Sermon on 8/30/20: What Is This about a Personal Savior?

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13 Pentecost, 30 August 2020 A

Ps. 105:1 – 6, 23 – 26, 45c; Exodus 3:1 – 15; Romans 12:9 – 21; Matt. 16:21 – 28


Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matt. 16:25


Much talk is made frequently about finding or accepting Jesus Christ as “my personal savior.”  As a priest in the Church of God,  both prior to and during my ordination I confessed my belief in the Christian doctrine that God sent his son into the world in order to save it, to rescue it from its errant ways.  That is to say, I vowed vocally at ordination my allegiance to the doctrine of the church that God’s Messiah came to correct the missteps [that] have plagued humankind since the beginning of time.  Among other lines in our Book of Records, the Bible, John 3:16f, declares clearly for all who would hear, that Jesus came not into the world to condemn it, but to save it.  The nagging question has been always to grasp how this affects me personally and to understand the meaning of “save.”

I do not cast a disparaging glance at those who step forward to claim that to have Jesus as their Personal Savior means to allow Christ to direct their daily lives, for Christ to serve as their example for living among fellow human beings, which will guarantee their entrance into God’s kingdom.  However, does the Bible not teach us that we are all unique in the eyes of God, therefore what God does, does indeed affect each of us personally?  I do not point an accusing finger at those who fall short of living up to their confession of Christ as their personal savior for, as we are informed in Paul’s letter to the Romans (3:23), “we have all fallen short of the glory of God.”  Still, this concept of accepting Jesus as one’s Personal Savior does hold my attention.  What does that concept mean for my understanding of the Good News in Christ?  How do we/I get there?

While reading today’s gospel, troubling thoughts came into my mind.  For example: what form does this rescue, this salvation assume?  Is this salvation, as voiced by John, for me only, personally, even as I hear that it is offered to the entire world?  It can be very unsettling to someone who comes to Christianity and hears for the first time the pronouncement: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Should I accept Jesus as my Personal Savior, I could actually end up losing my life and, in the normal scheme of things, nature dictates that I have only this one life!  Why would my Personal Savior tell me that I may lose my life, when the span of my personal time on earth is already limited?  The science fiction movie and television series Highlander notwithstanding, no one gets to live forever.  Does not our Book of Records instruct us that on average we should expect to live no longer than 3 score and 10 years, i.e. 70 years?  So, why would I want to follow a Personal Savior who tells me that the length of my days will be lived under threat of being shortened, should I accept him as my Personal Savior?

Not everyone is ready to accept this call.  The Bard, William Shakespeare, in his work Macbeth, voices for many a reservation of life in general, and a saved/rescued life in particular:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act V, Sc. 5, Line 11


However, this is not where we people of faith find ourselves.  But where do we find ourselves and how did we get there?  In vowing to accept Jesus Christ as a Personal Savior, there is, in my thoughts, more than meets the eye.  There are two side to this confession of faith: imitation, and in-dwelling or habitation.  An individual who vows to hold Christ before him-/herself as the model by which to live, whether verbally acknowledging it or not, vows to imitate Christ in all things.  We do not think often about the influence that imitation has over us.

923D656A-6CE7-4ABB-9B45-D91F8848E1E9While sitting, now some time ago, in an airport lounge, listening for my call to board my flight, I happened to glance up from my book and see from the rear an older gentleman and a teenage boy pass by.  Without having seen their faces, I surmised that they were father-son.  I came to this conclusion because the young man had the same gait as the older man.  Most recently, while visiting the widow of a colleague from my academic life, the 4-year old great-grandson stumbled and hurt himself—no broken skin or blood.  That little boy expressed his pain by launching a string of profanity that would cause a stevedore to blush.  The boy’s father sought to chastise his son by asking him where he had learned such foul language.  His wife reminded her husband quietly but firmly, that their son had repeated only what his model, his father, always does when frustrated.  Our speech pattern, many hand gestures, our likes and dislikes for material things, are all influenced by those who reared us.  Children learn through imitation.  We adults pattern our behavior, without [conscious reflection], from family, close friends, and even from strangers around us.

As people of faith, how is it that we learn to imitate Jesus, God’s Messiah, whom we have not seen?  Honesty makes us aware that we imitate those who have come before, as well as those with whom we have social contact.  We are—are we not?—always as children of the faith, observing and learning and amending our lives.  Most of us will be placed rarely into a situation where our very life is at risk due to our confession of faith in Christ, even as we imitate his ministry.  It is, though, quite possible, even certain from time to time, that we may encounter a disapproving or threatening glance or comment, when we voice opposition to behaviors that stand in stark opposition to the commandment of Christ, which the prophet Micah had proclaimed before the coming of Christ: “[The Lord] has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  And, yes, if taken seriously, to imitate Jesus does place one at risk.  To lose one’s life can and must be taken literally and metaphorically, for a life in Christ Jesus demands a change from old ways and habits.  Yet, imitation is only one half of the equation.

Jesus was and is, lest we forget, God’s Messiah.  During his earthly mission, he had a divine in-dwelling spirit that supported him in all his undertakings.  He called, sought, and called regularly on divine fortification.  As imitators of Christ, we can rely on Christ directly to guide us.  Our baptism has bestowed on us a right and has given us reassurance to act in the name of Christ, because we have Christ dwelling in us.  Our Book of Records provides evidence of the strength of our belief.  St. Paul, a convert to the faith and addressing the Church at Corinth, states without shame: “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” (II Cor. 13:5)  This was to a group beset with all imaginable difficulties and questionable behavior.  Paul fortifies those fledgling Christians in Rome when he writes: “If Christ is in you, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.” (Romans 13:10)  The church at Ephesus received verification of their worthiness: “…through (Christ’s) Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…” (Ephesians 3: 16f.)  And to the Church in Galatia, Paul has written, reassuring the budding church there and us in our day, that God’s Christ is within: “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 3:20)

To accept Christ as one’s Personal Savior does not end with a public vocal acclamation, but rather extends far beyond a vocal acclamation.  The disciples who vowed to “tough it out with Jesus,” but who still scattered when confronted with the Cross at Calvary, repeatedly received warnings that Christ’s mission was, and is not, for the fainthearted.  According to Matthew, Jesus had “turned his sights” toward Jerusalem and what could be anticipated when he and his message reached that place.  Jesus said: Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  Matthew recorded that Peter did not like what he heard, but Jesus knew that to establish God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven would require a stamina not theretofore experienced by his disciples.  I repeat: a change was in the anticipated and hoped for outcome, and that change could be literally a physical one, but also a non-physical one.  Their mission was rife with an indescribable challenge.

That challenge has not left us.  Where would we stand if we attempted to imitate Christ without the inner strength [that] has been given us, not of our own merit?  This realization makes me keenly aware of the presence of the Divine in our lives.  Just recently, I received an email from a younger academic colleague who wrote: “I am looking for motivation to keep moving through the stress of the pandemic…”  She voiced what so many of us think and feel, the helplessness, the anger, the frustration, the isolation from all those whom we would regularly encounter—family, friends, the stranger on the street, in our subways, all of whom verified to us our humanness.  My response, perhaps not supplying the answer [that] she sought, was to continue to live through her faith: to imitate the good [that] motivated her to seek a career in teaching at the collegiate level and to call on and rely on the in-dwelling strength that has been given all through the sacrifice of God’s Messiah.  Understanding the declaration of Christ to arm ourselves for any eventuality becomes less threatening, indeed not threatening at all, for we of faith know that within ourselves we enjoy the affirmation of God’s presence.

We pray with St. Paul (Ephesians 3:20):
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.