Salvation. Marcus Borg calls this word “a loaded word.” Author Kathleen Norris calls it one of her “scary words”—included in a group of words like “incarnation,” “revelation,” “atonement,” etc.
I am familiar with the loaded nature of the word “salvation” and the fear it invokes. As the oldest child of a southern Baptist minister, I have heard about salvation all of my life. The importance of accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior and being saved—that is, going to heaven when I die and not to the fires of hell—was stressed over and over. I found myself wondering about this seemingly bi-polar God who was full of love one moment, and in another, full of wrath and judgment. Was God really like this?
What a relief it was for the Episcopal Church to encourage me to use my intellect, to explore the original meanings of words like salvation. I felt like I could exhale when I learned that salvation has many meanings in the original languages. The Hebrew word for salvation, as Kathleen Norris reminded me, “means literally ‘to make wide’ or ‘to make sufficient’” This concept makes sense to me. It is also one that Marcus Borg reiterates in his own way. Liberation from bondage. Return from exile. Rescue from peril. Salvation is a new way of living, of transformation.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” For the past several years, this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer has tugged at me. What does that mean? For what are we praying? If God’s will is to be done on earth just like it is in heaven, what does that look like? What would I have to do to make that prayer a reality?
Here is where I think salvation comes in. I agree with Borg’s premise that being saved is not about what happens after I take the last breath I will take in this life. I now believe in salvation as a way of transformation (and I use that word “believe” as we do in the Creed—something to which I give my heart). If I have an adult fear about salvation, it is that after I take my last breath, the question I will face is what I have done in this life that brings God’s transforming love, either to one of God’s beloved creatures or to God’s beloved creation.
The narrow way of salvation that I heard about in my childhood has, itself changed in perception. It is a narrow, difficult way for me to love someone who is not particularly loveable. It is a narrow way for me to pay attention to how much gas I consume as I do errands. It is a narrow way to look at my privileged life and know that others have not had the chance, or the desire, to have decent shelter or enough food or acceptance and love or a good education.
This week, the Laurel Winter Shelter closes. During the bitter cold, a variety of congregations provide shelter for men and women, each taking the groups on a weekly basis. St. Philip’s Parish hosts both men and women the week after Christmas. There is, of course, not universal agreement about the overall theology of what congregations should be doing for the homeless. Some congregations believe that we must proclaim salvation to our homeless guests as John 14:6 proclaims—that singularly Christian, narrow path to God. They do not believe that a literal salvation from winter’s bitter cold or hospitality and a listening heart is all that we should do for homeless folks.
Because I lived in that culture for my formative years and understand that viewpoint, I no longer agree with it. I come to God’s salvation, that wide place of shalom and love, out of my experience, my Christian heritage, my heart and my intellect. I believe that it is not my role “to get someone saved.” That is for God to do, in God’s way and in God’s time, and I think it may happen out of, and in the midst of, community. What is my role as a Christian believer who lives in community? What do we need to be doing for God’s salvation? I believe it is to live into my understanding of how beloved I am of God, and out of that place of love and acceptance, to turn and love my brothers and sisters. How each of us does that is different. Yet we are all called into community to play a part in God’s salvation. We must each ask ourselves what we can do to make this world, in real time, show more of God’s love and fullness. Perhaps that will mean a literal salvation of someone’s life, especially in the cold winter. Perhaps that will mean a larger salvation as we break bread together with someone and take the time to listen to their stories. Perhaps salvation happens as we work for justice with social or political structures—justice that will result in the transformation of lives.
In this salvation, there is no fear. There is only love.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
Source: Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: The Berkley Publishing Company, 1998), 20.