Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Lent 5, March 28, 2004, dedicated to the memory of Lorraine Richardson and Martha Nielsen, to Maxton Connor Cerny on his baptismal day and to the glory of God!
(Part VI of VIII in the sermon series "The Heart of Christianity")
Phillipians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Throughout this series on "The Heart of Christianity" I have opened the texts of scripture and examined our theological understanding of Christian faith in new ways. Looking at the emerging paradigms in our faith, I have attempted to assist you in viewing our old story through new lenses. Next week I will offer a brief meditation on the Passion of the Christ and on Easter, the Resurrection of the Christ. Today, sin and salvation find their way to the heart of Christianity.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
At the heart of emerging Christianity is open-heartedness. To understand the open heart, we begin with the closed heart. The closed heart is one which has limited vision. Like Pharaoh's heart, it is a heart in bondage and locked out of feeling. It is a heart without gratitude - when successful, the closed heart can feel self-made and entitled. When not successful, this heart with no gratitude can feel bitter and cheated. It is a heart insensitive to awe and wonder. A closed heart is also insensitive to injustice and hardship. It is a heart which forgets God. It loses track of mystery. It clings to misery. A closed heart lacks compassion and the ability to feel the suffering of others. It is a heart locked within a shell.
The open heart of Christian faith bears the opposite the characteristics of a closed heart. It looks different. An open heart can see a vision of a better world. It is alive to wonder and grace. It moves from darkness to light. It is defined by radical amazement. An open heart is one in which gratitude guides its gift giving and response to the world. With an open heart, compassion and a passion for justice go together. After all, the purpose of a Christian life is to become more and more compassionate beings. And an open heart welcomes the Holy Spirit and is guided by the Spirit's power and presence to live and be this way. The open heart not only remembers God, but seeks God's way in each and every day (drawn from Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 2003, pp.151-154, 161-163).
At the time of his death, while on a peacekeeping mission in the Congo, Secretary General, Swedish diplomat and Christian mystic, Dag Hammarskjold, had written this prayer in his journal: Give us pure hearts that we may see you; Humble hearts, that we may hear you; hearts of love, that we may serve you; hearts of faith, that we may abide in you." (From Markings, London: Faber and Faber, 1964, p. 93). This is a prayer from an open heart.
As we confess the truth of our lives, many of us would need to admit that too much of what we do and what we say grows out of closed hearts. I admit to you that in my life and in this church, the people who inspire me are people with open hearts. They are people for whom the shell around their hearts has been cracked and God's Spirit of compassion and passion has moved them beyond them beyond clinging to closed ways and has opened them to new ways of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and feeling our lives lived in God's love.
The open heart crosses, what Celtic spirituality calls, "the thin places" between this world and eternity and takes up residence on eternity's side. For today's purposes, it is the open heart which moves us beyond closed interpretations of sin and salvation. Hopefully, with an open heart, I cross over the "thin places" and offer these brief insights into sin and salvation.
"The language of sin (and forgiveness) dominates the Christian imagination." In most Christian worship services, we have a Confession of Sin. In many services where this corporate confession is taken out, the preacher delivers his or her own version of sin talk (open veiled in the language of "God talk"). From the vantage point of other religions, our Christian emphasis on sin looks strange. Marcus Borg comments that one friendly Buddhist offered this: "You Christians must be very bad people - you are always confessing your sins" (Ibid., p. 165).
Our scriptural story certainly addresses sin as central to defining whom we are and who might become. Frederick Buechner uses these words to describe the Bible's central plot: "I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it" (F. Buechner, The Clown in the Belfry, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992, p. 44).
As the world gets lost, we get lost. And "Sin" has become the word chosen to describe our lostness in the world. But, is "sin" the best word to describe our condition? Sin is word with many meanings and even more interpretations. For some it means "disobedience." For others it means "Pride" (Reinhold Niebuhr). For others sin means "Separation" (Paul Tillich). Sin can also mean "unfaithfulness" to God or "un-faith" or lacking trust in God. All these interpretations are wise and right, but the question still remains - is sin the best word to get at the condition of lostness? (See The Heart of Christianity, pp. 164-186 for more on Sin and Salvation).
As I said earlier, a closed heart is one which suffers from a lack of seeing and hearing; a lack of feeling and tasting the goodness of God. It suffers from exile, bondage, hunger and thirst, from lostness - and sin. But, to become an open heart, forgiveness (the solution most often offered for sin) is not a solution at all. If blind, we need to see. If in exile, we need to return. If in bondage, we need liberation. Rather than talking about "forgiveness of sin," you and I need to move through our lostness and brokenness by opening our closed hearts. We need to move through the thin places of pain to healing.
For all too many of us, the central existential issue of our lives is not a sense of sin. We may be feeling the effects of victimization. We may feel like the pain we are experiencing from domestic abuse or abuse in a variety of ways is not of our doing. Asking for forgiveness is not the prevailing issue for our lives. Overcoming the bondage of our life experience - whether present or past - is the issue.
In this regard, the only way through is salvation. Like "Sin," "Salvation" is a loaded and multilayered word. It is a rich term, most often associated with "heaven" or "going to heaven." The question "Are you saved?" most often means "Are you confident that you'll go to heaven when you die?" For many, salvation is about the next world. But, I feel this interpretation damages one of the most beautiful words of the scriptures.
Salvation is rarely used in the Bible to refer to the afterlife. Not until the last chapter of the last text of Hebrew Scripture in the writings of Daniel, (written around 165 B.C.E.) , does salvation appear as an "afterlife" concept. Although Jesus believes in the afterlife, he doesn't talk much about it. John's gospel and Paul's writings affirm the afterlife, but both are much more interested in living a "new life in Christ" - both in personal and social dimensions. New life in Christ involves dying to the old self and rising in the Christ - again - crossing the thin places from closed to open heartedness! Even life in the age to come, referred to in John's gospel, is believed to be life in an age which has come! John 17:3 says, "This is eternal life - to know God!" Thus, to know God in the present is to experience the life of the age to come. It is a present reality for John, even as it becomes a future destiny (reference to Borg, pp. 172-175).
Overcoming Sin and experiencing Salvation is more about resolve than repentance; more about liberation, homecoming, forgiveness and acceptance than about the afterlife. As Marcus Borg posits, "Whenever the afterlife is emphasized, the most invariable result is that it turns Christianity into a religion of requirements" . . . It creates an "in-group" and an "out-group" (some are going and some are not) . . . and it focuses our attention on the next world rather than on transformation on this world (Ibid., p. 172).
Since the word most often used for "salvation" in the New Testament is "Soteria" which means "soundness," or "Healthy living," I believe it is salvation is about our healing. "Savior" comes from the same root. It means "The healthy one." Paul's most often used word is "Sodzo," which means "to save," or "to help toward healing." Salvation is about health and healing. Jesus, our Savior, is most interested in helping us "take the garbage out of our lives." He is most interested in helping us be whole rather than helping us into a world beyond this one.
There is so much more that I could say about sin and salvation. Time does not allow. I simply encourage you to be aware of your own heart. Is it closed? Is it open? To be a Christian means to find our home in the open heart. It means to empty ourselves - so much so - that we can be filled with God's abundant love. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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