Saved From What

Eternal salvation is to a purpose in the here and now: life is a gift to be used in service to others -- a sermon for Easter 4b

SJF • Easter 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Peter said, This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles picks up where we left off last week. Peter had addressed the crowds amazed at the healing of the crippled man who sat begging in the gate of the Temple. He told them that they and their rulers had acted in ignorance when they conspired to put an end to the ministry and life of Jesus.

In today’s reading Peter stands before those very rulers, and addresses them in no uncertain terms concerning the Christ. He affirms that it is through the power of Jesus Christ, now at work in Peter and his colleagues as disciples of Christ, that the man was healed and stands before them all in good health. But Peter then goes further — it is not enough that Jesus is the source of the power that brought about this one miraculous healing. Peter declares that there is no salvation, there is salvation in no one else, and no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved!

Now, if you had never heard of this before, you might be moved to ask, Saved from what? There are a couple of things worth noting about this passage in answer to that question, “Saved from what?” and the shift in the proclamation from healing the body to salvation of the whole person, the whole human being, body and soul.

Peter’s proclamation establishes first of all that there is a connection between healing and salvation. It is no accident that the word salve — anointment used for healing — derives from the same root word used here. Salvation is the ultimate healing of all that ails us — not just the ordinary illnesses or even the more lasting disabilities, but the whole state of being mortal, susceptible not just to illness, but to death itself.

So the answer the question “Saved from what?” is in large part, “Saved from everlasting death.” As Peter reminds us, and the rulers of the people and elders, Jesus himself died, crucified at their instigation and by means of Roman hands, but God raised him from the dead. He is the source of new life, and salvation not just from illness, but from death itself, because he has plumbed the depths of hell in person, and been raised victorious from the grave. Death cannot touch him any more, and those who are joined with him, in a death like his, will also be raised to a new life like his, though we too will taste of death at the end of our earthly lives, will — in him to whom we are joined as members of his body — rise with him to life everlasting. So the first answer to “Saved from what” is indeed “saved from death.”

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But in the meantime what about life — this earthly life we lead day by day and year by year — what are we saved from in this life? The Evangelist John offers us an image, a familiar one, perhaps too familiar so as to have lost some of its impact, down through the years of singing those wonderful hymns about it: Jesus as the good shepherd. He contrasts his good shepherding with that of a hired hand who fails to take responsibility and high-tails it at the first sight of trouble. The good shepherd, on the other hand, confronts the wolf, and saves the sheep from the wolf’s ravages. In this is figured the way in which Jesus saves us and protects us from the dangers of this world — if we will listen to his voice.

And that voice insists that we too ought to have love for him and for one another. John emphasizes that insistence in the portion of his First Letter we heard today. This is one of John’s major themes in all of his writing: love of the community of faith for the members of that community. This is the sign and mark of what it means to be in the light, to be a child of God. John shows us that Jesus saves us in large part by strengthening us to save each other, following his example: as he laid down his life for us, like a shepherd confronting a deadly wild beast, so too we ought also to be willing to lay our lives down for each other; and perhaps more importantly, day by day to give our lives for each other. What does John say? “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help.” John’s point is that we often save each other, those with helping those without, those who have helping those who have not, in a divine redistribution of the wealth of this world, a world in which there is plenty of food to go around and in which no one need go hungry — and yet in which so many countless thousands starve while others throw excess food away their plates are too full to hold, and which they cannot eat. Sometimes I think that in answer to the question, “Saved from what?” we need to acknowledge, “Saved from ourselves!” So much of the harm done in the world is from people towards other people — either intentionally harming others by doing wrong to them, or unintentionally harming others by failing to do the good we could do. Humanity is often its own worst enemy.

For although in relation to Jesus we are like sheep — sheep who have no ability to help each other or even to defend themselves — in relation to each other we are called to be — challenged to be — like him in his willingness to give his life in service of to others, to lay down our lives in service to each other, and at the very least to share what we have with those who have less, or who have nothing at all.

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Peter reminds us of the saving power of Jesus’ name, and John reminds us of the commandment: that we should believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another. That’s not an either / or; it’s a both / and. We are called to believe, and to act. As John says, to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. This is not about lip-service, but putting hands and hearts and minds to work with all that God provides.

There is a great deal from which all of us need to be saved in this dangerous world of ours. But the great good news is that Jesus has saved us from the ultimate and final enemy, death. And that should encourage us, in the meantime, that are given this gift of life so that our lives might amount to something, in service to one another. There is no other name given under heaven for salvation, and there are no other hands or hearts or minds to serve but ours to help each other. Let us neither reject him, the cornerstone chosen and precious, nor each other, children of God and charged with his command to love one another as he loved us.

Ultimately let the question not be, “Saved from what?” but “Saved for what?” Our salvation has a purpose, and God has an intention for us, having been saved through him; and he has commanded us to spread that word of salvation in his name, and to love and serve our brothers and sisters. Thanks be to God who saves us, and thanks be to God who gives us this command. May we fulfill it in his name and to his honor and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.