“Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.” That ditty ranks among the top Sunday School hits of modern times. Alan and I spontaneously broke into a rendition at Bible study on Tuesday. My, admittedly impaired, memory is that we sang about Jesus coming to his house “for tea.” Unless the song has British origins, I don’t know why we would sing about “tea,” except, of course that “tea” rhymes with “tree.”
All that aside, this story from Luke’s gospel still has something to teach us. It never hurts to be reminded of the transformative power of Jesus’ presence. Zacchaeus has heard about Jesus. He’s determined to see him. Jesus actually speaks to him, calls him by name, and his life is never the same again. Salvation comes to him and his household with the blessing of Jesus, the Christ.
When I was seven years old, I walked the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Chula Vista at the invitation of the visiting evangelist to give my life to following Jesus the Christ. Did I understand what I was doing? I understood enough to claim that as the beginning of a faith journey that continues today. Was I saved that day? Some said so; some would still say so today. But what does it mean to be “saved?”
We’re familiar with that phrase from common use. Maybe it makes you cringe to be asked or to hear the question asked of others, “Are you saved?” When I was growing up that was a key question we were supposed to ask of others. “Are you saved?” That question was the entrée to personal evangelism. Sometimes you might use the variant, “Have you been born again?” I imagine that question must sound as strange to non-Christians as when Jesus first raised the subject with Nicodemus 2000 years ago. Born again? Saved? What are you talking about it?
So when the writer of 1 Peter talks about “growing into salvation,” what does he mean? To what is he inviting those who first received this letter? To what is the letter inviting us today? We don’t talk a lot about salvation around here these days. But I wonder, what does that term mean to you? Maybe some of you would be willing to share.
Growing into salvation…I remember my doctoral advisor taking offense at a book by a colleague that claimed salvation and health were synonymous. Of course, this would depend on how you defined health, but we have all known saints with physical, mental and emotional limitations. Sometimes I think wholeness is a suitable synonym, again depending on what you mean by wholeness. Some people who appear torn apart have rich, deep relationships with the Holy. Carter Heyward argues that salvation is something akin to the power of love in human relations. It is giving ourselves over to the love that draws us to one another and to God and binds us there. Last week we sang about “love that will not let us go.” Is our salvation in yielding to the lure of that divine love?
That unimpeachable authority, Wikipedia says salvation is being saved or protected from harm or being saved or delivered from some dire situation. In religion, salvation is stated as the saving of the soul from sin and its consequences.” Webster’s says it is “deliverance from the power and effects of sin; liberation from ignorance or illusion; preservation from destruction or failure; deliverance from danger or difficulty.” And something called “theopedia” offers this definition: “Salvation refers to the act of God’s grace in delivering his people from bondage to sin and condemnation, transferring them to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col. 1:13), and giving them eternal life (Romans 6:23)—all on the basis of what Christ accomplished in his atoning sacrifice.”
The lectionary Psalm for today, Psalm 31 contains these words,
In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-5)
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaims that “’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). And Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:4-10).
There are some views of salvation. It appears to be a rich and complex phenomenon, an event that grasps our lives and a process which we pursue over a life time. It is surely something that links us to the heart of God and draws us ever nearer. We “grow into salvation” as Peter proclaims. We begin as infants in need of pure spiritual milk and hopefully we progress to eating solid food and then onto the banquet that God has prepared for those who love God and willingly accept the invitation to dine at God’s table.
I’ve been reading and writing about the great fourteenth century scholastic and mystic, Meister Eckhart. Among the key elements to his thought was the notion of grunt or ground. Bernard McGinn says that grunt is the “master metaphor” for Eckhart’s mysticism. He also calls it an “explosive metaphor” and argues that “…it breaks through previous categories of mystical speech to create new ways of presenting a direct encounter with God. When Eckhart says, as he frequently does, ‘God’s ground and my ground are the same ground,’ he announces a new form of mysticism” (McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, p. 38). Grunt is the origin or source of the thing. It is its essence. It is this ground from which we come, moving out into the world; it is this ground in which we grow; and it is to this ground we will return.
Since seminary, I have been attracted to Tillich’s notion of God as the “ground of being.” I’m not sure if this is exactly Eckhart’s point of view, but it seems related. We come from a common source or ground or, rather, we spring from that ground while we remain rooted in it. It is our source of nourishment, the origin of our existence, the essence of our lives. This must be what Paul means when tells the Athenians that is in God that “’…we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:28). Salvation has something to do with being rooted in common ground with God or to be securely centered in God.
One important aspect of “growing into salvation” is building the church, the beloved community in which all are welcome. We have sung, “Come build a church with soul and spirit, come build a church of flesh and bone, come build a church of human frailty, come build a church of flesh and blood. Jesus shall be its sure foundation. It shall be built by the hand of God.” And today we sang, “Let us build a house where love can dwell…where prophets speak…where love is found…where hands will reach…where all are named. Let this house proclaim from floor to rafter, all are welcome in this place.”
Daniel Deffenbaugh writes of this passage that there are “four fundamental features of what it means to be ‘called out’ as church. First,” he says, “the household of God is a place where Christians can attain spiritual nourishment.” It is a place where we come to be fed, nurtured, held and encouraged as we grow into salvation. It’s a place of good healthy food – think potlucks and cook-outs, along with study and worship. It’s a place where we cultivate fertile soil, even throwing in a little manure now and then. It is a place all about spiritual growth and learning to care for one another and for God’s creation, deepening our relationships with one another, with God and God’s in-breaking reign.
“Second,” he says, “the household of God is where those nourished on Christ will ‘grow into salvation’ through the formation that takes place in community through the work of the Spirit. Here is where the metaphor of being built into a spiritual house reaches its fullest expression and serves as a guiding principle for what follows.” With the destruction of the temple, “…the traditional dwelling place of God is gone [and] a new house has in fact arisen in its place with a royal priesthood in attendance. While the old stones appear to be dead, the living stones of the church, founded on the cornerstone of Christ, will now be the light that overcomes the darkness.”
Third is the “often overlooked aspect of what it means to be God’s house in a hostile world.” For some, who are under stress and being persecuted, the hope of a better world to come becomes their touchstone, their only hope. But Peter is not just focused on the new day a-coming. He sees the church focused as much in the present as the future. Deffenbaugh writes that “…the revelation of Christ was destined to happen in the midst of creation itself, and it was here that Christians were called to be a priestly community in anticipation of the event.” So, he continues, “…the church – whether then or now – like ‘living stones’ must in all things resist the temptation to disparage this present world for some heavenly realm yet to come. The household of God is at once built on the spiritual cornerstone of Christ and rooted deeply in God’s good creation.” That means our lives and our ministry are focused on the here and now at least as much as on heaven. Salvation is much more than “pie in the sky bye and bye.” Christ is as much at work in the world today as he was two millennia ago, especially when we function as “living stones,” the very body of Christ.
“Finally,” he writes, “the church is a spiritual community whose fundamental vocation is the proclamation of good news, not only in word but also – and perhaps primarily – in deed” (Daniel G. Deffenbaugh, “Commentary on 1 Peter 2:2-10, May 22, 2011,” workingpreacher. org). You and I, friends, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order to proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of the shadows into marvelous light. It may be that once we were not a people, but now we, together, are God’s people; perhaps there was a time we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy and known God’s great compassion for us and all creation. The truth that not only are we growing into salvation but we hold that that hope, that possibility for all the world is good news that needs to be shared indeed. Amen.