Friday, May 23, 2008

Church is About Salvation

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece here and over at the Anglican Centrist entitled "What is Necessary for Salvation?" A clergy colleague and I see the questions we're raising in that posting as perhaps going to the heart of our disagreements and divisions within the Episcopal Church (and Anglicanism more broadly). We're also concerned that our inability as Episcopalians to provide articulate responses to those questions, or to even understand them, or to even be willing to engage them, signals a growing identity crisis within the Episcopal Church. To be sure, we know who and what we are not (e.g., Baptists, etc.). But we're really not all that sure who and what we are.

So I found a recent posting over at Scott Gun's blog "Seven Whole Days" interesting because, in response to a recent Episcopal Church ad ("Get closer to God. Slice carrots."), he touches on the salvation question. And he does so in a way that I think puts into perspective why some of us are just not satisfied with the response that says, "Salvation is about loving God and your neighbor as yourself." After all, you don't need Jesus or the Church to do that.

Here's what Scott writes:

... many people who are not in church have no problem with Jesus. So why don’t we talk about Jesus or, I don’t know, God? If we’re trying to compete based on good works, I’m afraid we’re doomed. The Red Cross or any number of other entities is much more effective at “getting things done” than we are.

Church is about salvation. I think the reason our attendance is plummeting is that we’ve forgotten that. The related problem is that liberals got wishy-washy about salvation. Some of us let others define it. Salvation is not (repeat after me) about getting into heaven. Check out the New Testament on salvation, and if you learn that it’s about eternal life, which starts in this early pilgrimage. The Greek word (sozo) that gets translated as “salvation” is also translated as “wholeness” or “health” or “redemption.” So why can’t we talk about that?

To put it another way, we’re in the transformation biz, not the good deeds biz. Our good deeds spring from our faith. To be sure, sometimes our faith comes as we serve Jesus in the “least of these.” But mostly when we focus on good deeds, we’re repeating a mistake that Anglicans sorted out 550 years ago. Yes, my friends, I’m talking about works-righteousness. You don’t get into heaven by doing good things. You can’t get saved by doing good things. You can’t fix the church by doing good things.

So, sure, I’m OK with slicing carrots or clothing people or giving money to those who have less. We need to do all of those things. But we mustn’t confuse them with our purpose.

Amen, brother!


bls said...

"And he does so in a way that I think puts into perspective why some of us are just not satisfied with the response that says, "Salvation is about loving God and your neighbor as yourself." After all, you don't need Jesus or the Church to do that. "

I think you do, actually. (Well, you don't need the Church, it's true.)

It really isn't possible to "love God and neighbor as self" without some divine help. Almost nobody can do this on their own; if they could, why don't we see more of it? Again: look around at the Anglican world and see if you think this is a good demonstration of what Love is all about - and consider why anybody should be attracted to our Church.

If you know somebody who does love God and neighbor as himself, you can be sure that some sort of "transformation" has occurred, because it sure doesn't seem to be in the natural of things. Again: if it were, why did Jesus issue an Eleventh Commandment about this precise matter?

I would agree, however, that "Social Work" is not what the Church is about - but that doesn't necessarily involve the kind of Love Jesus spoke about, either, the kind that lays down its life for its friends.

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

bls said...

(And let me put in bold the actual definition of Love that Paul gives here:

" 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."

Know anybody like that? And again: does the Anglican Communion look anything like that?

I really don't think so - so how can we claim to be representing Christ? Why should anybody believe us if we claim we know what "Salvation" is all about, and to have the key to it?

Love is not easy - it's really, really hard.)

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your response, bls.

You wrote: “I think you do, actually. (Well, you don't need the Church, it's true.)” Would you then say that Jews need Jesus in order to love God and neighbor as self?

The point you make about the impossibility of loving God and neighbor as self without divine help goes to my point: that equating salvation with fulfilling these commandments is an inadequate conception of salvation because, on our own, we simply cannot do it. We need something more, and I think that Scott Gunn has put his finger on it. We need transformation.

bls said...

Well, perhaps slicing carrots for Jesus is one step on the path to "transformation"? Making coffee at A.A. meetings when you're new to the program is such a step, I can tell you that - a very important step, in fact. Particularly when people are used to being supremely selfish and not actively caring much about anybody else.

So I have no problem with encouraging the slicing of carrots to help feed hungry people. I only have a problem with the idea that that's all there is to Salvation - just as I object to the idea that holding the "correct" beliefs about God is all there is to Salvation. (In fact, I think carrots is the better of the two choices, if I had to choose one. At least it might create an opening for the shocking grace of God, which "orthodoxy" may not.)

Anyway, not all people will be interested in the "transformation" message per se; some need another way in. Everybody's different.

bls said...

"Would you then say that Jews need Jesus in order to love God and neighbor as self?"

I missed this question. But I think I've already answered it, since I did say "divine help." (I was responding something you said, not making a theological statement.)

What do you think IS the goal and end of the Christian life, if you don't think "love of God and neighbor" is? Of what does this "transformation" of which you speak consist? It can't be just an abstract idea; it has to have some meaning in the way human beings live their lives, doesn't it?

Bryan+ said...

bls, I agree with virtually everything you're saying in your comments about slicing carrots, making coffee at an A.A. meeting, etc. I think we're on the same page.

As to your question about what exactly is the goal of the Christian life - that's a good and important question. I think that loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, is crucial to the process by which we journey to the goal of the Christian life, which I think of in terms of the Western notion of the Beatific Vision (while I am also learning to appreciate the Eastern idea of theosis). IOW, living more deeply into the fulfillment of our Lord's 'double commandment' is a necessary means to the end of the Christian life.

So I do not intend to suggest in any way that the 'double commandment' of our Lord is unimportant, or that we should not lift up concrete ways of fulfilling it that make a difference in people's lives.

Then again, I do not think that fulfilling these commandments (or, perhaps more accurately, trying to - since we fail daily), is sufficient for salvation. Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. More is required. And that more is what we enact liturgically during the Great Vigil of Easter and into which we are reborn in Baptism. We sum it up succinctly in Eucharistic Prayer A when we proclaim the mystery of faith: "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again."

bls said...

My point, really, is that for all the claims made in the Anglican world about "orthodoxy" and "right belief" (and even those for "good works"), there doesn't seem to be much in the way of "love ye one another" - the New Commandment.

The point is to come to love God - and from that springs love of neighbor. And I don't think that love derives from propositions about God; I think this is the big mistake that Christianity has made forever. It continually falls down on 1 Corinthians 13 and on the New Commandment - and this is what the "unchurched" are seeing, I'm afraid. They can see very well that we don't really follow Jesus, as much as everybody claims to be doing so; if we did, we would treat one another differently.

The "unchurched" believe we are hypocrites and very unloving, and they are leaving the church in droves. This ad, I would think, is not directed at us, but at people who'd like to see us put our money where our mouths are. As important as the life of faith is, mere claims about it won't be enough.

But yes, it's also important to emphasize faith, and that we are not doing "good works" for ourselves. I thought this ad did do that, though.

Bryan+ said...

bls, thanks for calling attention to the study about the unchurched persons' views of churchgoers. That's very important, and we fail to take heed of it at our peril.

Perpetua said...

I think BLS is right that this ad is not directed at us. However, it may not be directed at the unchurched as an evangelism tool, either.

The ad may be a public relations effort to raise the status of the Episcopal Church for the lawsuits against departing churches. By emphasizing the public service provided by the Episcopal Church, the theory may be, future judges and juries will have a higher regard for the Episcopal Church from having seen these ads.

Ironically, for judges and juries who are protestant Christians, the "works righteousness" aspect of the ads might actually work against the Episcopal Church.

Bryan+ said...

I'm not sure about this theory, Perpetua, but I do share the concern that this ad may not connect with the unchurched.

What is that the unchurched are looking and longing for? Is it opportunities to work at shelters, schools, disaster recovery sites, and soup kitchens? If so, would it be reasonable to expect that such places are seeing an increase in the number of volunteers? Or is it more accurate to say that volunteerism is on the decline (we've been struggling with that phenomenon at Camp Coast Care on the MS Gulf Coast)?

All of these activities are important and should be promoted by all churches. But is this ad missing something by its exclusive focus on corporal works of mercy?

bls said...

What we really should do is play to our strengths, and via something that is already in our tradition, via Anglo-Catholicism. For instance, this is from Rt. Rev. Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, at an Anglo-Catholic conference in 1923:

“If you are prepared to [adore] Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.... And it is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.... Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, and in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

Bryan+ said...

Great quote from Bishop Weston, bls! Reminds me very much of Edward Bouverie Pusey.

Perpetua said...

Here's a great article from the front page of today's San Francisco Chronicle, Spreading the Word on the Street. This man does what you admire. What do you think of him?

Bryan+ said...

This is really fascinating! Thanks Perpetua.

I respect this guy. I suspect that he and I might have our theological differences, but I admire the fact that he's out there on the front lines risking his personal safety to live and preach the gospel.

What would it look like, and what would be the effects, if more Christians across the theological/denominational spectrum were doing what this man is doing?

bls said...

I can't think of anything at all to disagree with him about.

And yes, he is just exactly what I admire.

Perpetua said...

Well, I loved the article (and did a post on it at my blog) because he wasn't only viewing these people as in need of food and clothing, but in need of the Gospel as well. And they appreciated being treated as more than people in need of food and clothes, but spiritual people in need of a spiritual community.

My concern, which I didn't put in the post I wrote, is that he became divorced from his wife due to his calling and doesn't have contact with his child from the marriage.

Bryan+ said...

Perpetua, I agree with you about this man's holistic approach. From what the article says, it sounds like he's balancing corporal works of mercy with spiritual works of mercy. I think each conveys the Gospel, but that the fullness of the Gospel is lacking without BOTH.

And I share your concerns about his divorce and lack of connection with his child. Very sad.