Sermon - 2nd October 2011
The Three-Pronged Gospel - Christian Salvation
Scripture - 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Last week we celebrated our 20th anniversary as a congregation and, in the liturgy, reflected on the journey that God has taken us on over that time. We gave thanks for the lives God has touched through our ministry, the couples we’ve blessed, the impact we’ve had and the lives we’ve saved. Troy Perry, the founder of MCC, preached in his inimical Pentecostal style and we saw a little bit of MCC history. Troy had started MCC 20 years before MCC Manchester started and, in his first sermon, held up three core values for this fledgling church. Values which are ours as much as they were his. We’re called to proclaim Christian salvation, build Christian community and engage in Christian social action. And, over the next few weeks, Philip and I are going to help us reflect on each of these values and how they relate to our own journey together as a congregation. Today we’re going to think about what we mean by saying we proclaim Christian salvation.
What do you think salvation means? In other words, from what are we saved?
The Bible talks about us being saved and offers a number of different images and ideas from what we’re saved. There is the real sense that we’re saved from Hell. Jesus talks about the judgement at the end of time when he will divide the people before him as the shepherd divides the sheep from the goats; those who have served the poor and recognised Christ in the stranger are sent to eternal bliss and those who have ignored the poor and Christ in the stranger are sent to doom. In the summer Ian and I visited a number of churches and castles in the South West of France and travelled around what is now called Cathar country. The Cathars were Christian heretics who were savagely persecuted by the Church. Their ideas were a bit odd, but they ordained women, lived in noble poverty and simplicity and knew what they believed. They were popular but their refusal to have sex meant that very few joined up! Albi Cathedral was built as a fortress to show the power of the Church and inside is an impressive, if rather grisly, picture of the Last Judgement where the heretics and sinners were sent off to their eternal doom. It’s not popular to think of hell now, yet there is a strand of Christian teaching in the Bible which talks about judgement.
Then the New Testament talks about us being saved from death – both physical and spiritual. St Paul writes, in his first letter to the Corinthians that, that Christ is the first of the dead to rise but that, at the end of time, we shall all be raised. Judgement follows resurrection, but there is a real idea in Pauline theology that we’re raised, physically, and that eternity is spent, embodied, on the new heaven and new earth that the book of Revelation talks about.
Some like to think of the salvation from death as being a spiritual reality and focus on Jesus’ words “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly”. Christian Aid picked up on this a few years ago with their slogan “We believe in life before death”. Paul also seems to write about this as we heard in our reading today – when he teaches that in Christ we become new creations, the old passes away and the new comes to fruition.
So in these three ways we can think about salvation – being saved from hell, being saved from death and being saved from ourselves.
Saved from Hell
It took the earliest Church some time to reflect and work out what had happened when Jesus died and rose again. At first the earliest apostles were caught up in the experience of the Risen Lord and their subsequent calling to go and preach. They preached at first to the Jewish people and, in many ways, this new Christian movement was a sub-sect of Judaism. But it took some time for the Church to start to reflect on what the meaning was of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. How could part of God die? The earliest view seems to be that Christ was a ransom demanded by Satan in return for humanity. Because of human sin our race had come under the authority of Satan, but Satan was greedy and always wanted more so God offered his own self in the person of Jesus and Satan took the bait. But he couldn’t hold Jesus as Jesus was without sin so God raised him from the dead and destroyed Satan’s power. But more than that, as Jesus rose we, sort of hold onto his robe and are pulled from the grave with him. It’s the image CS Lewis uses in his Narnia books where the witch is tricked into accepting the death of Aslan, but the grave could not hold him. The church taught that because God had defeated Satan those who are a loyal to God are rescued from Hell – which we deserve because of our sins.
Other views of what being rescued from Hell might mean have come and now there are lots of different theories, some much more conservative, some much more liberal. Many Christians struggle with the idea of Hell and for a long time I did – after all it’s not easy to believe in a God who could send people to Hell. But as I have got older I’ve found it difficult to believe in a God who would ignore injustice. Many people go unpunished for their crimes in this world and I believe that God will right those wrongs. Some believe that people send themselves to Hell by turning away time and time again from the chance to live in a loving just way and, at the end, they will ultimately turn away from God.
Saved From Death
A related idea to that of being saved from Hell is the idea that we’re saved from death. This is hard, we all know people who have died – in fact we will all die so this idea of being saved from death is odd. St Paul wrote a long passage in his first letter to the Church in Corinth where he held that Jesus was the first to rise from the dead, but the first of many. At the end of time, Paul writes, we will all be raised. Those who are loyal to Christ will live with him forever. It’s quite a different view to the idea in popular culture we have about heaven – sort of white clouds, disembodied souls and angels with harps. It’s quite an earthy view – that we will rise, as we are with bodies (after all without a body what are we?) and will live on a new heaven and a new earth. This idea leads Paul to write “death where is you sting, grave where is your victory”. It’s the idea that death is not the end, that at the end of time we shall rise. Those who are dead simply sleep until the end. I like the idea and it seems better to me than the idea of a heaven where we don’t have bodies and spend a lot of time wafting around.
Saved from Ourselves
There is another death we’re saved from – spiritual death. We all know the dangers of living purely for the moment with no thought for others or for deeper values than the amount of money we earn. We know the danger of being totally self-centred and selfish and we tend to be repelled by the company of people who live in this way. Yet our culture is fascinated by the selfish and self-centred. We’re constantly told by cosmetic companies that we’re “worth it”. Marketing makes us hunger for more and more material goods which have an illusion of satisfaction. Jesus said that he came that we may have life, and have that life abundantly.
We’re saved from a life of selfishness and self-centredness. In our By Laws there is a Statement of Faith which individual churches, clergy and members sign up to when they join – it’s essentially a 1960s re-working of the Apostles’ Creed. When it was written they said that we’re saved from “loneliness, despair and degradation” which may be a reference to hell as well as a reference to what life is like without God.
We muse on these three ideas. At different times in our lives one or other of these ideas may seem more or less attractive to us; the idea of being saved from Hell and Judgement, the idea of being saved from death and the idea of being saved from ourselves are all powerful. My sense is that many people realise the need to find another aspect to their lives, a spirituality which helps them overcome their selfishness and preoccupation with things that, ultimately, don’t really matter.
Our role as a church and as individuals is to proclaim this idea of Christian salvation – the fact that we’re saved from all that drags us down, from all that denies life and liberation, from all that is bad and deadly. It’s the faith of the church that has been proclaimed since the beginning, it’s a core value of MCC that we have been seeking to proclaim for our last 20 years and will, hopefully, be proclaiming for the next two decades.
We thank you that you have saved us,
that you are saving us and that you will save us in the end.
We thank you that we need not fear judgement if we remain loyal to you,
We thank you that you continually draw our eyes from ourselves and help us to focus on those around us who need to know of your love.
Help us to proclaim your loving kindness,
That you may continue to rescue us from loneliness, despair and degradation
Now and always