Sermon March 11, 2018
John 3:14-21/ Ephesians 2:1-10
Did You Say Salvation?
Today, we will start by uttering a word that we probably haven’t uttered in a long time; salvation. How comfortable are you at hearing or uttering the words ‘sin’, ‘salvation’, or ‘damnation’? If any of you have experienced the religious environment similar to mine, those words will come to you with a bit of a negative feeling. I grew up seeing people in the streets wearing a big sign that said “Jesus, heaven; non-belief, hell” and pronouncing eternal damnation on those who do not believe in Jesus. A classical strategy of evangelism, that is; threatening people into believing. It was an evangelism based on fear. Our religion was based on fear. I think we are not used to some of the traditional theological language anymore because, both as 21st century Christians and members of the United Church of Canada instead of some other conservative denomination, our belief is not based on threat and fear; we believe in the God of love.
But still, Christianity professes its belief in sin, salvation through Jesus Christ, his resurrection, and eternal salvation or damnation. And we are in the midst of Lent, the most fundamental of Christian seasons. Today’s biblical texts are about sin, faith, and salvation, and we will reflect on the fundamental Christian concepts of sin, salvation, and faith; but not in a traditional Church language.
Our gospel text starts with an obscure mention of Moses lifting up the serpent. This is a reference to the Old Testament text that is assigned for today, that we didn’t read. In Numbers chapter 21, the Israelites in the desert complain to Moses, which happened quite a bit. God sends snakes to bite and kill the people, and then they come to Moses and say they are sorry they sinned against God, so please ask God to save them. Then God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it up for people to see. Those who looked at the bronze snake that Moses lifted high, although they were bitten, survived. One might wonder, “How can God who had instructed the Israelites not to make and worship graven images, this time instruct the people to look upon a graven image of a snake, so they might not die?” In this case, the bronze serpent was merely a means to receive God’s power. John mentions that Jesus has to be lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent; it teaches us that Jesus is the means through which we reach God and receive God’s grace. John 3:16, which is a lot of Christians’ favorite Bible verse, states that God’s intention for us is love. We have strayed away from God with disobedience, which is sin, but God wants to save us from the way of sin and disobedience. Those of us who come back to God through following the way of Jesus will receive eternal life, the gospel testifies. But what does it mean for us to receive salvation and eternal life? Let’s go to Ephesians chapter 2 and learn about sin, God’s grace, and salvation.
According to Ephesians, life without Christ is a life of sin, and not true life; as we say sometimes jokingly, “if you call THAT a living.” Ephesians uses two different Greek words that we translate as sin and transgression. The first word is hamartia, which means “missing” as in “shooting and missing the target.” Sin is a failure to hit the target of life, which is to live by God’s way; a failure to be what we ought to be and could be. The other word that we translate as transgression is paraptoma, which means “a slip” or “a fall”. You miss a step, so you fall; that’s the idea of sin and transgression.
Think of a child who rebels against his or her parents and runs away from home. Or think of your relationship with parents, children, or significant other being broken. The darkness and negativity that dominates you in this broken relationship is what it’s like to stray away from God in sin. We have no peace. There is heavy burden bearing down on your heart. There is darkness in your heart. This state is not happiness. We don’t even need to say that those who stray away from God our Creator and parent and don’t come back will be damned in hell; because living in the state of broken relationship and the darkness that comes with it is hell. It’s like what is written in John chapter 3 verse 18; “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned ALREADY, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Maybe hell is a life without God. Whether we believe in heaven and hell as real places or not, I think living in a broken relationship with someone so fundamentally close, whether it is our parents, children, spouses, or our heavenly parent God, is hell.
Then maybe salvation has nothing to do with going to heaven or hell after death. It’s about accepting God’s invitation into an intimate and meaningful relationship with us. Think of being in a loving relationship with parents, children, or spouses. Don’t you think this life of love and peace is heavenly? As Ephesians says, salvation is God’s gift; we cannot possible earn it with merit. God’s grace offered us salvation, which is entering into a meaningful relationship with God. Since God is our Creator, living in a good relationship with God is life of light and happiness. Our Methodist Father John Wesley’s last words in his earthly life was “The best of all is, God is with us.” Being with God is heaven. Straying away from God’s way is sin. Accepting God’s love and grace, God being with us in our life; this is what salvation is.
Since we, the followers of Jesus believe that God is love, understand that sin is not against the law; it is against love. Committing wrongdoings is not the only way we sin against the love of God. If we fail to follow the teachings to love God and one another, that is sin. Just like there is a debate about whether chicken or egg came first, a lot of Christians question whether we are saved by faith or good deeds. Paul said we are saved by grace alone, but in the Book of James, we are taught that faith without good works is dead. This seem to confuse people into believing that maybe we need to earn our salvation with our good deeds. But salvation comes from God’s love and grace; we cannot possibly earn it with anything we do. Rather, our good deed is a response to receiving God’s grace and gift of salvation. As theologian William Barclay said, “That is our relationship to God. Good works can never earn salvation; but there is something radically wrong if salvation does not produce good works. It is not that our good works put God in our debt; rather that God’s love lays on us the obligation to try throughout all life to be worthy of it.”
Can you recognize God’s grace manifested in your life? How is God’s grace manifested in our community? What kind of responses does God’s invitation into a meaningful relationship/ God’s invitation to walk with God inspire in you? Can you hear God’s invitation? Have you responded to God’s invitation with a “yes”? If you have accepted God’s invitation and decided to walk with God in your life’s journey, can we ooze God’s love with our positive attitude, and loving and justice-loving words and deeds in our lives? I wish and pray that you will use this Lent as an opportunity to re-listen to God’s invitation to love and walk together. May this Lent be an opportunity to renew our commitment and relationship with God. May God’s love for us inspire us to live a life of love and service in our community.
Rev. Sunny Kim