Making Space – Progressive Christian Convictions: Salvation as Transformation

January 22, 2017


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Jan. 15, 2017

“Making Space – Progressive Christian Convictions: Salvation as Transformation”
II Cor. 5:17 & 6:2b

There is a story about the great scientist Albert Einstein, when he was going on a train to an out-of-town engagement. The conductor stopped by to punch his ticket. Einstein, preoccupied with his work, with great embarrassment rummaged through his coat pockets and briefcase to no avail. He could not find his ticket. The conductor said, “We all know who you are, Dr. Einstein. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Don’t worry about it. Everything is okay.”

The conductor walked on down the aisle punching other tickets. Before he moved to the next car, he looked back and saw Dr. Einstein down on his hands and knees looking under his seat searching for the illusive ticket. He came back and gently said, “Dr. Einstein, please don’t worry about it. I know who you are.” Einstein looked up and said, “I too know who I am. What I don’t know is where I’m going!”

It seems to me that some Christians have a fixation on “where they are going” when they die. There is much ado about “are you saved?” and “do you know that you’re going to heaven?”

Back in October, our church received invitations to and promotions for the “hell houses” that some evangelical congregations put on near Halloween time. These programs are geared especially toward teens as a way to convince them to “get saved”. There are various takes on this concept taken from haunted houses – but specifically created to expose a person to what hell might be like. “Hell houses” attempt to attract adolescents with promises of gore, violence, and Halloween scares. But it’s only once participants get in the door that some discover it’s all been a bait-and-switch. The goal is not just to scare them, but to evangelize them. At the end, they are shown how to avoid hell by believing in Jesus. Patheos wrote an article about these hell houses and asked if it is appropriate to literally scare the hell out of teens.

I hope you know me well enough to surmise my response. To use a turn of the phrase, my response was “hell no!”

We continue on today with this series on convictions of Progressive Christianity. Today, I want to discuss salvation in another way. Evangelical Christianity teaches that salvation is primarily focused on what happens when you die and where you will spend eternity. One of the problems with this theology is that it is not central to the Bible. The Biblical meanings of salvation are actually much richer.

So, if you reject this fundamentalist notion of salvation, what can you believe as a progressive? Simply put, the Bible treats salvation as transformation… we are delivered from a negative condition of life into a new and positive way of living. Our traditional word from II Corinthians explains this:

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! Now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” II Corinthians 5:17 & 6:2b

Salvation as liberation goes back to the beginning of ancient Israel and the story of the exodus from Egypt. The Hebrew slaves were in bondage to Pharaoh. They were powerless pawns, forced to do hard labor, and given only meager rations. God liberated them. To this day, the celebration of the liberation of the Hebrew people many millenniums ago is the most important Jewish festival – Passover. Salvation as defined by this story is when people are liberated from oppression and exploitation by the rulers of this world.

Freedom is one of the most important words for salvation. What does it mean that Jesus saved people? It means that he gave them freedom – he liberated them. Paralyzed people walked again. A woman who was outcast because of bleeding was brought back into the community. Blind people were given sight. Salvation means psychological and spiritual liberation.

As Marcus Borg says, “We all have a Pharaoh inside our heads – we internalized one in our psyches as we grew up. This is the inevitable result of socialization – the messages we received in childhood and beyond about how we should live. A common psychological term for the Pharaoh within is the ‘superego’, the critical and demanding voice that stands over us. Everybody has one, except narcissistic sociopaths and saints. Life under the Pharaoh within is a life of measuring up, hard labor, and meager nourishment.”

Progressive Christians can understand salvation as liberation from that Pharaoh within that says we don’t measure up… that we must work and struggle throughout our lives to be enough.

I had a call from one of my girlfriends just before Christmas. This is a woman who has an MBA and runs a fairly complex organization. I know her as professional, competent, smart, and sophisticated. She and her husband have a long and healthy marriage. But when she called, she was crying and euphoric all at once! “Robin, I just had a break-through. You know that when I was a teen, my dad had an affair and left our family? He just walked out on my mom and all of us and started over with a new family? I’ve been thinking about that and how angry I have been with him for decades. He acted like we were disposable. And I finally realized something about myself. I just figured it out. I have spent my life trying to be good enough and valuable enough that no one will ever think I am disposable again. I have been living with this fear for so long. I worry that people will walk out of my life because I’m not good enough.”

To use religious language, my friend just got saved! She has been liberated from her past; from the bondage of expectation; from the oppressive thoughts that she could never be good enough. The burden has lifted and she is experiencing a new take on life each day. Since then, we talked several times about the freedom she is finding at work and at home.
What would liberation look like for you? How could you be freed from the Pharaoh in your mind who criticizes and demands?

In 6th century BCE, after the Babylonian Empire conquered and destroyed Jerusalem, several thousand Jewish survivors were taken into exile in Babylon. They were separated from their homes and homeland. They grieved what they had lost and lived in conditions of virtual slavery. They were exploited, impoverished, and despairing. The experience of this exile and later, their return home, became deeply imprinted in the collective Jewish memory and psyche.

Again, the language of the Bible about salvation comes from this Jewish experience. Salvation is defined as the cure for alienation. While exile is about separation from meaning and energy, salvation is the return to purpose and meaning.

In the Gospels, salvation as a return from exile is the central metaphor in the familiar story of the prodigal son. The prodigal went away to a far country (like exile of his own making) and there he experienced extravagant and loose living. After losing his money and his pride, he decided to return home. Instead of being received at home with anger or pity, he is welcomed home with great love and rejoicing. Like the Jews during the exile, he was transformed – or saved – in this process of exile and return.

Most of us have lived long enough to know that there are ways of living that amount to being dead. Whether it is depression, suicidal thoughts, poor self esteem, living with a relationship that is detrimental, experiencing addiction, or some other destructive situation, we can identify times when life was a dead end. Being alienated or living life without hope is hell itself.

On the longest night of the year, Dec. 21st, there are services across the country to remember the homeless people in our midst who died during the year. I was asked to read one of the eulogies in the service here in Wichita. This is an excerpt from the eulogy for James B – a real person who lived and died in Wichita last year. The eulogy was written by Sandy Swank, the coordinator for homeless shelters at Interfaith Ministries: “James B., you confessed at the shelter that you had been living by the river and that it had simply gotten too cold and you needed to come in for a short period of time. During this conversation you admitted to the hidden problems that seemed to constantly tear your life apart and destroy what little was left of it. Finally, after an hour or so of describing why you had ended up out on the street again, you finally said, ‘Drugs……..I am addicted to drugs………..any drugs, anything I can get now………I will take anything that might let me chase my high………’ Shaking and trembling, your body was frail and malnourished…..your hair was long unwashed, and your clothing needed to be thrown away from having not been washed or cleaned for quite some time. You readily agreed to treatment for addiction.

The first few months, you seemed to do well. You were volunteering and helping out, and then you started to miss meals. Sometime after that you began to stay out late and then you just didn’t bother to come in at all for days and nights at a time. Your addiction was fast reclaiming you and you were but a pawn in the grand scheme of things. You truly had hit the bottom of the bottom. The eternal love you for so long sought to find with the use of drugs always had the same sad unfulfilling result forever seemed to be just out of reach.

Then, you just disappeared again. I hadn’t heard where you were or who you might be with until I got an email about homeless who had died this year. And as I read the list, your name jumped out at me. James – died July the 8th, 2016. I was saddened by the thought that you had died by yourself. Then I realized, July the 8th was the day that you physically died but you had actually died years before having been ravaged by the drugs that constantly hunted and haunted your soul. So, even though I am saddened by your death, I am happy that you are finally at peace and surrounded by eternal love that you for so long sought to find with the use of drugs. May God eternally bless you, James, and surround you with the unconditional love granted by your death that you so desperately needed and looked for all of your life………… Finally………..Finally…………. Finally……………may God have mercy on your soul.”

Our situations may not be as dramatic as James. For James, I believe, salvation came at death. He was literally saved from the hell he lived on earth. But for many of us, to use Marcus Borg’s words, “salvation is about transformation this side of death.” It is about leaving the metaphorical land of the dead and becoming a new creation. We may have become blinded by habits, by fears, by Pharaohs in our own minds. We may hunger and thirst for something more. For us, salvation is about liberation, reconnection, seeing anew, acceptance, and the satisfaction of our deepest yearnings.

This is progressive theology about salvation – it is not so much about what happens to us when we die. It is about how we live as transformed, freed, grace-filled people in the here and now! Salvation is the return of purpose and energy; it is the spring in our step and the gleam in our eyes. It is the love that transforms prodigals into precious and beloved people. It is the freedom from mental prisons we make. It is the liberation of our very own souls!

Resources Used:
Borg, Marcus. “Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most”. HarperOne. 2016.