Updated: Aug 13, 2021
I have begun to think that what human beings – collectively and individually – really need to do is to get over ourselves. We take things too personally. I used to think this was cultural. The United States is built on the power of individualism – on the notion that each of us the ability to make of our lives what we will, that we are the captains of our destiny, that we are “self-made” people. This self-image has become part of the way we practice religion. It is the basis for what has been called “The Protestant ethic” – the idea that we can through our own good works somehow earn salvation. But I don’t think this is limited to our culture. People all over the world chase “enlightenment,” climb paths to fulfillment, and try to advance their “operating levels.” Whatever language you use, the desire for spiritual advancement is everywhere – as is the idea that we can achieve it.
Good luck. Because I don’t believe -and there is nothing in our scriptures that suggests -that any of us can earn salvation. So - and I say this with love, affection, and deep understanding: we need to get over ourselves. We need to get over ourselves and accept the fact that we have already been saved. That, after all, is what today is all about: the fact that we have been saved. Can I get an “Alleluia”?
It deserves an “Alleluia” because if you think about it, that is quite simply a miracle. Whether any of us personally thinks we have been doing pretty well walking the path of Jesus – giving to those less fortunate than us, performing good deeds, trying to love our enemies – or whether we think we are the most awful people that ever lived – if we believe that God loves us enough to have sent Jesus into the world to live and die as a human being, then we are saved. Who believes that?
That’s what we say anyway – but if that’s the case, why do we spend so much time thinking about what bad (or good) people we are? Why is there a multi-billion dollar market for spiritual self-improvement? Why do we keep trying to earn salvation? Perhaps it’s because it’s so hard to fathom anyone loving us that much – anyone loving us no matter what we have done- anyone loving us even when they know who we really are. And yet, that is what our scriptures tell us, that God created us and gives us the opportunity to live as she does – in a world of justice, love, and peace.
Our Hebrew scripture for this morning provides us with an example. The section of the prophet Isaiah we heard today speaks of the promise of God’s salvation, but it actually occurs in the middle of a passage in which God promises to judge the world- harshly. “After a review of oracles against many nations, including Israel and Judah, chapter 24 [of Isaiah] presents an apocalyptic vision of God laying waste to all the land and its people. The day of the Lord is… a cleansing or purifying of all those forces and institutions that stand against the love and justice of God.” This context tells us a couple of important things. Number one: we are not the first of God’s creatures to act thoughtlessly and violently or to live in times of injustice, sorrow and death. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds us that God does not judge us as individuals, but as a people. “There is certainly a tension in Scripture between the fact that God intends to redeem the whole earth…and the persistent theme of stubborn human resistance to God’s will on the part of persons and institutions.” In other words, we suffer because we as an entire race of people continually refuse to accept God’s grace.
Maybe the idea that we simply have to say “yes,” just seems too easy. The earliest Christians certainly had trouble believing it themselves. Look at how they reacted to the resurrection. For one thing, it’s pretty clear they were not expecting it. None of the gospels suggest that they were sitting outside the tomb waiting with eager anticipation for Jesus to come back out. They had, in fact, left Jesus’s body in the care of the pretty peripheral figure of Joseph of Arimathea. Then, at the end of the Sabbath, most of the disciples don’t even go to the tomb. “Notice [that]…the followers who had proudly walked at the head of Jesus’s pack are nowhere to be found. They have left the scene of the story, having finished their work. The only ones left in this weird trauma-rife grave space are those who in the course of daily life tend to the unseemly but necessary – cooking, cleaning, grieving, bearing children, and perfuming bodies that hold the stench of death. They are the ascribed custodians of crucifixion – the trash-collecting body bearers of Easter.” It is to these women that the resurrection is revealed – and it is to their credit that, although they are a bit ambivalent about the news – receiving it with “fear and great joy” – they immediately run off to tell the other disciples about it. They are the first to believe that Jesus has risen. These women do almost without thinking what generations of Christians and we ourselves struggle to do on a daily basis; they believed. And what was their reward? Their names are forgotten or mixed up and the church has focused on the later “proofs” of the resurrection offered to other disciples.
Perhaps it’s because they were women – but perhaps it’s also for another reason. Perhaps the early Christians, like us, couldn’t understand that believing was enough. Today’s New Testament reading demonstrates that even the great evangelist Paul struggled with this. After focusing on the Good News of salvation through Christ for most of his letter to the Corinthians, he suddenly starts talking about himself. “For I am the least of the apostles,” although, “I worked harder than any of them.” “Like the autobiographical flashes in other letters... [this] is an all too human mixture of self-recrimination… vanity… second—guessing…shrugging…and confidence.” For Paul, salvation is personal.
As it should be for us - because salvation is personal – and it is all about us, but not in the way we may think. The truth is that Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross redeemed humanity - and it redeemed each and every one of us. That is the miracle of Easter - that God not only has the power to transform the world but, perhaps even harder to believe, God has the power to transform us. Jesus’s death and resurrection changed – and continues to change – everything, the “us” that is humanity and the “us” that is Deb, and Gary, and Dick, and Sally, and Michael, and Lynda, and Kent. That is grace. Our work is to accept it, to get over ourselves – to understand that we can do nothing to save ourselves – and we don’t have to. Jesus has done it for us. Believe it. “This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Alleluia. Amen.
Alan G.Padgett, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 358.
Serene Jones, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Maundy Thursday), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 354.
C. Clifton Black, (April 5, 2015), “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2415.