For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching this chapter of Will Willimon’s book, This We Believe, to one of our adult Sunday school classes. Last Sunday, when I put up the first slide of my nifty powerpoint presentation and read the title, one of the class members cheered. This class is a delightful blend of wit, intelligence, and deep faithfulness. So I agreed with the tongue in cheek gesture. Yes, it is a good thing we believe in salvation for sinners – we know ourselves that well.
We, as United Methodists, are accused fairly often of having an underdeveloped doctrine of sin. But, as Willimon writes and I paraphrase, we need to fully appreciate the problem of sin to appreciate God’s remedy in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If sin were no big deal, why did God come among us? Jesus might as well have taught a self-help program so that basically nice people could become nicer.
Of course, one of my other source documents for these lessons was John Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” Wesley may have been a better preacher than he was a systematic theologian, but he lays out his understanding of the work of salvation very nicely in this sermon, although he amplifies certain points elsewhere.
One of the things I had forgotten, but that struck me powerfully in my preparation was the past-present-future aspect of salvation. Salvation was accomplished once and for all in the work of Jesus Christ (past tense). Salvation is a reality that can be lived into here and now (present). And, salvation is that entering into glory with God after death (future). It troubles me how much thought and speech centers around the past and future aspects of salvation with little mention of the present. It seems contrary since our “now” is all we really have before us. It is in this “now” that we can make a difference, experience life, and life abundantly.
Then, tonight, in my Disciple Bible Study group, our text just happened to be the first half of the gospel of John. This gospel, which assumes we all start in a state of death, but have the opportunity to come to life through Jesus. Jesus comes to speak life into our death-ridden existence. But, we would rather have the safe answers, the actions kept at a distance in the past, or the promise of comfort to come.
It was a helpful coincidence as I continued to mull over this idea of salvation, so different from what some of our brothers and sisters might understand it to be. Today, in Sunday school, I invited the class members to take different versions of the “sinner’s prayer” and study them theologically – what points are being made, what do you find troubling or out of sync with our doctrine, what is the purpose, what are the benefits or pitfalls?
I brought this exercise because I remember a time when I was a child that I visited a relative who convinced me to pray this prayer. I was away from home, I was out of context, and she made the case with impassioned belief. She constructed the image of my own heart, locked from within, that needed to be opened to Jesus. This prayer was the way to invite him in. Afterwards, she took me to the jewelry store and bought me a cross necklace, which I still own.
I think that she thought that she saved my soul that day and had done her duty by me. I had received my ticket to heaven. But, Wesley also writes “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and that to turn it into a solitary religion, is indeed to destroy it” (Sermon 24: Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount). Perhaps, nominally, I was a Christian, but there was no community to nurture me, like so many who are invited to click whether or not they became a Christian by praying the prayer, now offered online.
To this day, I don’t point to this event as my “conversion.” That event was many years later, in a community of faith that nurtured me, allowed me to ask questions, and loved me, whatever my decision may have been. Christianity is a social religion, not just a checked box that I have accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. Surely, he is that, too, but my soul would wither without the company of other sinners and saints.