February 4, 2007 ~ Epiphany 5C ~ Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
All Saints Church, Pasadena ~ Susan Russell
I love this prayer – this collect – that we prayed to begin our worship this morning. It’s called The “Collect of the Day” for a reason: it is meant to sum up or “collect” the themes of the lessons appointed for this fifth Sunday after Epiphany and I think it does a bang up job. In a few well-chosen words it sums up the stories we heard from our Scripture today about Isaiah and Simon Peter: two guys we’re most likely to think of in their starring roles as prophet and apostle. But today’s lessons give us the back-stories … the “before they made it big” stories … stories about how when they experienced an extraordinary “Oh my God, God is so totally right here in this moment!” moment they were both immobilized by fear: paralyzed by their sense of unworthiness and sinfulness. “Woe unto me,” cried Isaiah and “Go away from me; I am a sinful man” cried Peter.
And yet they were both set free – one through the touch of a seraph and the other by the words of a Savior. Set free from being paralyzed by the bondage of their sins in order to claim the liberty of the abundant life God would have for them. One set free to say “Here I am, send me.” One set free to leave everything and follow Jesus. And so as I mulled the texts for the sermon this morning I settled on the on what I thought was a pretty good one: Set Us Free. And then I checked my email.
“The problem with you people …” (and aren’t you just so open to what comes next when a sentence starts out like that?) “The problem with you people,” wrote one blog commenter creatively named "anonymous," “is that you don’t believe that Jesus Saves. What kind of Christians are you?” There are a lot of ways I could go to start to answer that question but let’s start with this: I guess I’m the kind of Christian who likes a challenge because I immediately changed the title of today’s sermon to: Jesus Saves.
I’m the kind of Christian who admits to being a little taken aback in the 70’s when I went to college in Santa Barbara and encountered what we then called “Jesus Freaks”: folks who wandered up and down State Street asking people if they were “saved” in a tone of voice that indicated one should be worried about whether or not that was the case. Happily, I didn’t find their anxiety contagious – Jesus loved me, that I knew – and so I’d smile and say, “Yes, thank you.” I’m the kind of Christian who rested in the security of being “saved” long before I had much clarity about what that really meant to me.
It was clergy colleague and friend of All Saints Diana Akiyama who finally offered me the language I didn’t know I was looking for until I heard it – language that resonated deep in the core of my being – language that gave voice to my deepest convictions and lived experience of the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus. In one of the Via Media teaching series videos Diana answered the question “Does Jesus save?” by saying: Jesus saves us from our fear. In penetrating the boundary between life and death Jesus assures us that the crossing over at the end of this earthly life is to something very real. With that assurance, Jesus saves us from the fear of death that is such an existential fear that it can paralyze us into trying to control the bits of life we can wrap our hands around rather than letting go to receive the abundance of life God would have us receive. His resurrection tells us that we need not live our life in fear of that crossing over and sets us free: like Isaiah and like Simon Peter. And free from that fear we ARE liberated to embrace the abundant life that God has made known to us in Jesus. Jesus saves us from worrying so much about getting to heaven that we’re too paralyzed to get busy helping to bring heaven to earth.
For the truth of the matter is Jesus spent a WHOLE lot less time talking about who was going to get to heaven than he did talking about bringing heaven to earth. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.” Arguably among the most familiar words in all of Christian faith – historic words – ORTHODOX words – the words our Lord Jesus “taught us to pray.”
With those credentials it might be hard to imagine that anyone could argue with bringing heaven to earth as a core Christian Value but – as they say – “welcome to my world!” There seems to be an epidemic of selective amnesia about that essential aspect of the gospel imperative running rampant through the religious right. They dismiss the kind of Christians committed to bringing heaven to earth – that would be us – as politically correct social activists and insist instead that the criteria for being a Christian -- the criteria for being “saved” -- is answering “yes” to the question: Is Jesus the only way to God?
That’s their question. Here’s mine: When did the litmus test for going to heaven become correctly guessing who else God has on the invitation list? Last time I checked our most reliable source on the matter – that would be Jesus – he didn’t have a single word to say about guessing the guest list … or about doctrines or dogmas or creeds or councils – much less “Windsor Reports.” In fact the only criteria Jesus gives us directly is “did you do it unto the least of these?” Did you bring water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothing to the naked?” And yet “who gets to go to heaven” has become a source of much conversation – and great consternation – in many quarters of the church today.
My first encounter with the question came in the very earliest days of my ordained ministry as a new deacon and chaplain to a day school. I was buttoning up my Anglican cassock before hurling on my surplice to dash down to flag salute before morning chapel when the day school organist appeared in the vesting room.
“Can I ask you something?” he said.
“Sure,” I said … thinking it was something like, “How many verses of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ shall we sing this morning?”
Instead it was, “What’s the point of being a Christian if the Jews get in?”
“If the Jews get in?” I echoed back … hoping against hope I’d misheard him.
“Into heaven – if the Jews get into heaven. Why bother to be a Christian if you don’t have to be a Christian to get to heaven?”
And I wish I remembered what I eventually answered. I know I stalled for time by saying flag salute was about to start and let’s talk after chapel. And when we did talk I think I talked about leaving to God what is for God to decide and Jesus having sheep of other folds and the wideness of God’s mercy and I probably talked too MUCH (which is the universal curse of the newly ordained) and I know none of it made a lick of difference.
The leap was too great for him to make – or the cost of making it too high. Eventually he left the Episcopal Church and joined the Episcopal Insurgency and I occasionally see his comments posted on the conservative blogs questioning the Christianity of Christians like me. I hope he’s found answers to his question that I couldn’t give him. I hope he’s found joy in his ministry and lots of good reasons to be a Christian. And I hope he receives as a joyful surprise all the people he runs into in heaven that he’s clearly not expecting to see.
Because I’m the kind of Christian that believes if the point of getting to heaven is getting to heaven then we’ve missed the point of getting to heaven. And I’m thrilled to death to have a Presiding Bishop who not only gets it but is willing to talk about it. I’ll bet she gets her share of emails that start out “The problem with you people …” and I know she took a lot of flack in the conservative press and on the blogs over a recent CNN interview. Here’s little “window” from a follow-up interview in an Arkansas newspaper:
ADG: [In your] CNN interview … it seemed to some people that you were saying there isn’t an afterlife.
KJS: [What I said was that] I don’t think Jesus was focused [on the afterlife]. I think Jesus was focused on heaven in this life, primarily. [Our] tradition has always said yes, there … is life after death. But I think Jesus was not so worried about that. I think he’s worried about what we’re doing to treat our fellow human beings as children of God. He says the kingdom of heaven is among you, and within you, and around you.
[You've gotta love a dogged reporter]
KJS: That’s not what I said. I said what I think Jesus is more concerned about is heavenly existence, eternal life, in this life.
[One more time]
KJS: Absolutely. But that’s not a question that concerns me day in and day out. I think I’m meant to use the gifts I have to transform the world in this life.
“That’s not a question that concerns me day in and day out.” That, my brothers and sisters, is how Jesus Saves – by setting us set free to be the kind of Christians who claim the gift of abundant life God offers each and every one of us – not just for us but for the world we are called to restore to the fullness intended at creation. Jesus doesn’t just save us for ourselves. Jesus saves us – liberates us – to say like Isaiah said: “Here I am, send me.”
What kind of Christians are we? The kind Jesus saves to BE the Body of Christ in the world and calls to transform the world in this life by turning the human race into the human family. Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.