Pentecost 23 October 31, 2010

Isaiah 1:10-20                                                                      

2 Thessalonians 1:1-12                                                      

Luke 19:1-10

 This is God’s Message: “If you’ll willingly obey, you’ll feast like kings. But if you’re willful and stubborn, you’ll die like dogs.” That’s right. God says so.

Isaiah 1:20 (The Message paraphrase)

I was tempted, thinking about this sermon, to start out by asking for you to define salvation. This congregation has become pretty good at talking together in response to the readings – as you demonstrated last week. I thought as a follow-up question, I’d ask how many of you believe you’re “saved” – and how many of you have doubts. But then I thought, no, that’s being a little too “frontal” with you. Salvation isn’t something most of us think much about.

In earlier ages, of course, and in other parts of the world and other branches of Christianity, salvation was a burning question. Those images over church doors in Europe of Christ sitting in judgment with souls on his right side going up to heaven and souls on his left going down to hell; Masses for the dead;  altar calls, being “born again,” evangelists going door to door asking people if they’ve been saved – those were, and in some quarters still are, signs of a lively concern for salvation.

Americans generally, however, take our salvation for granted. Poll after poll shows that almost everyone just assumes they’re “going to heaven.” We’re good people, God is a good God – what’s to talk about? It goes with so much else in our culture: our reluctance to look hard and deep at difficult questions about ourselves, our tendency to live in an “empire of illusion” (to use the title of a recent book deeply critical of all this).

But that isn’t orthodox Christianity. It’s “cut and trim.” And I have to say that I don’t think we can be serious about God if we don’t take seriously the question of salvation – at both a personal and a universal level. How does God judge the lives we’re leading? Will we go to heaven or will we go to hell? What must we do, who must we be, in order to be saved? That is the concern at the heart of Christian life.

I spent some time in prayer last week trying to answer for myself that question I was going to pose to you: how do I define salvation? I don’t mean how do I envision heaven or hell – that’s important but it’s secondary. I mean, what does the road to salvation look like? How should you and I pursue salvation? Because that’s the important question. The decision about salvation in the end belongs to God. Ultimately God alone judges: Scripture is very clear about that. Our concern is, rather, about what God asks of us in this life, what is the way to salvation?

And in my prayer I came back again and again to Jesus. I don’t mean Jesus in a simple, bumper sticker label sense: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” as the old hymn goes. Not Jesus in the sense of join our church and you’ll be “saved.” I certainly don’t mean Jesus in the sense of claiming that Christians are saved and everyone else is damned. My definition of a Christian is someone who earnestly seeks the light and truth of Jesus, who wants to follow his way. Not someone who has it all locked up.)

My prayer led me back to the gospel account we just heard. Here is this man named Zacchaeus. He is “short of stature,” but short also in a moral sense, because he is a tax collector, like the man in the parable last week, a collaborator with the Roman authorities and corrupt – a sinner. He is also “rich” – a little detail that reminds us that wealth and worldly success, so valued by our culture, have nothing to do with salvation, are indeed obstacles to salvation because they distract us from what God wants, and may lead us to think we’re already saved.

Zacchaeus is “trying to see who Jesus was.” Curiosity.  Curiosity is essential in faith – not the abstract, intellectual kind of curiosity, but the kind of hunger born out of our inner sense of incompleteness, longing for a connection with something beyond ourselves, something greater than ourselves. Zacchaeus is that kind of curious. So he climbs a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. What a lovely image! Isn’t that what we’re doing here this morning, what we do when we pray: climb a metaphorical tree to try to get a glimpse of this man whom we’ve heard has touched so many people, transformed so many lives? This man who tells us everything about ourselves and also everything about God.

And what happens then? Jesus sees Zacchaeus. I think Jesus sees everyone who “climbs that tree” seeking him. We reach out, and Jesus responds: that is the dynamic of the Gospel message, the dynamic of faith. Jesus responds, and invites himself to stay at Zacchaeus’s house that day.  And that is exactly what happens with us: Jesus comes to visit us, giving us the opportunity to show him hospitality. (That’s what’s happening here in the Eucharist this morning; Jesus is coming to visit us.)

But there’s grumbling from the crowd, the righteous “saved” folks. Zacchaeus is a sinner! He’s not a good church member. He’s not “one of us.” The story is telling us that salvation has nothing to do with status: with being in or out in official institutional terms. Institutions, we need to remember, are interested chiefly in themselves, their own preservation and purity; not in the salvation of others. Beware of institutional religion. We need it: bishops, budgets, buildings. But it’s not the whole or final answer.

So what does Zacchaeus do, in response to Jesus inviting himself to his house? He immediately pledges to give away half his possessions to the poor and to pay those he has defrauded four times what he took from them. In other words, he repents and changes his whole lifestyle – orienting himself to the poor, to justice – and away from himself, his self-preservation. Zacchaeus has made himself one with Jesus. And Jesus pronounces that “today salvation has come to this house.”

This, then, is salvation: to become one with Jesus – in our hearts, in our souls, in our minds, in our bodies, in our lifestyles. In how we view others, how we view life, how we view ourselves. In how we relate to God the Father. Becoming one with Jesus: it’s what we act our sacramentally every Sunday, taking his Body into our bodies, becoming his Body to go forth into the world.

Again and again, week by week, little by little. We are never “saved” in the sense of taking the destination for granted. We are saved in the journey, in the faithfulness, in the commitment. We may stumble, we may fall, we may wander, but he calls us back. We climb the tree and he spots us, and invites himself to dine at our house. Today salvation has come to us.

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