Sunday, July 19, 2015

Phil Kniss: Jesus saves

In God’s household, we are brought near
Ephesians 2:11-22

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Jesus saves.
    Those two words have a familiar ring to almost everyone.
    Christian or not, people recognize that message
        from yard signs, bumper stickers, or billboards.
    Whether or not people know what it means,
        people have encountered it
        on roadside crosses, T-shirts, and key-chains.

    Those two words say a lot, and they say very little.
        When people see them,
            they might react positively,
            they might react negatively.
        But they will, probably, react,
            because the words make a statement
            that invites a reaction.

    And the message of those two words, I believe,
        is deeply, profoundly, and eternally true.

Jesus saves.
    That’s the business Jesus is in.
    That’s the agenda of God, in Christ, by the Spirit.
    Always has been. Always will be.

Jesus saves.
    I thank God for that.
    It’s been my own experience.
    I have been saved by God’s grace.

There’s a song we used to sing a lot in church when I was young,
    but in the last couple decades, not so much.
        It’s not as popular anymore.
    I’m sure you don’t all know it,
        but I’m guessing enough of you do,
        that if I start singing, most of you would join in.
    “Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul.
        Thank you, Lord, for making me whole.
        Thank you, Lord, for giving to me
            thy great salvation so rich and free.”

A short and simple song thanking Jesus for saving.

But as simple and true as it is, to say, “Jesus saves,”
    those two words, by themselves, raise a host of questions.

To start with, it’s a complete sentence, but not much of one.
    It’s only a subject and a verb.
    There is no object.
        No adjectives or adverbs or subordinate clauses.
    We’re left to guess what the speaker means.

Jesus saves who?
    Saves me? saves you? saves the church?
        saves our nation? saves the world? saves creation?
    Does Jesus save us from something?
    Does Jesus save us for something?
    How does Jesus save?
    Under what conditions does Jesus save?
    What part do we play, in being saved by Jesus?

Those two words, “Jesus saves,”
    hold enough questions for a dozen sermons.

But let me reflect on one,
    that comes to mind when we read today’s text from Ephesians 2.
The question is,
    “What is the role of the cross of Jesus Christ,
        in this gift of salvation?

It’s one of the most basic claims of Christian faith,
    no matter which Christian tradition you identify with,
    that the cross is a pivotal part of our salvation.
    That is, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
        somehow makes possible our reconciliation with God.

Depending on your tradition, of course,
    and your personal convictions,
    you will no doubt talk about the cross in different ways.

Different traditions give the cross different kinds of significance.
    But I can’t quite imagine any Christian confession of faith,
        that wouldn’t give the cross of Christ
            a central role in our atonement,
            and in the renewal of God’s covenant with God’s people.

And yes, I just threw five words at you,
    that are rich and thick with meaning,
    but are specialized theological jargon we don’t use in everyday life—
        confession, atonement, reconciliation, salvation, covenant.

Let me say it again without the jargon.
    Christians believe that through Jesus’ cross and resurrection,
        God takes what is broken, pulled apart, estranged, alienated,
            and makes it whole, makes it one, saves it,
            and establishes a whole new basis for relating to us
                as God’s people.

Christians don’t necessarily agree on exactly how the cross,
    or how the blood of Jesus reconciles us with God.
    There must be a dozen different theories of atonement—
        the moral-influence theory,
        penal-substitution theory,
        governmental theory,
        ransom theory,
        satisfaction theory,
        Christus-Victor theory,
        and countless variations on these.

Some of these theories emphasize God’s action,
    some emphasize our response.
Or you could say, some are more subjective,
    some more objective.

I won’t bore you to tears analyzing these.
But I do think it’s important how we think about atonement.
    It impacts how we view God, how we view our response to God.
    There are ethical implications
        to how we speak of the cross.

But within the limited confines of this sermon,
    I want to boil it down to one basic question,
    “Why is the cross important
        when we say that Jesus saves, or Jesus reconciles?”

    What really matters here, it seems to me,
        is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a sacrifice
            made on behalf of God’s covenant with humanity.
        Jesus offered up his life as a sacrifice for the covenant.

    No matter how you read the crucifixion story—
        you can’t argue with the fact
        that Jesus pretty much laid himself out,
        offered up his life for the larger purposes of God.
    Jesus’ own words say as much,
        especially in his prayer in the Garden, before his arrest.

The covenant between God and God’s people was in shambles.
    The way God intended to relate to humanity,
        was not working out.
    The people of Israel were not functioning how God intended,
        as a light to the nations,
        as a people living in righteousness and justice,
        demonstrating the goodness of God’s shalom.
    They had become alienated—
        from God, from each other, from the nations.

So not only were God’s ordained people estranged from the covenant,
    the nations, to whom they were supposed to be giving witness,
    were also continuing in their separation from God’s covenant love.
All were alienated.
    Both the Jewish heirs of God’s promise to Abraham,
        and the rest of the nations, the Gentiles.

In the words of Paul in Ephesians 2, vv. 11-12,
    the Gentiles were alienated at birth from God’s commonwealth,
        strangers to the covenant,
        having no hope, and without God in the world.
    But the Jews were likewise alienated,
        not by birth, but by choice, so to speak—
            the choices of their ancestors who strayed from,
            and ultimately broke from the covenant available to them.

So that now, there is double-alienation.
    And it’s doubly tragic.
    They are all, Jews and Gentiles, alienated from God.
    And from each other.
        Not only alienated, but outright hostile to each other.
    As Ephesians puts it,
        there is a dividing wall of hostility between them.
        God’s children are at war with each other,
            and a wall separating them.

God looks on this with grief and compassion—
    and sees two groups of people—
        people God created, people God dearly loves—
    separated by a great dividing wall of hostility.

I don’t know if you’ve had the painful experience
    of having two people you dearly love,
        live as enemies of each other.

I haven’t experienced this in my immediate family,
    but I know of families where it is the case.
    Parents have two adult children they love equally,
        who won’t speak to each other.
    Or children have two parents they love equally well,
        who have not only separated,
        but seem intent on destroying each other.
    It’s agonizing to see people you love
        living in hostility with each other.

That was God’s story. God was saying,
    “Dear children of Abraham, I love you,”
    “Dear nations of the world, I love you.”
        Live into the peace I have for you.
        But they would not.

The only way God could communicate clearly to these peoples
    God’s great desire for their reconciliation,
    was to give Godself completely to them,
        in an act of sacrificial love.

Maybe not unlike what some parents might do for feuding children.
    By pouring themselves out to their children,
        in some grand sacrificial act of love for them both,
        in hope that the children be drawn, in some way,
            toward their parents, and toward each other.

Paul asserts, v. 13, “You who were far off,
    are being brought near by the blood of Christ.”

The blood of Jesus.
    Don’t be put off by this classical Christian doctrine
        of the blood of Jesus.
    Don’t think you have to believe that God is blood-thirsty.
        That God is wrathful and raging,
            and the only way to calm him down,
            is to violently draw blood from an innocent victim.
    That idea causes some Christians to downplay the cross altogether.
        That’s not necessary.

    Put most simply, blood is life.
        It’s the most enduring and universal symbol of life.
        We call it life-blood.

    Jesus voluntarily gave his entire life
        for the sake of God’s kingdom.
    It started on the first day of his public ministry,
        when he preached that the kingdom of God was at hand,
        and started offending authorities by his subversive messages.
    He didn’t cave in to the wishes of the religious leaders,
        or to the wishes of the Empire,
        who wanted to tame him, domesticate him,
            make him underwrite the status quo.
    Jesus persisted in his revolutionary message,
        knowing full well where it would likely lead.
        He didn’t try to get himself brutally killed,
            because God wanted him brutally killed.
        No, he simply, and profoundly, and amazingly,
            laid down his life.
            He offered up his life-blood,
                agonizingly, but willingly.
            Out of love.

Jesus had other options available, besides self-sacrifice.
    He had all the power of God behind him.
    He had adoring crowds following him.
    He could have mounted a serious rebellion
        against the political powers that killed him.
    But instead, he laid himself out.
    Or to use the words of Philippians 2,
        “though he was in the form of God,
            [he] did not regard equality with God
                as something to be exploited,
            but emptied himself . . .
            and became obedient to the point of death—
                even death on a cross.”

    With the power of suffering love
         God defeated sin and death,
            and made reconciliation possible.
    With the power of that act of putting it all on the table,
        emptying self,
        God defeated the sin and evil that cause alienation,
            restored the relationship,
            rewrote the covenant.

    Jesus saved by emptying self,
        pouring out his life-blood.
    In a humble act of obedience to God,
        Jesus effected our salvation.
        Jesus saved.
    That’s good news.
        Reconciliation with God is possible,
            because there is a new covenant,
            a new basis on which to relate to God.
    My willingness to accept the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross,
        is a willingness to accept the terms of the new covenant
            God made with humanity.
        Salvation is not a private transaction
            between me and Jesus.
        It’s personal,
            because I have to accept it and own it personally,
            but it can never be private,
            because it involves me entering into a covenant relationship,
                between God and the people of God.
        That’s why the cross also has to do with
            how we relate to one another.
        A cross-shaped, or cruciform, reconciliation with God,
            is directly connected to our reconciliation with each other.
        They cannot be separated!

Again, Ephesians 2, and v. 12—
    We were once distant from God,
        “strangers to the covenant,
            without hope in the world.”
        But now, the cross has brought us near.
            Those we were estranged from,
                are also brought near, with us.
        The dividing wall is broken—v. 14.
        In his sacrificial death, Christ created a new humanity,
            in order that,
            “he might reconcile both groups to God in one body
                through the cross,
                thus putting to death the hostility through it.”

    That’s what the cross is all about, thanks be to God.

It’s Jesus Christ taking our hostility, our brokenness, our alienation—
    from God, from each other, from ourselves, from creation—
    and bringing it together into one reality through the cross.
    Reconciling. Healing. Making One. Saving.
        It’s all the same thing.
        It’s the new covenant at work.

That’s how I read Ephesians 2.
    And that’s what we mean by those two little words, “Jesus saves.”
    In this Ephesians text,
        we have the basis for Christian ethics under the new covenant.
    We follow Jesus not by exploiting our position,
        but by emptying, humbling, becoming obedient,
        even when obedience means death to self.

    You know the phrase—“putting it all out on the table.”
        As when you play cards,
            instead of holding the cards close to your chest,
            there are times when you lay them out on the table.
        Once they’re laid out, you can no longer make plays,
            that is, we can no longer manipulate things to our benefit.
            Everything is there to see, to respond to, to challenge.
        Laying it “out on the table” relinquishes our control.
        That’s how Jesus lived his life.
            And that’s how he died.
            And that’s how he brought us into a new covenant.

    Jesus put it all out on the table,
        made himself vulnerable,
        opened himself in utter obedience to God,
        opened himself to others,
        opened himself to the powers of this world,
            trusting God to work things out.

    Is that a similar attitude that we might adopt?
        As Philippians 2 said,
            Can the same mind be in us, that was in Christ Jesus?

And as Ephesians 2 said,
    “Christ is our peace;
        in his flesh he has made [us] one...
        [he is creating] in himself one new humanity...
            thus making peace.”

It is because of the cross,
    that we can even imagine one new humanity,
        where there is or East or West, South or North,
        but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
    Let’s sing together, from HWB #306.

—Phil Kniss, July 19, 2015

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