A couple of weeks ago, I officiated the wedding of Brie’s cousin Harry and his wife Laura in Rhode Island. It was a beautiful wedding right on the ocean. Harry and Laura aren’t especially religious, so I went pretty light on the religious stuff, but, at one point, while equating love to the vast ocean the ceremony took place beside, I couldn’t help interjecting a bit of religion in there. I said, “I am a Baptist preacher, so I can’t resist reminding us that God created all the cosmos out of love, that we are made in and for love, that God, our divine Parent, the one we are made in the image of, is love.”
After the ceremony, as I was pushing Esther in her stroller, hoping she’d fall asleep, a kind of rough looking character who I’d noticed during the ceremony called out to me, “Hey, good job with the service,” he said. I said thank you and we began talking (as I rocked Esther’s stroller back and forth, back and forth). He went on to tell me that he was a Christian, but he wasn’t raised in the church. He said he’d “gotten saved” a few years earlier. He went on to tell me that he thought God might be calling him to be a pastor. He asked me how one goes about becoming a pastor, and I advised him to get plugged in at a church, to take on leadership, and to maybe attend seminary. At one point, I can’t remember what prompted me to say this, but I said something about the importance of sharing with others all that God has done in his life. I think I said this kind of off-handedly, without really thinking about it. But this guy instantly got choked up. “He’s done so much for me,” he said in a quavering voice. Then he couldn’t talk for a few seconds, he was so emotional. “He’s done so much for me.” And then he went on, “How can I be a pastor of I can’t even talk about it without crying?”
And all I could think was, “How can I be a pastor and never cry about what God’s done in my life?
At first I was a bit taken aback by the intensity of his emotions. But then I was taken aback by my having been taken aback. I’m still unsettled by it. Why am I not moved by what Jesus has done in my life in the same way that that man was?
There was a time in my life where an encounter like that wouldn’t have surprised me in the least, where people I was in community with spoke regularly of God doing for them what they could not do for themselves. Where God’s presence wasn’t an intellectual or doctrinal principle to pay lip-service to, but a real, powerful force in their lives. Scripture calls this work of God in our lives grace.
But lately, I’m ashamed to say, I don’t talk about God working in my life in that way so much. I talk about following Jesus. I talk about God coming near to us in Christ. I may talk about salvation or God’s reconciling work in rather abstract, theological language. But most of the time, when I talk about what it means to be a Christian, I talk about our obligations, what we do in our own power, what I do in my own power. I may say something about Christ’s presence with us, but the implication is that Christ is just kind of joining us on the journey as we do our best to follow his example – kind of like a Sherpa or a golf caddy or something like that.
But Scripture is pretty clear, the Gospel is pretty clear: God in Jesus has done what we cannot do for ourselves. In other words, we need God. We need grace. Jesus didn’t simply show us a way to live, didn’t simply give us an example to follow, though he did that as well, but through his life, death, resurrection, and continued presence, he both has saved us and is saving us.
In our reading today, Paul tells the Colossians that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sin.” God has rescued us, has transferred us from one place to another, from darkness to light. God has redeemed us, forgiven us.
Understandably, many of us are wary of some of this language. “Being saved” brings to mind a certain brand of Christians who asks “Have you been saved?” and it sounds more like a test than an invitation, more like a marker to determine who’s in and who’s out. Somehow, billboards that say, “JESUS SAVES,” (usually in all caps) have the air of a threat and of judgement, and not of good news.
But despite the negative connotations this kind of language may evoke in us, the Gospels are clear: Jesus saves. Jesus redeems. Jesus forgives.
In her memoir, Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of how she grew up in an oppressive church, left Christianity behind with no desire to ever return, lived a wild life full of drugs and alcohol, becoming so controlled by these things that she thought she’d be dead by thirty, and then surprisingly found her way back to the church, and even more surprisingly became a Lutheran pastor. In the chapter where she explains how she found her way into the ELCA, the progressive branch of the Lutheran church, she explains that she initially wanted to be Unitarian Universalist but there was something missing. She says, “While in California, I spent several months trying like hell to be a Unitarian…Unitarians are such smart, good people. They seem so hopeful…and (they) recycle and love women and they let you believe anything you want to, and I wanted to be one of them badly. But I couldn’t pull it off. Four years of sobriety hadn’t come to me as a result of hopefulness and positive thinking. It was grace. Unitarians just don’t talk much about our need for God’s grace. They have a higher opinion of human beings than I have ever felt comfortable claiming, as someone who both reads the paper and knows the condition of my own heart. Having had the experience of getting sober and feeling like God interrupted my…life, I couldn’t be comforted by my own divinity or awesomeness, although Id’ love it if I could. In the end, as much as I desperately wanted to be a Unitarian, I couldn’t, because what I needed was a specific divine source of reconciliation and wholeness, a source that is connected to me in love, but does not come from inside of me.”
The Gospel is so refreshingly truthful. It’s grimy and earthy and real. It says that we aren’t perfect or whole on our own, that we don’t have everything together, no matter how hard we try to pretend that we do. In other words, it says about us what we’re usually too scared to admit about ourselves: that we’re a mess. That we need saving. That we need someone who is not us to come and rescue us. And then it tells us that God has done just that though Jesus Christ.
But what does Jesus save us from exactly? No offense to Paul, but “the power of darkness” is a bit vague. In his book, The Courage to Be, the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich identifies 3 fears that plague humankind, which Jesus saves us from: the fear of meaninglessness, the fear of guilt or condemnation, and the fear of death. Tillich says that at different times throughout history, the church will usually primarily emphasize one over the other two, though all three remain important.
I think the same is true of individuals as well. While we can probably relate to all three, one of these three may be more dominant than the others in our own lives. Let’s look at each one briefly.
First, meaninglessness. Some of us may feel that our lives don’t matter, that no one cares about us, that we have nothing to give to this world. But Scripture says that we’re fearfully and wonderfully made, that we are made in the image of God, that we are a dwelling place for God’s Holy Spirit, and that Jesus is healing and redeeming the world and invites us into that work. The Gospel says that we are beloved of God, that we matter.
Second, guilt and/or condemnation. Others of us feel that we have done too much wrong to be worthy of God’s love (or anyone else’s for that matter). We feel that we are too guilty before God, but Scripture says that we are forgiven. Our reading today says that in Jesus “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Similarly, but not the same, some of us may feel marred, used up, or irredeemable because of what someone else has done to us. Like what’s standing between us and God is not our sin, but the sin of someone else. But the Gospel says that you are not used up or irredeemable. Our sin can’t keep God from loving us, and neither can someone else’s. No sin – ours or anyone else’s – can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Third, some of us may be plagued by the fear of death – for ourselves or, maybe, for those we love. The finality of death, as well as the way death works within us, causing sickness and suffering, may fill us with dread. But again, in Jesus this fear is conquered. As preposterous as it may sound to our skeptical, rational Western world, the Bible asserts, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Christ was raised from the dead, and because Christ was raised from the dead, we also will be raised from the dead – that life will ultimately triumph over death. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that if Jesus has not been resurrected, then our faith is futile.
Jesus saves us from meaninglessness, guilt, and death.
I don’t know your story, but I’d guess that when you were drawn into this Christianity thing it had something to do with realizing you needed help, that you needed saving, that you were tired of trying to make it alone. At some point you thought, “I need God to do what I can’t do on my own. I need grace.” This is the message at the heart of the Gospel, at the heart of the Christian faith.
But we easily forget this. It’s amazing how quickly we begin to think that Christianity is about what we do and not what God has done and is doing. Don’t worry, we aren’t alone. It’s a story as old as the Gospel itself. Most of the New Testament is made up of letters written to specific churches, and many of these churches also forget that the Gospel’s all about what God has done, and they start thinking it’s all about them and how good they are (or aren’t).
Like us, they began with a Gospel of grace, but then, over time, they started supplementing this Gospel with some added obligations and requirements. This is just what appears to be happening at the church in Colossae, which is why Paul writes the letter of Colossians to them. Specifically, some false teachers have come in and started demanding that they live lives of strict asceticism. They’ve introduced rules that make demands about what the Colossians can touch and eat, and they’ve implemented “self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body.”
Whenever churches fall into this pattern, Paul calls them back to the Gospel they first received, the one that’s so dependent upon grace. He reminds them that, in the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber, they are connected to a divine source in love, that their wholeness comes from God and what God has done for them, not from their own striving.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that what we do doesn’t matter. In our reading today, Paul says that he and his fellow missionaries have been praying that the Colossians will “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as [they] bear fruit in every good work and as [they] grow in the knowledge of God.” The difference is that Paul says good works are the fruit of God’s grace working in us. The source is God, not us.
In our reading this morning, Paul reminds the Colossians of the Gospel they received from Epaphras, the one who apparently first told them about Jesus. I don’t know who first told you about Jesus, and I don’t know what Jesus saved you from. But just as Paul invites the Colossians to remember the Gospel they received from Epaphras, I invite you this morning to remember the Gospel you first received. And when I say Gospel, I mean the first true, good Gospel. For some of us, the first Gospel we heard was pretty hate-filled and exclusionary. I mean the Gospel that “saved” you. When I say Gospel, I mean the Gospel that brought you here this morning. I invite you to remember all that God has done for you, so that you may “be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and [you may] be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” Amen.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix, 45.