Most of this sermon comes from "Work in Progress", a sermon preached on August 13, 2006 by The Rev. John MacIver Gage, pastor of the United Church on the Green, UCC: New Haven, CT. He said what I wanted to, so I offer some of his thoughts and my stories to you with the prayer that God would make them holy for us.
Who among us has not been cornered by a more evangelically minded friend or associate or even a complete stranger and asked, point blank: “Friend, have you been saved?” It could come from a friend or a family member – even from a total stranger. I confess, I used to be one of those people – the stranger who approaches you at the mall and tries to save your soul in the name of Jesus. “Have you been saved?” Those words send shivers down my spine. “Have I been saved? You mean, is there a single moment I can point to and say, ‘Yeah, that’s it, August 13, 2006, 10:53 a.m., that’s the when it happened, that’s the when I gave myself to Jesus and everything changed forever’? The question assumes such a different understanding of the nature of our shared faith than we hold in the mainline protestant church tradition.
I’ve always wanted to have a snappy comeback. I’d like to, but, truth be told, I usually just chicken out and offer an awkward smile in response. It’s a common reaction—so common that entire books have been written about what to when so confronted. I heard a story about a CT UCC church that sent their youth on a mission trip to West Virginia. After some conversation about the differences between our UCC ways of believing and the local Baptist and Pentecostal traditions of the folks among whom they would be working, an absent-minded young man piped up to ask, “Ooo, I forgot: What am I supposed to say if somebody asks if I’ve been rescued?” We had our own experience like that during our own mission trip to Bay St. Louis, MS. Our host, a traveling evangelist, required mandatory nightly worship services with plenty of opportunities for us to be saved, right in the living room of the house in which we bunked. One of our teens actually fell asleep about an hour and a half into on of these nightly services. When the preacher saw the teen sleeping, he decided we were spiritually weak. It was like reliving a scene right from the Bible – the preacher praying like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane while the New England liberals fall asleep like the faith-worn disciples. “Can you not pray with me for one hour?” The evangelist went on for another extra hour and a half, exhorting the rest of us stunned Congregationalists to give our lives to Jesus.
“Have I been saved?” Well, what are we supposed to say? The calm, cool, and collected answer for practicing progressive Christians would go something like this: “ I am being saved every day by the grace of God in Christ through the activity of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for asking!” In other words, words we might actually explain that we believe salvation is not a concrete yes or no, now but not then sort of proposition. We do not believe we are damned before entering the waters of baptism and then handed a “Get Out of Hell Free” card and a towel on the way out. We believe that salvation—and we can use other words here, like redemption or liberation or healing or right-relationship with God—we tend to think of salvation as an on-going process, a quiet transformation of our lives unfolding through the deep movement of the Holy Spirit over our lifetimes. Our congregational ancestors called it responsible freedom. As individual members of the church, we are free to believe and act in accordance with our perception of God's will for our lives. But we are also called to live out that freedom in a loving, covenantal relationship with one another. We daily live out our salvation balancing freedom and responsibility,
So, how’s that salvation working out for you? We talk about the Holy Spirit being at work in our lives, gradually making us into the people God intends us to be, but sometimes it seems as though continents drift faster than we change.
The author of the letter to the Ephesians believed that if we follow in the way of Christ, if we are in Christ, then we ought to be able to touch and see and taste the transforming power of salvation in our lives. We shouldn’t just be seekers, but also finders of grace as we gradually break down and put away the pieces of our old, unhealthy selves and begin to clothe ourselves with something different . . . something new. Life in the Spirit means becoming who we were created to be, “in the likeness of God, truly righteous and holy.”
Our faith ought to make a difference in our lives -- not only over the long haul, but right here and now. Falsehood and pretension should be being overcome here and now with a renewed spirit of truthfulness. The desire for profit at the expense of others ought to be being replaced here and now by honest labor and a spirit of generosity. Anger should not left festering, but righteous anger should be allowed to burn clean, like a forest fire, and then pass away. The daily grind of gossip and senseless chatter that whittles away trust should stop right now. As writer of Ephesians urges us, we should “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you”
How are you doing against that checklist? It’s quite a tall order, this daily process of being saved. I’m glad we don’t get monthly progress reports to take home and have signed. On my not-so-good days, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander. After all, there are entire segments of our economy devoted to exploiting these human weaknesses. Soap operas and reality television seem to have the market cornered on wrangling. They don’t call it “drama” for nothing. But of course it’s not just a Hollywood problem. I have my own personal drama to deal with day in and day out, and it’s much less amusing than watching Simon and Paula argue about the next American Idol. I saw a perfect example of profiting at the expense of others over the weekend. I was trapped at my parent’s house during thee bad weather. I say trapped because my father was watching Fox News the entire time – and I’m not fan. Yesterday afternoon, Fox News got word of an airplane with damaged landing gear that needed to make an emergency landing in Miami. When the plane landed with no problems, it felt as if the commentators were disappointed. I even found myself struggling. Of course I wanted everyone to be safe. At the same time, the commentators geared me up to watch a live plane crash. We were conditioned to want catastrophe – or at least some sparks on the tarmac as fire trucks sprayed foam to stop the runaway plane. How strange – to be disappointed that everything turned out all right.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just my inner Calvinist acting up, but all in all, these sinful behaviors seem to be so ingrained in our lives as individuals and communities. They appear to be an essential part of our human nature. Our lives can seem awfully nasty, brutish, and short. How much transformation can we really expect?
I think the writer of Ephesians understood the way of the world. He felt the need to encourage others to be better because life in the Spirit is hard, hard work. He understands that he’s asking people to go against all their instincts -- against all their upbringing and habits -- and act like different people, like forgiven people. Real, deep transformation is an impossible task if we can’t trust that that God is committed to working on us, and in us, and with us through the Holy Spirit to bring it about.
That’s part of what it means for God to share our life in Jesus. In Jesus, who was tried, tortured, and crucified to satisfy our all-too human appetite for sin, God knows just how deep our addiction to sin runs. It runs right from our doorstep to the foot of the cross, the ghettos and barrios of our cities, to the not-so-quiet desperation of our suburbs, to the hushed lush boardrooms of greedy corporations, to the battlefields of Iraq and Lebanon and the killing fields of Rwanda and Darfur, and down through our whole bloody history. God knows all this. It’s as plain as the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet, and yet it is God’s great and faithful intention to help us break the cycle and change.
But as the old saying goes, we have to really want to change. It’s true that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. But we are welcomed here not only for affirmation of who we are now, but transformation into all we may yet become in God’s good grace. We come with prayerful hope that God’s Holy Spirit will enter our lives and make us new. Ultimately, being church is about opening ourselves to being changed by the experience of intimacy with the Spirit of God.
If we believe that the experience of salvation not just once and for all, but an on-going process, we need to ask ourselves how that process is unfolding in our lives day by day. We need to ask ourselves what kind of honest-to-God difference our faith is making in our lives on a daily basis. Just where is our faith? Where is our salvation? Where is our transformation? Sometimes smoothly, but more often in fits and starts, dragging our heels and kicking and screaming, God is changing us. We are learning to leave behind long-held sinful habits and instead embrace the practices of right-relationship.
But I think we could do a better job supporting one another in our common pursuit of holy transformation. We need to learn to offer one another more truth and grace. We need to offer forbearance and encouragement for this journey we’re making from what we are now to what we will be in Christ. We need to forgive one another our faults and failings as God has forgiven us and to encourage one another as in the safety and power of the Holy Spirit we join with God and one another to work out our salvation in the on-going transformation of our lives and our world.
Exercises in the Spirit-filled Tradition
Today’s sermon continues our exploration of practical methods for growing in our faith. Today we explore the Charismatic tradition. God desires that we spend time building our relationship with the divine. The Charismatic or Spirit-filled tradition enables us to create the space that God desires — and we need — in our lives. As we explore different traditions, you are asked to choose an exercise and practice it for a week. Don’t forget to keep your emphasis on God, not on the method. Feel free to modify the exercises to fit your needs.
- Yield to the work of the Spirit. Spend an hour in prayer this week asking for the Spirit to begin working in your life in a new and powerful way. Make no demands. Have no expectations. Your only task is to surrender yourself to God.
- Nurture the growth of the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22 lists nine virtues called the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, meekness, faithfulness, and self-control. Set aside some time to meditate on the list of fruit. Ask God to show you which of these virtues needs to be more evident in your life. The change will come with your sustained communion with God.
- Discover your spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 lists nine gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues. What do these gifts mean to you? How do you think Paul understood them? Do any of them resonate with you? How might God foster these gifts in your life?
- Read the Bible with the Holy Spirit. Find a passage in your Bible that you would like to reflect on. AS you read, pray that the Spirit will highlight a particular verse or word that is specifically meant for you to hear. Spend some time (ten to fifteen minutes) reflecting on why it has struck you and what it is you need to understand.
- Listen to the Spirit when making decisions. Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:25 speak about being led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit provides guidance in our lives. Ask that you be given some direction, some insight, some leading in the mattes that concern you. Guidance may come as an intuitive sense, a word from a friend, or the opening/closing of a door of opportunity. In all decisions, test them out. The Spirit of God will never lead you in a decision that is contrary to the principles and commandments laid out in Scripture.