of salvation and liberation, not just for us, but for all of creation. Our faith helps us to see that our lives are more – more than our brokenness, more than our worries or struggles, more than our routines.
The Bible gives us get glimpses of that story – glimpses of who God is for us and what God desires for us. Of course, the Bible is complicated. It’s not an instruction manual or a textbook. Yet it can help us have faith that God is with us, and God will be with us as our personal story intertwines with the cosmic story of God making all things new.
We are being saved, day-by-day, and in every moment through faith: faith that we are part of God’s story, part of God’s life, part of God’s dream for us and all of creation. It is an extraordinary gift, this salvation…that we are saved from the way that leads to death. We are saved from meaningless, saved from hate, saved from despair.
And we are not just saved from. We are saved for. We are saved for the way that leads to life. We are saved for a life of hope, a life of abundance. And, yes, we are saved for life eternal.
We are saved for new life – lived in the eternity of God’s love – and it starts now.
Thanks be to God.
QUESTIONS FOR CONVERSATION AND REFLECTION
1) Do you buy Wesley’s argument that salvation is “a present thing” (something we experience in this life)? Why or why not?
2) Has your faith resulted in you being saved FROM something in this life? What has faith saved you from? What negative things have been removed from your life because of faith?
3) Has your faith resulted in you being saved FOR something in this life? What positive difference has your faith made in your life either for yourself or for others?