Sunday morning has a language all its own, full of words that we seldom, if ever, use other times of the week. Words like repentance, righteousness, grace, incarnation. Words that I suspect we  would be hard pressed to easily define.

Sometimes the strange language that we use in church can be intimidating, or even a barrier to true worship and understanding. One of my favorite writers, Kathleen Norris, admits that when she returned to church as an adult after an absence of many years, she found the language there downright scary.

“When I first ventured back to Sunday worship in my small town, the services felt like a word bombardment, an hour-long barrage of heavyweight theological terminology,” she writes. “Often, I was so exhausted afterwards that I would need a three-hour nap.”

Theologian Marcus Borg says that what he calls “Christian language” has actually become a stumbling block to faith for many, primarily because so many words have acquired meanings that are serious distortions of their original biblical intent.

Our reading today from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus contains one of those words that frightened Kathleen Norris, a word that Borg calls “loaded,” and which even a dictionary of religious terms calls “theologically weighty.”

“By grace you have been saved,” Paul writes. “This is not your doing; it is the gift of God.”

Salvation, being saved, may be one of the scariest words and topics our religion offers, particularly in this part of the country Almost all of us have been asked at some point, “Have you been saved?”

That question is usually asked in an accusatory and challenging tone It is a question that makes me uncomfortable, and one that I don’t entirely understand.

“Saved from what?” I want to respond.

My guess is that if I did reply that way, the answer would be – saved from everlasting damnation and hell. And the fact that I had to ask would be a sure indication that I was not among those saved from those terrors.

Questions like that are why Borg says that almost 80 percent of his students say they have negative associations with the word salvation.

“They recalled, even as children, worrying about whether they had believed and behaved as they needed to in order to be saved,” Borg says. “Salvation was laden with anxiety, subsumed as it was within a fear-based Christianity.”

I feel much more comfortable with the comments of a young skeptic who said, “When I hear those ‘saved’ people talking and singing and shouting about how great it will be when they are dead and in heaven, I have to wonder”

“What must they think about this life if they’re so enthusiastic about wrapping it up and getting on with the next one? If that’s what salvation is, then I say forget it!”

But if we think of salvation as primarily concerned with the next life and where we will spend it, then we have missed much of the meaning of this word. Salvation, in both the Old and New Testaments, is described in physical terms, in terms of the here and now, with implications for this life.

When Norris writes about salvation, she offers the story of her friend, Willie, who had met up with some drug dealers in Wyoming and dreamed up a get-rich-quick scheme with them.

The scheme was going well, contacts and networks for setting up the drug deals were falling into place. And then, one day, when Willie was riding with his friend, the friend suddenly veered onto the shoulder of the road.

He had seen an acquaintance driving past in the other direction and was debating whether to turn his car around and follow him.

“I need to kill him,” he said matter-of-factly, reaching for a gun that Willie had not known was stashed under the front seat. “I need to kill him, but he’s with someone and I don’t know who. So it’ll have to wait.”

“It was right then I decided to get out,” Willie said. “This was over my head.”

Although Willie did not describe it in religious terms, Norris sees that moment as the beginning of salvation for her friend.

Paul might have described that moment as one in which Willie realized he was “dead through the trespasses and sins in which he once lived.”

“The Hebrew word for ‘salvation’ means literally ‘to make wide’ or ‘to make sufficient,’” Norris notes. “And our friend recognized that the road he had taken was not wide enough to sustain his life; it was sufficient only as a way leading to death.”

That understanding of salvation is echoed by theologian Douglas John Hall, who writes, “I am entirely convinced that salvation as presented in the Bible does not mean being saved from our mortality, our human creatureliness; nor does it mean being saved for an otherworldly state, immortality, heaven.

“In fact, when salvation is understood that way, it distorts the whole Christian message – a message that is the strongest possible affirmation of life.”

An understanding of salvation that supports that affirmation of life comes when we look at its Latin root, salus, meaning to be whole or integrated.

That kind of salvation is a very earthly thing – the healing of people, the reintegrating of selves, the reuniting of  people with those from whom they are estranged, equipping us for the kind of life our Creator intends us to have here and now.

This kind of salvation does not offer quick and easy fixes. Norris’ friend, Willie took the first step toward salvation when he realized that the road he was on led not to life, but death. Finding his way to the right path took time and effort, happening in fits and starts.

Even when we know God is present, salvation is often not easy to accept or live out. Today we hear the people of Israel, who God saved from slavery in Egypt.

How do they respond to this gracious gift? By complaining and whining.

“Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” they complain to Moses. “There is no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

Of course, what God has done is set them on the road to salvation, saving them from torture and slavery and putting them on the path that leads to abundant life.

But they, as any of us might, begin longing for the devil they knew, rather than embracing the unknown road ahead.

That unknown road, even when it leads to salvation, is not always an easy one. As Hall says, “We should not be surprised if we are led not into immediate light and all things positive, but into, at first, even greater darkness.

“To receive wholeness, we have to know the extent of our brokenness. To become healthy, we have to face the real causes of our illness. We cannot be satisfied with quick and easy fixes.”

What makes the road to salvation bearable is that God is on it with us, even at its darkest turns. God, who is as Paul describes, “rich in mercy,” and who loves us deeply even when we are on the wrong road, will not abandon us.

There are times, of course, when scripture does speak of salvation in terms of the life to come. In today’s reading, Paul assures us that because we are saved we will be seated with Christ in heaven.

But even when salvation is spoke of in those terms, it has implications for this life.

Paul’s assurance of salvation means that we do not have to live in fear, trying to earn our way into God’s good graces and to avoid divine punishment. There is no way we can earn salvation anyway, Paul reminds us.

God has given it to us as a gift; all we have to do is accept the gift and trust enough to begin the journey.

Accepting God’s gift of salvation means living the life God intends us to live to the fullest. Whatever stands in the way of our full entry into this life with all its mixture of joy and sorrow – that is the sin from which we must be saved.

In Christian faith, we are not just saved from hell, we are saved for life. And that is very good news, indeed.


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