Sin and Salvation: Transforming the Heart

Part 9 of 12 | Based in part on Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity

Think back to your earliest impressions of the Church and the Christian faith – the two are often intertwined.  What was the point or goal as you understood it?  My hunch is that if you grew up in the United States, the dominant message articulated was that sin was and is an issue that needs to be addressed to restore our relationship with God.  Salvation is what we called accepting that forgiveness, which was mediated on the cross which killed Jesus, who was considered a final, eternal, complete sacrifice canceling the power of sin.  You no longer need fear hell, and could confidently look forward to heaven.

This has been the dominant message from Western Christianity for the past few centuries.  In the United States in particular, the emphasis became more individualized: the idea of a personal relationship with a personal savior became paramount.  “Are you saved?” became a leading question in evangelistic strategies, which was really asking, “have you accepted the forgiveness of God to cancel your sin so that you can go to heaven?”  Fear of death is universal, and fear of eternal punishment is certainly correlated!  For people with minor to major awareness of sin issues in their lives, this is truly good news, and has been received as such for millions and millions of people, including me!  If we were creating a resume for God, we could put “Sin Forgiver and Heaven Provider” right at the top.

Concern about death and afterlife weren’t always the central message communicated from our faith tradition.  In fact, there is little evidence that the Jewish people were even thinking about the afterlife much before 150 B.C.E.  For them, there was a bigger issue: getting back home.  The people of Israel were scattered by the Babylonians, and longed to go back home.  The message of the prevailing prophets for a couple of centuries was that God was going to lead them back home.  That was “salvation” for them, and it was truly good news.  So, add “Guide” to the resume.

Before Israel was decimated, the focal point of the Jewish faith was the Exodus event, where Israel was rescued from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, and God miraculously redeemed them from there, eventually leading them into the Promised Land.  Salvation for those early Jews meant being saved from slavery.  The remembrances of God in worship all centered around that great event, which was truly good news.  So, add “Liberator” to God’s resume.

These are three major themes that work through the entirety of scripture.  They provide great hope for people who are worried about how mistakes and sin in general might affect our afterlife; hope when we feel lost and want to get back home; and hope when we feel oppressed and need liberated.  And yet, as sweeping as these themes are, there is so much more that God provides.  Here are a number of examples from the life and ministry of Jesus to give you an idea:

·       He taught people a new way to live based on a new identity from God.

·       He spoke words of hope to people who felt hopeless.

·       He healed people of every disease.

·       He demonstrated how to achieve peace with enemies.

·       He restored sight to the blind.

·       He brought those who strayed back into the fold.

·       He fed hungry people.

·       He challenged those who were abusing their power.

·       He touched people who were untouchable.

·       He kept judged people from dying.

·       He brought dead people back to life.

·       He taught and modeled how to forgive and restore people.

·       He chose to come alongside people no matter what.

·       He modeled nonviolence.

·       And more…

That’s a pretty strong resume.  I wonder how many people shortchange faith because they just don’t quite see all that God is capable of doing.  I think we sometimes miss out on a lot because we just don’t ask God for help in ways that God can.  It’s like asking Bill Gates to just help you connect your computer to your printer.  Or Warren Buffett to just help balance your checkbook.  Or Steph Curry just to teach you how to do a proper lay-up. Or guitarist Tommy Emanuel how to play a “E” chord. Or Thomas Keller to just teach you how to fry an egg.  So much more depth than we ask, partly because we’ve siloed faith to the sin management and afterlife realm.  Important?  Of course.  Complete?  In countless ways, no.

So, take a look in the mirror.  As you examine yourself, keep that resume handy.  How have you sold your faith short because you simply haven’t looked to God for guidance on so many areas God has expertise?  Having trouble feeling good about yourself?  Or forgiving others – or yourself? Or unsure how to deal with enemies? Or feel hopeless?  Your faith speaks into all aspects of life -  have you wondered how God might help you find your way home, or help rescue you from captivity?

In our culture today, it is all too easy to stop there.  We discover anew what’s in it for us, and feel like we’re done.  God surely is personal and definitely does want to help us become more whole in every regard.  And yet if we could place ourselves in Jesus’ culture, we would quickly recognize that they were not driven by a “what’s in it for me” mentality, but were much more interested in their community as a whole. It wasn’t okay if they were well fed if their neighbor was starving.  We need to shift our gaze away from our reflection in the mirror and look through a window into our world so that we can see how we might help everyone experience all that God provides. 

This is a tough sell for us unless we are facing a crisis.  Tragedies of all kinds bring out the best in people – we know we have it in us.  But when the urgency is gone, we often resort back to just looking after ourselves.  If it’s not our problem, or if it’s not our experience, then we feel like we needn’t lift a finger.

Unfortunately for you (if you are a CrossWalker), we have this little phrase that we say a lot: Go Be Jesus.  Jesus didn’t just look after himself – he spent his life looking after others.  I don’t think he would have been as fully actualized had he not have spent his life serving others.  Jesus is our model.  If he’s going, we need to be following.  If he’s on the move, it must be a good idea, so we need to do it.

The question isn’t will you serve others, it’s how will you serve others? So now, look out the window onto the world, and as you do, hold that resume in your hand.  The things Jesus did still need doing, and he needs you to do them.  You need you to do them.  The people who need to be served need you to do them.  What are you going to do to live into the footsteps of Jesus?