“Saved”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

June 18, 2017

Acts 2:37-47

 

Have you ever been asked the question, “Are you saved?”

I had such an encounter with a very earnest evangelical missionary on a subway platform in Boston while I was in seminary.  “Are you saved?” he asked me, and I’m quite sure I looked like a deer in the headlights.  Here I was, in graduate school to become a Christian minister, carrying a big, thick study Bible in my bag, on my way to church of all places… and I just gaped at him, unsure of how to respond, because I was pretty sure any answer I could give, whether affirmative or negative, would mean something different to him than it meant to me.  Before I knew it, there was a tract in my hand outlining the dangers of hell and explaining which particular words about Jesus would guarantee that my soul would avoid such a fiery fate.  And then my train arrived, and I excused myself awkwardly and got on.  I never did answer his question.

Now, I have never asked any of you, nor am I likely ever to ask anyone that particular question, “Are you saved?”  It comes with so much baggage, so many implications of exclusion and judgment and damnation.  But before we discard it entirely, let’s think a little bit about salvation in light of today’s scripture reading from the Book of Acts.

This morning’s reading comes on the heels of the story we heard two weeks ago, on Pentecost Sunday.  Remember?  Fifty days after the Resurrection, the apostles were together in Jerusalem, along with faithful people from every nation under heaven.  With a sound like a mighty wind, the Holy Spirit swept through the crowd, and suddenly everyone could understand those Aramaic-speaking disciples from Galilee in their own native tongues.

And then Peter stood up and preached a sermon.  Remember?  Poor, bumbling, impulsive Peter, the one who got it wrong more often than he got it right, the one whom Jesus had rebuked with those famous words, “Get behind me, Satan,” the one who had denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed.  This was Peter’s moment of redemption, and he did not throw away his shot.  He explained that the disciples’ babbling was not, in fact, the effect of too much strong drink too early in the day, but was the work of God.  And then he professed what he believed, the good news of God’s love made known in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The people who heard him, the story says, were deeply troubled.  They weren’t sure what all this meant, but they felt implicated.  So they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What should we do?”  Peter replied, “Change your hearts and minds.  Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.  Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”  He encouraged them to be saved, and 3,000 people accepted the invitation on the spot.

And then—did you catch what happened next?  Then, those 12 apostles, and the others who had stuck with the Jesus movement from the early days in Galilee, and the ones who had joined in more recently, and those 3,000 new members—they became church together.  They devoted themselves to one another.  They shared in teaching and learning.  They supported one another.  They shared meals with gladness and simplicity.  They prayed.  They welcomed the stranger.  They were filled with a sense of awe and wonder.  They performed miracles.  They shared everything and distributed resources as any had need.  They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone, and every day, God added more people to their community.

My friends, if this is what salvation looks like, it sounds pretty darn good to me.

Now, some Biblical scholars protest that the early church can’t possibly have been as idyllic as all that.  It was full of humans, after all, and there must surely have been a few tiffs and squabbles along the way.  In fact, we see stories of some of those bumps in the road later on in the Book of Acts.

But even if it was a little more complicated than it looks at face value, if this is what salvation means, it sounds pretty darn good to me.

People set free from all that bound them, all that held them captive, all that diminished their personhood, all that negated their worth.

Hungry people saved from their want by becoming part of a community that shared food with all.

Poor people saved from their poverty by becoming part of a community that did not let anyone go naked or homeless.

Sick people saved from their illness by becoming part of a community of healing.

Sorrowing people saved from their grief by becoming part of a community that could help them find their way back to joy.

Wealthy people saved from the isolation of too many material possessions by becoming part of a community that used its resources together for the common good.

Widows and orphans saved from their abandonment by becoming part of a community where every person was cherished and protected.

Members of marginalized groups saved from their oppression by becoming part of a community that knew that every person was made in God’s image.

 

Even if it was a little more complicated than it looks at face value, this kind of salvation sounded pretty darn good to the people gathered in Jerusalem on that Pentecost day.  And here’s why.  Those 12 apostles, and the others who had stuck with the Jesus movement from the early days in Galilee, and the ones who had joined in more recently, and those 3,000 new members—those ones who became church together—they lived in a world in dire need of salvation.

They lived in a world where those who held power wielded it as a weapon for their own advantage, not as a tool for the benefit of all.

They lived in a world where those who possessed resources hoarded them as gifts for their own enjoyment, not as common goods entrusted temporarily into their care and stewardship.

They lived in a world where the lives of brown-skinned people could be extinguished without consequence and without accountability.

They lived in a world where the myth of “every person for themself” often seemed to triumph over the idea that we are connected and responsible for one another’s wellbeing.

 

If that sounds dishearteningly familiar to you, it sounds that way to me, too.  But so does Peter’s promise.  “Change your hearts and minds.  Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.  Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  Peter said, “This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”

My friends, this promise is for you.  For your families.  For all who feel far away from God, whether in time or in space, in body or in spirit.  The Holy Spirit is promised to every one whom God invites—which is to say, for every one of God’s children, every one who bears God’s image—which is to say, everyone, everyone, everyone.  The people we love.  Even the people we can’t stand.  Even me.  Even you.

And if this promise is for us, then maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit is here right now, saving us all from all that binds us, all that holds us captive, all that diminishes our personhood, all that negates our worth.

Maybe some of us are being saved from isolation, from the fearful loneliness of having no one to turn to, no place to call home.

Maybe some of us are being saved from addiction, from captivity to bottle or pills or pictures or any other form of poison masquerading as candy.

Maybe some of us are being saved from anger, from the fierce desire for retribution that threatens to devour you from the inside out.

Maybe some of us are being saved from fear, from the gnawing anxiety that roils your stomach and squeezes all the air out of your lungs.

Maybe some of us are being saved from depression, from the black hole whose gravity feels impossible to escape.

Maybe some of us are being saved from self-loathing, from the message we’ve heard too many times that we are not enough and never will be.

Maybe some of us are being saved from rugged individualism, the notion that we have to do it all ourselves, that it all depends on us, that the future of the world rests entirely on our shoulders, and if we should stop to rest or drop the ball, everything will go straight down the toilet.

Maybe some of us are being saved from hopelessness, from the feeling that things will never get better, so we might just as well stop trying.

Maybe there are yet more things from which we are being saved, and maybe you’ll tell one another about them today, and maybe you’ll tell me.

But when we’re done identifying the things that harm or diminish us, the things from which we are being saved—we will discover that the promise of the Holy Spirit doesn’t stop there.  Because the kind of salvation we are talking about is not just about being saved FROM, but also about being saved FOR.  When we receive the promise of the Holy Spirit, we are called to a purpose holy and high—nothing less than the salvation of the world.

Because when those 3,000 people were baptized on that Jerusalem morning 2,000 years ago, they became part of the growing, expanding, evolving, flourishing movement that would bring the good news they had received to others who needed to hear it.  They became bearers of salvation through the very same promise that had saved them—the promise that by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s love is around us and within us, breaking chains and easing fears and setting us free, over and over and over again.  The promise that everywhere we go, that Spirit goes with us.  The promise that the God who gave us life and breath will not give up on us now, but will open even the hardest hearts, change even the most entrenched systems, make even the driest deserts bloom with riotous joy.

If that’s what salvation means, it sounds pretty darn good to me.

 


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