“You believe in being saved?” Howard asked me on the way to the Durham VA. I had just started interning at a transitional housing development for veterans where Howard was a resident. Before I could say anything, Jimmy, the staff member who was driving said passionately, “Sure I do!”
“Not you, the pastor,” Howard said, and looked at me.
I knew what Howard wanted me to say, and I obviously knew what Jimmy thought, but I wasn’t sure if I could simply say “yes.” The question itself bothered me, because “saved” is such an ambiguous term, but what bothered me more was the past-tense form of the word. “Do you believe in being saved?”
Just this week Alison told me a story of a friend of hers who went to a car show that was being in a church parking lot. They’d only been there a few minutes before someone from the church came up to them and asked a similar question: “Have you been saved?”
Somewhere along the line, American Christianity became obsessed with this question. It’s appealing because it’s like some kind of eternal pass. You get “saved” and it’s done. You’re free to go about your life however you want, once you get the “saved” stamp.
The problem is that this past-tense salvation is hard to find in Scripture. Jesus talked about making disciples, but disciples are known not for a one-time decision but a lifetime of discipleship to a person or cause: in this case the person of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven he inaugurated.
And Paul, as we’ve talked about, speaks of salvation as an ongoing process, a work that is being done.
Last week Paul encouraged the Philippians to be united by adopting the same attitude or mind that Christ had, and today he moves from the mind to the body, from thinking to doing. The passage Adam read for us begins, “Therefore,” which means, “In light of what I just said.” In light of what was just said about Christ, and about how we are to have the same mind as Christ, Paul says, “my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for [God’s] good pleasure.”
A few weeks ago, when we started this study on Philippians, I used the analogy of a ship that has left the harbor but has not yet reached its final destination as a picture of our salvation. I think Jean said afterward that she wished I had developed that picture a little more. Well, I’m going to try to do so now (and if I leave anything out, Jean, feel free to fill us in!).
We can be assured that we have left the old harbor and have begun a new journey. We are in process. Now, I’m no sailor, but I’ve seen movies and I made the mistake of reading Moby Dick, so I know sailing is a lot of work. Once your off, you have to stay attuned to the current and the winds. You have to adjust your sails and your rudder.
In our life of faith, the Holy Spirit is the wind that moves us forward. Paul says, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for [God’s] good pleasure.”
But at the same time, even though God is at work within us, we must also continue to work. We don’t sit back and expect to get there overnight. Instead, Paul says there’s work to be done now! “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…Do all things without murmuring and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. 16 It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” So salvation is not a one-time event, but a state of being. To go back to our ship analogy, we might say that the name painted on the side of our boat is “Salvation.” Salvation is the new state of grace which we live in as a gift of God. It’s the vehicle that carries us through life.
Whether the seas of life are choppy or placid, clear or murky, our feet stand firm on the deck of salvation, which keeps us afloat and also carries us forward. But it doesn’t move without our participation. Our hoisting the sails, guiding the rudder, and doing whatever else needs to be done that I know nothing about. And yet, once again, this ship called Salvation would not move without the wind that is the Holy Spirit, and would not exist without the architect and builder who is Christ Jesus. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. God is working and we are working.
A few weeks ago, when I first presented this picture of salvation as a boat that exists somewhere between its starting point and its final destination, I said that this ship we are on – this ship called “Salvation” – is not a single-person catamaran, but a large vessel, carrying all of us. We might see our church, Grant Park, as one ship in a whole fleet of ships, all traveling together, occasionally navigating rough seas together, offering help and resources when needed, but each one existing in its own unique context.
Paul says that salvation is a communal journey. Remember, this letter is not to an individual, but to a whole congregation. And these words about working out their salvation are meant primarily for the community as a whole, not for individuals.
The communal nature of our life of faith becomes clear in the second half of our reading from today, when Paul shifts gears and tells the Philippians about Timothy, and how he hopes to send Timothy to them soon. In the meantime he’s sending Epaphroditus to them. Paul says of Timothy, “I have no one like him…” and “Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.”
And he says Epaphroditus is, “my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.”
Add to this the way Paul speaks of the Philippians, saying they are his joy and his crown (4:1) and constantly telling them what an encouragement they are, and it becomes clear that Paul’s joy in the midst of suffering, his faith in Christ’s saving work in the world, and his motivation to stay the course are all dependent on the relationships he has with others in Christ.
Last week Brie and I watched Moana. Have any of you seen that movie? In the movie, Moana sets out on a mission to save her home. She has to leave her Island and sail to an island where the demigod, Maui is, and enlist his help to defeat some monsters and restore the health of her island, which is deteriorating. It’s only with the help of the Ocean, who has chosen her for this task, that Moana finds Maui, almost dying on the way, because she doesn’t know how to sail. Once she meets Maui she needs him to teach her to sail, and, over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Maui needs Moana help him see what’s important in life. Like us, they find themselves out to sea, on a boat, in need of one another.
For so many today, Sunday mornings have become an experience and little more. They show up, everything is set up already, the band, which consists of paid musicians, is practiced, rehearsed and set to provide a concert-like form of worship. The service is led by pastors. The people simply show up (or don’t) and the service goes on the same.
But our Sunday morning worship is set up to reflect what we believe is true of the church beyond just Sunday mornings. Our attempts to involve all of you in the morning worship is meant to reflect what we believe is true during the week as well: we are the church, together.
I’ve been trying to think of a good picture of what the church is like, especially when I talk about membership, and the best I can think of (outside of the kind of obvious ones like a community or a family) is a co-op.
It seems like many people think of church as a business. It provides a service, and people either show up or they don’t for that service. If they really believe in it, they might give money to support the work the business is doing.
But we believe the church is more like a co-op. In a co-op, according to Wikipedia, members voluntarily unite “to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” In a co-op, everyone is a partial owner and everyone contributes to the work that is being done.
Grant Park Church is not this building, it’s not the pastor, it’s not any one of us. It’s all of us together. And to be the church we need everyone to participate. When we give our time, our talents, and our finances to the church, we aren’t supporting “Grant Park Church” the institution, we’re giving to the life and well-being of one another (hopefully, anyways. That’s how it’s supposed to work).
In Moana, there comes a point when Maui decides Moana’s mission isn’t worth it. Because of fear and insecurity, he leaves her to fight Te Ka, the lava monster, on her own. But, you know all along that Maui will show up again when he’s needed, and sure enough, he does. (But I won’t give any more of the movie away!)
We need you, just as Moana needed Maui and Maui needed Moana, just as Paul needed the Philippians to keep him going, and just like the Philippians needed Paul, just like Paul and the Philippians both needed Timothy and Epaphroditus, and just like Epaphroditus and Timothy both needed Paul and the Philippians. It’s like they all needed each other. It’s almost like this dance of relationships all interweaving and needing one another. You know what I’m getting at? It’s like the Trinity!
Do you see how our communal life together reflects the Trinity!? How it’s really not so hard to imagine that salvation consists in being drawn up into the life of a God who is defined by relationship: Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit all moving and interacting with one another, and now here we are, also moving and interacting with one another and with God in a never ending dance? Salvation is characterized by movement. It’s movement with one another within the life of God. It’s working together aboard a ship that is being propelled by God.
Let’s be clear though, our church, in many, many ways, already gets this. This church is full of wonderful people (all of you), who already understand that the church is not a building or an institution but is a community of people united around faith. So many of you volunteer, and your participation keeps this church running.
Janis, Nancy, Helen, and Shirley have come in a couple of times in the last two weeks to clean the kitchen without anyone asking them.
Stacey coordinated a neighborhood clean-up through the Neighborhood Association, and a bunch of people from our church showed up to help. Who all was there?
Shelley and Stacey (and Brie occasionally) have volunteered to lead music week after week.
Yovanny plays beautiful music, and shows up early to get the sound set up.
We have members on the worship committee and the AWAB committee who volunteer their time (raise your hand if you’re in one or both of those committees).
We have a board that works so hard to keep our church moving in the right direction.
Just like Moana needed Maui more than Maui realized, so we need you even more than you probably realize. Is there something you see lacking in the church that you are passionate about? Is there a part of worship you’d like to help with? Is there a community connection you’d like to make with our church? Please, tell us!
Lastly, I want to especially recognize our building committee: Earnie, Mitch, Slayden, and Alison (especially Alison), who have done so much work with our rentals. You’ve probably heard little comments here and there, but we were in a pretty bad situation with one of our tenants, and those four bore the bulk of the weight so that we wouldn’t have to (myself included). I know they lost countless hours of sleep over the past year or so, but we’re almost out of the woods and it’s all thanks to them. So thank you, thank you, thank you.
I’m so grateful for this church, who I believe already is working out it’s communal salvation with fear and trembling, navigating the rough seas of being landlords and a church, of caring for those who are part of our community as well as those outside our community, of taking pride in our history and also maintaining an openness to the future.
When I think of us aboard this ship called salvation, I see a whole crew working together, and enjoying the good working we’re doing, doing our best to catch the full movement of the Holy Spirit in our sails, looking forward to what’s ahead, but also taking time to enjoy where we are now.
I feel the affection Paul has for the Philippians in my affection for you, who have become my strength and my joy, who have already been faithful when my faith has wavered, who have encouraged me when I’ve felt discouraged, who have had grace when I have fallen short. I’m thankful for each and every one of you.
I’m thankful to be on this journey with you, on this ship called “Salvation.”