In the olden days, the first thing a preacher would do when he got up to preach was announce the text on which his sermon would be based.
Today I am going to try it out and see how it works.
My text for today is:
“Jesus is the one of whom the scripture says,
‘The stone that you the builders despised
turned out to be the most important of all.'
Salvation is to be found through him alone; in all the world there is no one else whom God has given who can save us." – Acts 4:11-12
As I came across these words in our Acts reading today, and was wondering what I could explore with you it occurred to me that it might be a useful exercise for us to consider what it is that we really mean when we speak of “salvation” and of “being saved”.
Christianity, as we talk about it, is full of words that are a bit like shorthand – the one word says a lot of stuff, and when we hear that word, we all know the whole lot of stuff that the word means. But if you are not a Christian you can only understand the literal meaning of the word. With this in mind, Marcus Borg published a book in 2011 called "Speaking Christian: Why Christian words have lost their meaning and power - and how they can be restored." The first key word he explores is Salvation and my thoughts here are inspired by that chapter.
I think the most common idea we have of Salvation is that it means we are going to go to heaven – and in a sense we are therefore saved from going to Hell. This idea is actually not as common in the Bible as you might think, and it sometimes gets people scared about whether they have been good enough to be saved – because they sure don’t want to go to hell. It is also a word we use to decide who is “in” this group we call Church, and who is “out” of it. It has become the marker word of exclusion.
The word Salvation or words related to it is found about 500 times in the Bible and roughly two thirds of these are in the Old Testament. What is interesting about that is that the only Old Testament reference to life after death comes in Daniel 12:2-3 and this wasn't written till about 180bce. So none of the OT references to Salvation have this idea behind them
We know from some of the Gospel stories that there were some in Israel who did not believe in life after death – the Sadducees, for example – and so it should not be surprising that this concept is probably fairly modern to Jesus’ time and probably foreign to almost all Old Testament writers.
What this means is that when Salvation was used in the Old Testament it was not making any reference to the idea of us being saved for a life in heaven with God.
There are three great themes of Salvation in the OT that I am sure you will recognise.
First the stories about and reflecting on the Exodus event reveal a theme of Salvation as Liberation from Bondage. Again and again the people are reminded that they were slaves in Egypt and that it was by the act of God that they were Liberated – they were SAVED.
Secondly the stories about Israel’s return from Babylon and nations to the East to their homeland reveal a theme of Salvation as Return from Exile. The period of punishment or banishment was over – Salvation is focussed on their return home.
Finally, the Psalmists again and again pick the idea of Salvation as Rescue from Peril. “The Lord is my light and my Salvation; whom shall I fear.” Psalm 27:1
In the New Testament, there are echoes of all three of these ideas in the discussion of Salvation, but the new focus is more strongly on the idea that Salvation means Deliverance or Rescue from that which ails us.
But the New Testament introduces a slightly new idea – that Salvation is about Entering Into a New Kind of Life. This is a life covenanted with God through which we experience deliverance and transformation.
But one thing that comes through again and again is that while this idea of Salvation has some very personal dimensions, it also has corporate, even global dimensions. God’s purpose in Salvation is not just deliverance and transformation of life for you and me, it is also very much about the deliverance and transformation of the church and even the whole world.
This actually touches a deep yearning that is felt by most people. Most of us live with a feeling that we need to be liberated from things in our lives that keep us from being the best we could be. Most of us want to be better that we know we are. We might expend a lot of energy trying to get other people to think we are better than we know we are, but we still want to be better.
But we also long for the world to be a better place – both in overcoming the bitterness that fuels enmity and war between peoples, as well as reversing the adverse impacts on our environment of the many terrible things we have do to it.
Salvation, therefore concerns these two transformations. This is what Christianity at its best is all about.