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That Kind of Language

February 18, 2013

“That Kind of Language” Romans 10:5-13 © 2.17.13 Lent 1C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Some years ago, a former employee of the National Park Service in Valley Forge, PA told the story of a demented man who climbed the steeple of the Valley Forge Episcopal Church. Halfway up, he decided to undress. When he reached the top, he discovered that he was afraid to climb down, and he yelled for help.

The priest of the parish called 911, and the fire departments of two counties responded while the man shouted, “Save me! Save me!”

The rector seemed not to be as concerned about the man’s indecent exposure or the danger of his falling as with what he was saying. With a smile, the priest said to one of the police officers standing there: “Get that man down! This is an Episcopal church! We don’t use that kind of language around here!”

The priest’s light-hearted response to the situation reveals a more serious truth. We in the formerly mainline churches really don’t “use that kind of language around here.” If someone were to ask us “Are you saved?”, we might respond the way one of the presidents of Stillman College did. The distinguished, well-dressed scholar had just come to the school and was walking across campus in Tuscaloosa. His peaceful stroll was interrupted by two zealous students who had no idea who he was and didn’t care. All they wanted to know was if he were saved. “Saved? From what? Is there some danger I should know about?”

If we’re not disposed to be so sarcastic, we might be offended that a complete stranger or even a friend would ask such a personal question, and say “How dare you! None of your (expletive deleted) business!” Or maybe we might hesitate and stumble, finally answering, “Well, I don’t know; I guess so. What does that mean, anyway?”

We react the way we do because that particular question quite often implies a whole theology and cloaks a hidden agenda. We associate it with evangelistic, high-pressure crusades, revivals or youth lock-ins; scare tactics used with even young children; or maybe novels that tell us how we will be “left behind” in a so-called “rapture” if we don’t accept Jesus and shun evil. We just don’t use that kind of language around here.

And that’s a shame. Because the word “saved” is a good one, and the question is important. Are we really going to let the fundamentalists have this part of faith as well, along with the Second Coming and witnessing to people about Christ? I, for one, say “No way!” Let’s be clear on what it means to be saved, and let’s know—not guess, not hem and haw, not wonder or fear—let’s know when someone asks us “Are you saved?”

Yes, “saved” is a good word. A dynamic, rich, biblical word. In the Hebrew scriptures, it quite often refers to rescue from a tight spot. A king is outnumbered, about to lose the battle and his life, when suddenly the cavalry comes over the hill. And it is God who has done it. Or the poet sings about being put in a broad place, where he can breathe again, and be free. At still other times, being saved is the experience a girl in my church in Alabama once described in her confirmation examination. “It’s like being lifted from a pit,” she said. Exactly. A hopeless situation you cannot get out of yourself; someone else helps you, saves your life.

There’s a gospel story about a sick woman who looks to Jesus for deliverance from disease. When she touches but the hem of his garment, she is healed. And what does he say to her? “Your faith has made you well.” The word he uses in Greek, though, is sozo, “saved.” “Your faith has saved you.” Salvation covers everything we are—body, mind, spirit.

No doubt Paul had all this in the back of his mind when he spoke to the Romans about being saved. But what was in the front of his mind was how we “get saved,” as they say. And there is only one word he needs: Jesus. We might say the apostle gathers up in a bundle all the notions of salvation and makes them part of the reality of Jesus Christ. Or that he wrote them all down on a page, then put across the lines in big, bold letters: JESUS. It is in Jesus that God has acted with a generosity that both amazes and humbles us.

Being saved is entering into and living in a relationship with this One in whom God has shown his love. It’s not just believing in God. Lots of people believe in God, including folks who don’t go to or belong to any church; polls consistently show that. Scripture says even the demons believe in God, and they tremble. No. Being saved means trusting in Jesus Christ for deliverance. And even more than that. It’s about our whole lives. Paul says “confess with your lips Jesus as Lord,” and you will be saved.

Did you get that? “Lord.” That means handing over control, getting out of the driver’s seat, giving Jesus ultimate and unswerving loyalty. An old tune from one of the pioneers of praise and worship music, the band Love Song, puts it nicely and humorously: “I was sittin’ in the front seat, tryin’ really hard to be the driver. Thinkin’ I was makin’ real good time, but always windin’ up the late arriver. But now I’ve been tryin’ out the back seat, and I’m findin’ it’s a very great relief. Now I’m ridin’ in the back seat, and leavin’ all the drivin’ to the Chief” (Tom Coomes/Chuck Girard).

More conventionally, we can say calling Jesus “Lord” means obeying his word and following where he leads. “Lord.” 24/7/365. “Lord.” In the bedroom and the boardroom, the classroom and the council chamber, in the kitchen and the office, on the sports field, playground, battleground, burial ground, the session room and the sanctuary. Up or down or out. Lord of our hands and our head and our lips and our heart. There’s an old cliché that’s no less true for being so common: “He has to be Lord of all or he is not Lord at all.”

And sisters and brothers, note this, too. This relationship with Jesus as Lord is a public commitment; we talk about it. “Confess with your lips,” Paul says. Not us! Oh, I’ve heard the reasons. Talk is cheap. It’s better to live an example. We don’t want to invade someone else’s space with witnessing. Religion is a private matter. But still, there it stands: “Confess with your lips.” If something is in our hearts, doesn’t our passion find expression in our speech? Do we keep quiet about our loved ones or favorite sports team or the latest gossip? Then why do we not share our faith, bear testimony to Jesus as Lord? I would hate to think that it’s because we really have little or nothing to share, that the passion for him is simply not there. If Jesus is your Lord and mine, let us live that commitment, yes. But let us also tell it!

Now that doesn’t mean accosting strangers or using the word “Jesus” every other minute or giving a five-minute testimony in worship one Sunday. We witness for Christ when we stand up for someone who needs an advocate, when we speak out for justice for the left out, when we tell the truth about what we have seen and know, when we are able to offer encouragement to a despairing friend or advice to a teen struggling with a tough life decision. It could be something as simple and as hard as inviting a searching neighbor or an alienated church member to worship. We may use the name of Jesus, we may not. But all of that grows out of and is an expression of our faith in Jesus. It’s confessing with our lips.

Paul knows that when we give our lives over in such a way to Jesus, we are going to be feeling a great deal of anxiety. We’re going to wonder how we will ever be able to follow the Lord faithfully. And we may think that at some point we’ll find out it’s all been a scam, a trick, and God can’t be trusted after all.

So the apostle offers some answers. For one, he invites us to “believe in our hearts that God raised [Jesus] from the dead.” He doesn’t mean intellectual assent to a story about a stone rolled away in a garden tomb. This isn’t about historical fact. Instead, he’s talking again about what’s down deep inside us. Believing God raised Jesus from the dead is faith that there is power to live life creatively even in the face of tragedy. It’s knowing that on one decisive day, God overcame all those powers of darkness and defeat that make us fear. It’s affirming with conviction that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not things present or things to come. Not an angel from heaven or a devil from hell. Not being close to a solution to a problem or being in the depths of despair. Not success or failure or mind-numbing routine. Not death or life. Not anything. That’s believing in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s being saved.

But still the doubt lingers. What if all this turns out to be a hoax? Can God be trusted? It’s not easy to make ourselves vulnerable, to put our lives under the control of another. We’ve been tricked and betrayed and hurt too many times. We know how deceitful people can be, how cautious we need to be. Won’t God, who has power to do anything he wants with anyone, end up judging and hurting and dumping us?

Paul would simply send us back to Jesus. Look at Jesus. If God acted in this one who gave up everything, even life, for us, who was so incredibly generous, won’t he keep on giving us what we need? If God didn’t leave his Holy One in the hands of death, but raised him up, won’t he keep us from disappointment and humiliation? The apostle insists: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

That statement leads Paul in bit of a surprising direction. Part of this being saved thing is being part of a community formed of people who have known the generosity of God. We aren’t saved to be isolated, to be alone. And there are no class and ethnic distinctions in this community that worships Jesus as Lord. Snobbery is out the door. Because the great leveler is our common need of grace. We all depend on the goodness of God.

Whether the ditch digger or the corporate suit, the fan of MSNBC and The Daily Show or the guy who swears by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, the college student with piercings everywhere or the businesswoman in conservative dress, the grace of God is for all who call on him. Anyone and everyone can be saved. Rich. Poor. In-between. The addict on the street and the respectable person in the church building. You. Me. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

It’s not hard. We don’t have to climb Everest or dive a deep ocean trench to find the answer. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery. God wants us to know him. The word is near us. On our lips. In our hearts. The Word, God’s message of love and hope, came among us. His name is Jesus. And all we need to do, all we can do, is say a simple prayer. “Jesus, help me.” “Jesus, save me.” “Jesus, Lord.”

We do use that kind of language around here. “Saved.” What a wonderful word!


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