It has been a recurring theme for me to dangle myself over the firey pit of heresy. For many there will be no surprise there! So…I begin tonight’s end of year address by stating that I am disillusioned by our evangelical theology of salvation! To immediately redress such a shocking confession I am actually more disillusioned that the great theology of salvation that we have is so poorly worked out in our lives, Church and society. Indeed I believe that the problem has been that we have concentrated all our efforts on salvation on the theology rather than its implications. Tonight as some of you leave us to enter another chapter of your lives, another step up in your development, the rough and tumble of the real world I want to look at where our belief about Christ’s salvation will affect the lives you are going to live.
But first let me untangle my disappointment with salvation; or our outworking of it. I read the biography of a rock star this past month; a member of the Rock ‘N Roll Hall Of Fame who is now a Christian. It was a fascinating book that I enjoyed immensely but the outworking of his salvation in Christ left me feeling a little short changed. It didn’t seem a robust enough transformation. He did have an awareness of the emptiness of his fame and fortune and his need for Jesus and the salvation he came to bring. He prayed the prayer and turned his life around, leaving the music scene to become a pastor. It held his life together, gave him a new sense of morality and led him towards Bible Study, prayer and witnessing to his friends. It was in so many ways the salvation that I found, and that so many experienced, in the seventies but it left me feeling disappointed. There was nothing in his biography about the challenges Jesus would throw at an American living through war and globalisation and consumerism and an encroaching environmental apocalypse. He admitted that he never wrote political songs or songs of social concern or cultural critique but even if they are not issues to write songs about surely they are crisis that our faith should be engaging with. Salvation, in the age of modernist definition, seems to have become a liturgical procedure and a nice clean life.
The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman has said that “The gospel is thus a truth widely held, but a truth greatly reduced. It is a truth that has been flattened, trivialized and rendered inane.” I believe he is right. Let me use an illustration of what I think I mean. At communion I am always pondering on the power of the blood of Christ. It seems that in this inane nice clean life the wine of communion is merely used to wipe our faces. It is a cleansing but quite a superficial cleansing like a wipe by a diluted substance. The same with the Church. It is like a nice gloss top coat of paint. Look at us, we are good. And we try to do the same to our society. Less smoking and swearing and drinking and society will be more Christian. It is all a watery soul wipe.
When I am in the communion zone, seeking the transforming power of the bread and the wine I often pray to be marinated by the intoxicating, dangerous sin killing power of Christ’s body and blood. And for society I pray that it drips then soaks and seeps through the pavement cracks and the grouting in the walls to reinvigorate, redeem and renew our society and culture. Christ did not live and die and be resurrected to fix our petty habits. He came to utterly turn around and make upside down and transform our entire world. As the world heads in a direction driven by the devil and evil of a deeply rooted fall so salvation is about a repentant revolution that will see God’s kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
At the end of those hippy Christian seventies when slogans were all the rage there was a phrase that went “Jesus is the answer… now what is the question?” I used to ridicule this by asking why the world is evil. Oh Jesus is the answer! Yes, it is a naive cliché but I want to use it tonight to get to my question. What I want to ask is “what is the main question of your generation and how does Jesus help us answer that question. Where is your generation lost and how does salvation look as the power of Christ’s cross impacts it.
In the Gospels, Jesus spoke of someone building a tower or a king going to war. Before they began the task they considered the task. As you guys head out to follow Jesus it is important to sit down and ask what the obstacles are. What the dangers are? What you are going to have to overcome. I guess there are various crises but the one I think is over riding, the one that is going to grow up like thorns alongside the seeds of the Gospel to choke the potential transformation. On a trip to Cape Town I once asked my students what they were not looking forward to back at home one answered “the relentlessness.”
Consumerism is the relentless god of the age. Many who are keen to make us a secular society, religion free seem blinded to the fact that it is not a religion free world they are creating. It is a new religion – consumerism is a religion. Let’s face it, it is what drives our culture, the engine of all our decisions and values. It is the bottom line… it is God… full allegiance… our identity… our worship… our consolation… our trust. The delusion for you is that the effectiveness of your life will be measured by the wage you earn. Houses, cars, exotic holidays and gadgets become a reason, the main reason for your life and work.
This is the context of our salvation; the habitation that we attempt to follow Jesus in. I don’t think the diluted liturgical proceedured nice clean life needs to care what the context is. Soul wipe Christianity is cosmetic and can ignore the multilayered salvation that Jesus was really about. Some even think that having a soul wiped Christianity running alongside consumerism negates the seduction of it. But alas no… and the Bible warns against the corrosive power of money. In the Old Testament there were times when there was the same sense of luxurious living as we enjoy now. It always led to exploitation and a prophetic battering from God. Their big houses, expensive fittings and their lush vineyards will be destroyed in God’s judgement.
Jesus spoke about it in the Sermon On the Mount. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
Paul prophesied against it in 2 Timothy 3 “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power.”
This is what as a follower of Jesus we wrestle with. Is the pay check more important than time with your children? Is the next promotion what fires your vocation? Is your post code worth the stress? Is your comforts and luxuries worth causing a vast part of the world to be living in unforgiveable poverty, pain and death? Or is there another way to live? Is there an upside down kingdom where dirty straw, a homeless mentor and a wooden cross are the revolutionary symbols?
So what does this mean? Well in the soul wipe version of salvation I would tell you to tithe and that would salve your conscience on the surface. If only Christianity was so formulaic? It is what I would call a dynamic of dilemma? It is taking care not to get sucked in. It is making sure that your treasure is not on earth. It is making sure your investment is in eternal things. It is making sure that the subtlety of the advertisers does not suck your soul dry of the transforming power of Christ’s blood. It is decisions in your home. Decisions in your business. Decisions in your vocation.
In the Old Testament there was a choice to be made by God’s people. Were they going to follow the one true God or give in to the worship of idols instead? It is best described in Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel. “If the Lord is God follow him; but if Baal is God then follow him.” In the New Testament the gods give way to the Empire and the same question is needed. The God we face. The Empire we face is consumerism. We need to ask who we will follow.
Salvation is not a soul wipe, not a surface clean. It is multilayered… impacting deep within our culture. We need to go to be salt and light… As David Gray puts it we need you guys to make the truth sting against the consumerist lies. Into the lies ruin and disease of our society I pray God that you will let the truth sting deep.