Are you saved?

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, March 14. 2021
Texts: Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21 (Lent 4, Year B)

When I was seeking ordination, the bishop “suggested”[i] that I would benefit from some depth counselling to explore some personal issues. I took his direction, reluctantly at first, but the experience ended up being one of the milestones of my life. I have never regretted it.

Some time into the process, my counsellor said I might benefit from time in a group setting. At my first session in the group, the leader asked me as a newcomer to introduce myself and tell them why I was there. I started with my perceived calling to become an Anglican priest. When I said that, a person across the circle from me said “Are Anglican priests saved?” It stopped me dead in my tracks. Pulling myself together, I gave the only answer that I thought would make sense: “Yes.” The other person looked a bit startled, and then said “OK, then. Go on.”

“Are you saved?” is a question often heard in some other church communities, but not so much among Anglicans. My response was a simple answer to what is really a very deep question. I suspected that my questioner thought in very black-and-white terms,[ii] and a nuanced response would likely only lead to confusion, anger, or outright rejection.

As I see it, one of the problems with this question is that it does not address the issue of what is meant by “salvation,” “saved,” or “being saved.” It treats salvation as a once-and-done event, which we may pass through or not, and can become just a way of sorting out the people we meet. However…

When Paul uses salvation words, it is most frequently in a future or a progressive sense. The two instances of “you have been saved” in today’s reading from Ephesians are unusual.[iii] Salvation is a gift from God through Christ, but it’s not like a plaque we can hang on the wall but is rather an invitation into a process in which we are called to participate – an invitation into a relationship beginning when we first become aware of it to when we pass from this life to the next. Think of a High School senior who gets an acceptance letter from the University of their choice, which does not confirm them as having “made it” but invites them into a longer and more arduous process – a closer relationship with the institution. Just so with salvation.

Claiming Jesus as Saviour is not so much extolling him as the great lifeguard who has saved us from death, but as the one who continues to walk with us on our journey thereafter. The rescue is important to be sure, but the more important question is “What were you saved for?”[iv] You’re back on dry land: now what?

When we hear the word “saved,” we often add one of two words: “from” or “for.” Both have scriptural support, and we need to pay attention to both. But I believe that the “for” is more important than the “from.” The one is all about the past, which we can recall, but which we can never change. The other is all about the future, which we can only dimly anticipate, but over which we can have influence. We are participants in our own lives, with the gift of free will. As we are being saved, we have choices to make every minute of every day – and every choice may matter.[v] As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians:

Therefore, 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; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)

We who have come to believe in Jesus have entered into eternal life. Note the past tense: eternal life, especially as proclaimed in John’s gospel, is not some future “pie in the sky” kind of promise, but a life lived in conscious relationship to our Creator – a life lived here and now, and wherever we are led in the days ahead. God’s promise to us is that God will be with us every step of the way!

And take note: people are very fond of quoting John 3:16, holding up placards at football games, and putting it on bumper stickers. But they often forget that vs. 3:17 follows immediately, proclaiming God’s intentions not just for us as individuals, but for the world:

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

If we lay claim to eternal life, we do so only as members of the whole human race, for whose good we are called to work. As we heard in Ephesians:

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Eph. 2:10)

Created for Good Works - Come to Christ

And who did God love? No individuals need be named, no groups singled out, no distinctions made. God loved the world – everything in creation, every speck of dust and every soaring mountain, every microbe and every human being, every atom and every galaxy. Nothing we can think of is beyond the scope of divine love.

Well, so what? God loves everything, so what is left for each of us to do?

Plenty, my friends! Plenty!

To live in relationship with another is to reflect the other’s being. To live in relationship with God is to reflect God’s being. And God – the God who made us and formed us for good works – God is love!

To be saved is to participate in and to reflect God’s being, to daily seek to do good in this world, not accepting it as it is, but helping to make it in every way we can just a little more like God intended.

God … loved the world. It all begins there.

Let us go forth and do likewise.
For this is what God has saved us for:
            To go and love;
            To go and serve;
            To go and live with God.

May it be so.


[i] Bishops’ suggestions may be just that, but rarely are,

[ii] I saw more evidence of this kind of thinking in the following weeks.

[iii] Some scholars question the Paul authorship of Ephesians. This usage may serve to point in that direction.

[iv] I’ve been asked similar questions by bank advisors, but with respect to money.

[v] The so-called “butterfly effect” comes to mind.

The struggle of my life

I went through several changes before settling on the calling that would define my life. In high school, I fell in love with mathematics, at which I excelled, and so I determined to pursue that love in higher education. Two years in an Honors B.Sc. program went very well, but I hit the wall in year three. The nature of the discipline was very different, and I found myself struggling with academic work for the first time in my life. During that year, a friend challenged me: “Are you going to work with people or things?” Good question! Higher mathematics is perhaps the most “thingy” discipline anyone could imagine, far removed from the ordinary lives of almost everyone — including me at the time, truth be told.

I made a change: I would walk away from the world of mathematicians, and embrace the teaching profession, where I would be dealing with people. I got my B.Sc. (a general degree with double math. major), and then enrolled in teacher training. Much of what I had to endure in that one year needed for certification was ridiculous and ultimately useless, but I did well at it.

I had financed my year of teacher ed. with a bursary from my home school district. They gave me $1200 (a princely sum in 1969) for my year of training, in return for two years guaranteed service in their employ. If I left before the end of the two years, the whole bursary became repayable immediately.

The first while there went reasonably well, but I soon found that I really could not connect with most of my students. I had spent 5 years away from my home town, and it seemed to me to have changed dramatically in that time. What had actually happened was that I had changed: my politics had become firmly left-wing, I was deeply committed to the movement for peace, and I had found a reason for this in the Gospel as I had come to perceive it through my various connections at University.

Long story made short: the move back to my home town was a disaster. I had changed a great deal, but the town was still stuck in its historical dysfunction, and too many people remembered me from before. Added to the problem was my parents’ prominence in the community, which gave me more visibility than I wanted.

My time in the classroom had some real high points. I loved it when a student’s eyes lit up as they “got it!” On the other hand, I struggled with those students who just couldn’t get it. I was teaching Grade 9 math., with a curriculum of algebra and geometry that I found exciting. One of my students handed in an assignment which was so full of nonsense that I had to work hard to give him 15% on his work. What was wrong? I went to the office and pulled his file, and found that he had received a final grade of 40% in Grade 7 math., and 30% in Grade 8. Why was he in a Grade 9 class? Answer: he had been identified early on as headed for the “pre-vocational” program in our High School, and the Jr. High was simply moving him along.

I protested to the higher-ups, the Principal, Vice-Principal, and the Deputy Superintendent, and received the consistent answer: “You have a curriculum to teach. Teach it. Some will fail.” All I wanted was some remedial workbooks for this boy and others like him to use, so that they could succeed at something.

I got discouraged, and I began to lose control of my class. My avowedly peace-making ways became the laughing-stock of some of my students, who understood violence as the only way of settling differences. By the spring of my first year, I knew that this was a disaster, and I could not go on, even though I could not afford to leave before the end of my second year.

As things fell apart, I had several sessions with the V-P and the Deputy. At one point, one of them (I’m not sure which one) said, “Robin, your problem is that you are a very reasonable person, and you expect everyone else to be the same.”

Truer words were never spoken. It took quite a while for me to accept their truth, but I’ve been living with it ever since. I made sojourns back in the math. world, from which I eventually received a Master’s degree, and then into the world of government bureaucracy, where I learned a whole lot of important life skills. Finally, I changed course, entered seminary, was ordained, and spent 26 years in the service of the church.

Shortly before graduating from seminary, all prospective graduates had an interview with the college faculty. The basic question was “Are you ready and equipped to be ordained?” We agreed that I was, and then went on to a session of helpful observations from the faculty. I don’t remember what else they said, but one thing has stuck with me: “We have observed that you do not suffer fools gladly. We believe this may be a problem for you in your future ministry.” Their observations were based on aspects of life within the college community, but their assessment was correct.

The two assessments from school and seminary authorities were separated by almost 20 years. Both groups had seen the same thing in me, and as predicted I have struggled with them ever since, even seven years into retirement.

Life is a struggle at times, and sometimes the struggle is almost more than we can bear. Last Sunday’s lectionary reading from Genesis is perhaps the archetypical story of struggle in the Bible. Jacob struggles all night with “a man,” who is obliquely revealed to be God in person, and who ultimately blesses Jacob and gives him a new name — Israel.

Jacob learned and was changed by his struggle. I have had my own struggles, whether or not I have understood them at the time as struggles with God, and I hope I have learned from them.

We all struggle in our own way with people who do not see things as we do. For some of us (ME!) this can be a huge obstacle in life. May we all learn to live with others as they are and as we receive them.

Trying times…

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. The novel corona-virus known as COVID-19 has brought many people’s lives to a screeching halt. A lot of folks are self-isolating, quarantining themselves, sheltering in place — and whatever other term they may be using. I live in a condominium apartment where some of our residents have simply retreated into their units. I don’t know how they are managing.

In other places, with other people, things are proceeding almost unabated, even intensified. There are reports of people flocking to mountain resorts because they are off work and their kids’ schools are closed. Beaches in Florida are apparently full of partying students.

Two different responses to a public health emergency. One may be an over-reaction, seeing danger in every other person, and everything outside the confines of one’s own home. The other is certainly an under-reaction, scoffing at the warnings of the people who are charge with protecting the health of all.

I’m fortunate to live in a jurisdiction (Province of Alberta, Canada) whose public health personnel have taken a strong, clear, and appropriate response to the pandemic. Our rate of testing is one of the highest in the world, and the communications have been clear, without panic, and helpful. It is not so in some other places, as I understand it.

I am worried about the dichotomous response I noted above.

The over-reactors display a lack of trust about what they have been told, seeing everything as potentially harmful, regardless of the calm advice they have been given. It is not necessary to disinfect your whole house after every venture outside, as I have heard some people doing. It is also not necessary to avoid all contact with the outside world. Reasonable precautions have been advised, but panic has seized many people. Some of them probably now have enough toilet paper and pasta to last them well into 2021.

On the other hand, the under-reactors also show distrust of expertise. “Nothing to worry about here — so let’s party.” They don’t heed the message that they may be carrying the virus unknown to themselves and others. Social distancing is not so much intended to protect ourselves from disease, but to protect others from the disease that we may be carrying unaware.

In both cases, the issue is one of trust. Who do we trust? In the case of the over-reactors, they mostly trust the message, but feel it doesn’t go far enough. The result is a massive distrust of all other people, who become the enemy, the potential carriers of virulent disease. In the case of the under-reactors, they either don’t hear or don’t believe the message, out of a distrust of “experts.” It’s a huge problem in other areas of life today (just think of the climate change issue), but in this case, the distrust could lead fairly quickly to disease and death.

I want to look at this as a spiritual problem. Who can, or who should, we trust? When we can’t trust anyone around us, or when we won’t trust expertise, we are left with trusting only ourselves and those who think like us. That’s a pretty weak foundation for moving ahead in life. Relying only on oneself and one’s own insight leads almost inevitably to calamity. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. We need community, in which we find both shared values and correction for false ideas. That said, we are not like lemmings rushing headlong together towards a cliff, but more like wolf-packs, where all members look out for each other.

We need to trust each other. We especially need to trust the “alphas” in our number, using their guidance to move ahead creatively and productively. God gave us minds to use, and gave some people special gifts to help us use our minds.

The great issue of this pandemic is an erosion of trust: in ourselves, in our fellow people, in our leaders, and in God.

I do not believe that this current pandemic is either a punishment from God or a sign of impending end-times. It is a part of creation, an unexpected and unwelcome part to be sure, but nonetheless an aspect of the world that God created. It may well be an aspect of the “shadow of death.” People are dying, after all. But does that mean God is absent or malevolent? I can not believe so.

The Revised Common Lectionary for today (Lent 4, Year A) appointed Psam 23 as one of the readings. Let’s stop her with one verse from that most famous and favourite of all psalms.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me.

I will trust, but I will not trust blindly.
God, give me eyes to see, a mind to understand,
and the will to follow what is right.

I choose to forgive

…but it’s really hard!

This morning I preached two sermons on the subject of forgiveness. It’s a tough issue, which trips up many people, whether Christian or not. For Christians, it’s a central matter, enjoined upon us by many texts in the New Testament. Some examples:

Matthew 6:12, 14-15:  
And forgive us our debts,

     as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 1but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 18:21-35: The primary text for today’s preaching. Read it HERE.

Mark 11:25:  
‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

Luke 7:37-38
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’

Luke 11:4
And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
   And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Luke 17:3-4
Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’

2 Corinthians 2:5-10
But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.

Those are explicit references to the need to forgive those who sin against us. There are many others, perhaps less explicit, but which underscore the point that forgiveness is in some way central to Christian life. God’s forgiveness has been opened to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If God has extended the olive branch of forgiveness to us, why is it so hard for us to extend that same gesture to other people?

I can’t answer for others, only for myself. In my case, I recall two specific instances of people who caused me great hurt. In both cases, the pain lingers, in one case for about forty years! That’s a long time to carry a load like that, but whenever I think about this matter, some of the hurt still floats to the top. In the other case, somewhat more recent, and very much more painful, the pain resurfaces at all kinds of inopportune times. (Sidebar: what would be an opportune time?)

Some of the readers of this blog will have some awareness of the more recent event. I would be very surprised if anyone had any idea about the earlier one. Nonetheless, both are in my baggage, which I have been trying to dump ever since. In neither case am I any longer in contact with the individual who caused me the hurt, and I do not intend to initiate anything. If contact should happen in the future, I will have to deal with matters as they come.

Can I forgive either of these people? I don’t know. I do know that I need to, but I also know that I may not be able to if and when the occasion arises. And that’s the problem. Forgiveness is a fundamental part of the life I have chosen to follow, but it is the most problematic part of that life. The instinctual urge is to seek revenge, to lash out at the one(s) who have caused us pain. But the call to turn our pain into the seeking of reconciliation requires us to go against our instincts.

The story isn’t over. It may never be over. But every day, I hear the call to seek reconciliation, to offer forgiveness, and to live in God’s love.

Forgiving others doesn’t mean forgetting what happened, but begins with remembering, and using that memory to seek reconciliation and a new relationship built on learning from the errors of the past. “Forgive and forget” is a naive idea. Rather we should seek to “forgive and go forward.” We can’t undo the past, but we can strive to build a better future.

What is forgiveness, after all? In the words of psychologist Diane Cirincione: 
    Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.

Pray for me, a sinner.

I-Choose-To-Forgive