By Bruce G. Epperly
Lent 1, Year C
Lent is a time for reflection and discernment—holistic in nature, Lent embraces body, mind, spirit, and relationships. We are called to transformation in every aspect of our lives, so that we might embrace the fullness of God’s grace in our lives.
In some religious traditions, the key question is “are you saved?” Many of these traditions are clear about who is saved and unsaved, and the narrow path to salvation. As a child in the Baptist church, the lines between saved and unsaved, heaven and hell were sharply drawn, and connected to how we responded to the question, “is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” In our community, one way to know that you were on the path that led to damnation was to affirm any sort of universalism that embraced non-Christians or non-humans. To have a clear sense that some persons were going to hell was a sure sign that you were saved!
I suspect I became a theologian at an early age as a result of an encounter with one such pious Baptist. While our parents were on holiday one year, they left us with Bertha Orr and her husband, who lived in Morro Bay, California. In the few days, my brother and I stayed with the Orr’s, I became enamored with their poodle, “Taffy.” One afternoon, I asked Mrs. Orr if Taffy was going to heaven. The fierce rapidly of her response startled me. “Only humans can go to heaven. Jesus didn’t die for animals,” she shot back, probably concerned that unless I had a human-centered view of atonement and salvation, I was on the road to perdition. At that moment, I became an “unofficial theologian”—I wondered what kind of God would deny salvation to a beloved animal. “Didn’t God love Taffy as much as I did?”
“Everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved.” So affirms the apostle Paul. “God’s word is near to you,” and God’s saving revelation goes beyond the Jewish people. No one can horde salvation – there is no distinction between Jew and Greek in God’s aim at abundant life—“God is generous to all who call upon God.”
But, what does it mean to call upon God? To my Baptist companions, this meant a datable conversion experience – on a particular day and time, and at a particular place, you confessed “Jesus as your personal savior” and were baptized. To others, it is baptism and eucharist. Only recently were unbaptized infants welcomed fully into the circle of salvation by the Roman Catholic Church. To others, praying for spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues. To some Christians, calling upon God requires the right language “I am a sinner. I accept Jesus Christ as my savior,” or reciting the historic faith of the church found in the Apostles or Nicene Creeds, or the appropriate masculine Trinitarian formula….and certainly the door has been barred even to doctrinally pure divorcees and faithful gay and lesbian and transgender persons.
I have trouble with these distinctions—at some level, precisely because they are too clear and too cerebral—and that’s a theologian speaking! (a theologian is, after all, concerned with the mind as well as the heart!)
There is a virtue in vagueness when it comes to definitions of doctrine and salvation. Clarity in ethics, theology, and doctrine, excludes as well as includes. While it is important to become articulate about our faith, too much clarity defines others as “wrong” while we are “right,” whether we are progressives or fundamentalists or charismatics.
“Calling upon Christ? Calling upon God?” As a process-progressive-pentecostal, I believe that God is constantly calling us—in each moment God whispers in sighs too deep for words, orienting us toward the highest good, the most godward thoughts, feelings, and emotions. “God’s word is near your, on your lips and in your heart.” God is our deepest reality….So, if salvation is God’s graceful presence, then we are always experiencing salvation, grace, the call to wholeness for ourselves and others, even when we don’t notice it, andeven when we turn away… “God has made us for relationship with the Holy. Our hearts are restless until they find their rest—their fullness—in you.”
In the spirit of Lent, we are called to awaken to this constant divine call…like Jacob, who woke up after dreaming of a ladder of angels, ascending to heaven and descending to earth, we proclaim, “God was in this place—and I did not know it!”
Awakening can be the simplest or the most complex response to God’s universal call….sometimes awakening is a simple “help me!” or “I don’t know what to do, show me the way,” or “speak, God, I am listening” or “help me be attentive to synchronous encounters or creative insights.” And, if we take Paul’s affirmation of Romans 8 seriously, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” then something deep within us is always responding to God’s moment by moment call.
The story is told of an aggressive young evangelist who collared theologian Hal Luccock as he was walking across the Yale Green. “Are you saved?” he challenged. To which the theologian responded, “every day!” Perhaps that is the heart of the story of Jesus’ temptations—during his forty day retreat, Jesus encountered his deepest temptations—all good things (power, safety, sustenance), but good things that would prevent him from claiming his vocation as God’s partner in bringing healing and salvation to the world.
In that moment of decision, Jesus claims his vocation by calling upon God—by claiming God’s wisdom in the scriptural tradition as the path to living out his own faith as God’s beloved and spirit-filled teacher, healer, and child. And, throughout his ministry, Jesus turned to God in prayer to find spiritual vitality, guidance, and energy. And, that turning in prayer is essential for those who follow the Way of Jesus.
In my encounters with conservative Christians, they often ask, “if everyone is saved, if God is always present in our lives, then what’s the incentive for morality and faith.” To our conservative friends, there must be a threat, a closed door, a penalty, for unbelief or not believing the right things; there must be a last call and day of reckoning—for authentic faith to flourish. Without the threat of hell and threat that there is a limit to God’s love and grace, we have no hope for heaven and no incentive to serve God, so my conservative friends assert.
But, if grace abounds, love never ends, and threat eliminated, then how shall we respond to God’s grace? From Deuteronomy, we receive guidance in responding to God’s call and response. “Give God your first fruits” not to gain God’s favor or salvation—you already have it—but to live in God’s loving promises, to be aware of what God has given us and will continue to give us. For as we give our fruits, we give thanks— “a wandering Aramean was my father…we feel into captivity…God heard our cries and brought us to this place of milk and honey.” As we give, we are called to remember our story of salvation—whether it involves deliverance from addiction, recovering from trauma, trust in our deepest identity, healing from illness or grief, discovery of meaning.
Perhaps, as progressive Christians, we might amend Paul’s words, “if you call on God, you will know you are saved.” But, salvation is dialogical, wholeness, comes from saying “yes” to the grace we have received and are receiving right now…by letting grace flow through us gratefully to God and to one another…
“God is near…on your lips…in your heart.” God is in all things and all things are in God…God is in your life and your life is in God….call on God as God’s calls in you and around you…and let that call resound in gentle loving acts, in protest of injustice, in embrace of the stranger, in open-spirits that bring forth holiness everywhere. Deep within God calls your name…deep within you are calling on God…awaken to grace…let your voice ring out.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.