The New Christianity, Part 6: Sin and Salvation (2/29/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
They say all good things must come to an end, and I hope this six-part series on the New Christianity has been a good thing. I do believe it is time to wrap up this series, although we’ve barely scratched the surface. We’ve taken some important elements of the Christian faith, opened our minds and our hearts to the truths those elements hold for us, and sought ways to incorporate our traditional faith into these 21st Century minds.
Our subjects have included the Bible, faith, God, Jesus, being born again, and the Kingdom of God. Today we will conclude the series by talking about a couple of ideas that a great many modern Christians would prefer to toss on the scrapheap of Christian history: sin and salvation.
Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, which has served as an outline for this series, says that sin and salvation deal with the transformation of our hearts. The bottom line in all of this is transformation—change. Does our faith change us, or are we exactly the same people we would be if we had no faith?
The problem with the word “sin” is that we automatically associate it with being naughty. Most people think of sin as some sort of disobedience—and it probably has something to do with sex! There is certainly an element of knowing what is right and doing otherwise involved with the word sin. But as I have said more than you probably want to hear, religion is like a swimming pool—all the noise comes from the shallow end. And the word “sin” points to something that goes far beyond being naughty, or sneaky, or disobedient.
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One famous theologian (Frederick Buechner) claims he can summarize the plot of the entire Bible, and hence the Christian faith, in three short sentences: God creates the world. The world gets lost. God seeks to restore the world.
That is the essence of the biblical story, and the word sin is all about that “getting lost” part. Sin isn’t a matter of being bad. Sin is the condition of being lost—of being separated from God. As a part of that condition human beings become prideful, and self-centered, and they violate the one great commandment Jesus told us to follow. Because we can’t love God with all of our heart and all of our soul, and all of our mind, and all of our strength, unless we put God first in our lives. And sin is that powerful and undeniable force that makes us put ourselves first.
To use an illustration I’ve used before, we human beings separate the world into two parts. Me, and everything else in the universe. That is the way we see the world. We may be only one of six or seven billion people on this planet, but when push comes to shove, the wants and needs of all those other billions don’t quite add up to the importance we each place on ourselves. Any objective view of the world would tell us that in the overall scheme of things, our personal desires should rank pretty low on the cosmic ladder of just needs. But they don’t. For the most part, each one of us has our own personal needs and desires at the forefront of our minds, all day, every day. And that is what theologians call sin. It’s not something we do; it’s a state we’re in.
I mentioned last week that during a sermon, the preacher is talking to himself. The one speaking from the pulpit is also in the congregation, hearing those words, knowing that the Christian message is intended for him, or her, just as much as anybody else, and that the one preaching falls just as far short of perfection as everybody else. And that has never been truer than it is with what I say now: we human beings have a problem. Our priorities are mixed up. So instead of putting God; the whole; the greater good—at the foundation of all we do, we build the universe around ourselves, and we create idols. Money; power; possessions—these are the idols we place at the center of our lives. And please understand, that doesn’t make us “vile sinners.” It makes us human beings.
Nevertheless, this self-centered, out-of-balance way we have of looking at the world is a condition we should at least acknowledge. Perhaps we need a new word. “Sin” is one of those words that instantly raise all our defenses. But there is something wrong. And as people of faith, we are called to seek out the greater good; we are called to find meaning and purpose within this crazy hurting world, and that is difficult to do if our measure of all things is our own personal power and wealth.
Marcus Borg says we should make sin just one of many words to describe our condition. He says our predicament is best described with lots of words, such as blindness, exile, alienation, a closed heart, and captivity—captivity to our own wants and desires, as well as captivity to a culture that defines success with materialism. If somebody asked us if a certain person from our congregation was a successful person, our first impulse would be to measure his or her wealth. Let me see—he lives in a big house in a great neighborhood; he drives a Mazarati; his children go to the most expensive and exclusive schools; and he has a bank account that could choke a horse. Oh yes—he’s very successful.
That’s the way we measure success. He who accumulates the most wins the human race. But every major religion of the world tells us that is the wrong way to measure success—that there is something wrong with our way of thinking. If we can agree that there is something wrong—if we can agree that we human beings are indeed separated from God because of our selfishness—then what is the cure?
The answer—the cure—is that other word many of us have been tempted to toss aside as we develop the New Christianity: salvation. Regarding that word, even those of us who think it is very important to keep salvation as a central part of our faith have a problem with one of the traditional ways of thinking about salvation. In the old way of thinking, salvation was all about going to heaven. We spent some time on this last week, when we discussed the meaning of the phrase, the Kingdom of God, and I don’t want to tread back over that same ground. Briefly, yes, Jesus believed in an afterlife. Yes, we can have confidence that when our days in this world are over, we do not die into nothingness, but rather, we die into the arms of God. But we can believe that without defining all elements of the Christian faith around the afterlife.
If God only wants us to exist in heaven; and if life on Earth is simply some trap that we must figure out how to escape with the proper religious beliefs; then why did God create us? Life—this life you and I are living, right here, right now, is a gift, and it is important. It appears to have taken God several billion years to bring forth these miraculous bodies, these amazing minds, these spirit-infused lives. Let’s not dismiss all this as some trap to be escaped.
The word salvation is derived from the word salve, which means, to heal. It is a frightening thing to accept that we need to be healed—that we live in a state of estrangement from God—a state of sin. We don’t like to admit that we need to be healed. It is very difficult to look at the truth. We are so self-centered, it bothers us to hear somebody tell us that we are self-centered. We are so self-centered, it infuriates us to hear somebody tell us there is anything wrong with being self-centered.
But every religion accepts this fact. The western religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—call it sin; and the eastern religions—Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism—call it ignorance. But there is good news in all this, because all religions agree that there is an answer to the problem. For those who call the problem sin, the answer is salvation. For those who call the problem ignorance, the answer is enlightenment. But these religions all agree that there is something wrong with us, and that personal transformation is possible. This transformation occurs in the form of spiritual healing. Christians call this transformation salvation, and our Buddhist friends call this transformation enlightenment.
Most religions agree that this transformation—this healing—from a state of sin or ignorance to a state of salvation or enlightenment follows us beyond our time in this world. But most agree, and the New Christianity insists, that salvation—the healing of our self-centered natures—is most importantly a matter of life on earth.
This change—this transformation—cannot occur unless a person wants to change. That does not mean we heal ourselves. It simply means that God’s healing touch does not reach into a heart that refuses to seek it. The passage from the 51st Psalm we heard read from the lectern this morning reveals the repentant and open heart in the presence of the healing power of God: It’s worth hearing again. It reads:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit in me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain me in a willing spirit.
Likewise, the story of Jesus is all about the transformation of our lives. There is a hole in each of our lives, and Jesus can fill that hole. Where there was sin there can now be salvation. Where there was ignorance there can now be enlightenment. All the stories, all the metaphors about Jesus—they are surely not about life in the great beyond. They are about the salvation—the healing—that makes our days in this world more meaningful, abundant, and beautiful. Remember that three sentence summary of the Bible: God creates the world. The World gets lost. God seeks to restore the word. The biblical story tells us that Jesus is a part—a sign—the ultimate example of that restoration. Think back on all those biblical metaphors about Jesus. They are all about being lost and being found:
We live in darkness; Jesus is the light of the world.
We live in hunger; Jesus is the bread of life.
The live with thirst; Jesus is the living water.
We are lost; Jesus is the door.
We feel disconnected from our source; Jesus is the vine that holds us together.
Those metaphors are all about transformation; healing; enlightenment; salvation. Salvation is about living life in the presence of God. It’s just an added bonus that once we enter into God’s presence, we remain there forever. But that is a matter we should leave in the hands of God where it belongs. If we recognize our self-centeredness—our sin; and seek God’s healing—our salvation; our lives will be transformed. It’s the whole story of the Bible. It’s the whole meaning of life. And it’s the whole purpose of Jesus. Sin and salvation are words we need to reconsider, and rethink, but they are words we should embrace. The New Christianity can’t survive without them.
We’ve covered a lot of ground over the past six weeks; actually, we’ve covered a lot of ground this morning. I want to take the time I have left this morning to give a broad recap of the New Christianity—to summarize the most important points we’ve covered over the weeks.
First, the New Christianity should take the Bible seriously, but not literally. And the truth is, we have to choose between those two options. The authors of those great biblical stories revealed the presence of God in their lives using the world as they understood it as their guide. But these 21st Century eyes of ours know that the world is not flat, and heaven is not up in the blue sky above, and hell is not down in the smoldering earth. We refuse to believe we must accept those stories as literally true; but we also refuse to get rid of those stories. They are filled with truth to the person who will read them with an open heart and an open mind.
Faith. The New Christianity must move beyond the idea that faith is a mental assent to a series if ideas about Jesus. One can believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and performed miracles and was physically raised from the dead and will come again on the clouds of heaven, and still not be a person of faith in the sense that Jesus called us to be people of faith. That may have been the most important sermon in this series. Faith is a matter of the heart. It is the heartfelt conviction that life is good, and the universe is life-giving and abundant, and that all of creation is held in being by a goodness that we can scarcely understand—a goodness we call God, that loves even the lowest among us. That is the gospel—the good news—that Jesus preached.
And that leads us to God. We recalled that all great religions tell us that the God we can speak of is not really God, and then spent twenty minutes talking about it! That was the most demanding sermon in the series—both to write and to hear—and I can summarize it only by saying the New Christianity simply must get God off that cloud in the sky. God is big. Bigger than big. More. More than more. God is everything that is and then something more—the very power that holds it all together—a benevolent spirit that the word “Love” points to, but doesn’t begin to define.
Next we examined Jesus. The New Christianity tells us we should take a deep breath between the word Jesus and the word Christ. Jesus was a man who walked the earth. Many of us believe that man—Jesus of Nazareth—embodied the love of God in a very special way. But we believe that the eternal and living Spirit of God, which was embodied in Jesus, and which we call the Christ, is not forever bound to the body of Jesus. We can believe in the resurrection—the spiritual continuation of Christ—without having to believe that the very cells and molecules that comprised the body of Jesus of Nazareth are still in existence somewhere up in the sky.
Finally, last week, we talked about the idea of being born again, and the Kingdom of God. And that sermon tied in very closely with today’s sermon. We are born again when we turn away from our old, self-centered way of looking at the world. And our salvation comes when we enter the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that is much more than some future existence beyond the grave, but is in fact in front of our very eyes if we only have eyes to see.
That is the New Christianity. We’ve spent a lot of time in our heads, I suppose, as we attempted to re-evaluate some of these ideas. But it will all have been for naught if we don’t make that journey from head to heart. The wonderful thing about the New Christianity is that it doesn’t so much attempt to redefine Christianity as it attempts to restore the original ideas. The New Christianity is more concerned with what Jesus said about God than what the church has said about Jesus. That probably deserves repeating: The New Christianity is more concerned with what Jesus said about God than what the church has said about Jesus.
The New Christianity is more concerned about living good lives, in relationship with the God who holds all of creation in being, than in attempting to escape punishment by professing the correct creeds.
And most importantly, the New Christianity is centered on our hearts—that place where the living spirit of Christ continues to reside. And from that center, heart to heart and hand in hand, we will lead transformed lives, that in turn move this world closer to the Kingdom of God Jesus envisioned.
It’s a great journey. I’m glad we’re on it together.