So how about that story from the book of Numbers? I think the best way to get into this story is to imagine that God and Israel are on a long, long, long car trip together. They’re close to the end of the journey here, but that hasn’t improved morale any. The people Israel are tired and fed up, and they start complaining: “Why did we even have to come? This is stupid! We hate it here and there’s nothing to eat! We’re really hungry!” And God says, “There is too something to eat; look, I brought snacks!” And Israel says, “I hate those snacks! I’d rather starve!” And God is so enraged by this response that God lets loose a box of poisonous snakes in the back seat. This is not God’s best parenting moment.
I think it’s best to just admit that the image of God in this story – petulant, vengeful, impulsive, and fond of magical devices – this image of God is not very consistent with the picture of Israel’s God that emerges from the broad sweep of the Hebrew Scriptures. Sometimes, especially in these earliest books of the Bible, God acts much more like a small cantankerous local deity whose religion is only a half-step away from magic, rather than a universal and all-seeing God of deep and gracious purposes for all humanity. We just have to accept that we can’t make every single Hebrew Bible story neatly fit our understanding of God. (Nor can we with every New Testament text, for that matter!)
This is kind of an odd, awkward story. But the Lectionary gives it to us anyway, because John’s Gospel refers to it. In the Numbers story, God decides maybe the poisonous serpents weren’t such a hot idea, and instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and put it up on a pole, and tell the people to look at it. And everyone who is bitten by a serpent and looks up at the bronze serpent, is healed. In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses that image as an allegory of the Crucifixion, his upcoming death. Jesus on the Cross is like the serpent on the pole: looking upon it brings healing, neutralizes the poison in our veins. Looking upon it brings us salvation. Saves us.
Salvation is just the big fancy church word for being saved. What does it mean to be saved? How many people here have ever been asked if you’ve been saved? What did you say? …
‘Have you been saved?’ How does an Episcopalian answer that question? I’m sure there are some people here who can point to a day, an hour, when God touched their heart and Jesus came into their life and turned things around. Who can say, That’s the day I was saved.
And I’m sure there are a lot of people here whose faith has been day by day, year by year, over a lifetime, with high points and low points, but no single heart-opening moment of transformation. I’m one of those people. When I get asked, Have you been saved?, I sometimes fumble for a simple answer.
Both our Epistle and our Gospel today make mention of salvation, God’s intention to save us, and all humanity. The author of the letter to the Ephesians writes,“By grace you have been saved through faith.” And Jesus, speaking to poor puzzled Nicodemus, a religious leader who has come to him by night seeking to understand his teachings, says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.” (John 3:17) It’s not a big coincidence that both of of our New Testament texts today talk about being saved, because being saved, and salvation, are pretty major themes throughout the New Testament.
So what does it mean to be saved? What is the nature of the salvation that’s such a central theme in the Gospels and Epistles? Well, there is a whole theological field called soteriology, focused on unpacking and debating different understandings of salvation – soterio, in Greek. I didn’t take a soteriology class in seminary. And there wasn’t any Remedial Soteriology crash course available this week, when this theme seemed to be nudging me for attention. So I took a good look at the one book on the subject that I do have on hand, the Bible itself.
I asked, how is this word used? The verb, sozo, to save, and the noun, soterio, salvation? I’m not a Greek scholar, but the Internet actually makes some pretty good tools available. Here’s what I learned about the word Sozo and its various forms and uses.
To begin with, it’s the root of Jesus’ name, Yeshua, the one who will save. From there it’s used in a wide range of ways, with a common theme or meaning running through. Listen: Sozo can mean to save from a dangerous situation. To heal. To make well. To cause to recover (from illness or injury). To restore. To survive an ordeal. To be rescued. To escape. To be freed. To keep, preserve, or protect.
The situations in which Sozo applies run the gamut from actual real-world illness, danger, or bondage, to the metaphorical and spiritual conditions that mirror those outward realities. And the witness of the New Testament is that God’s power and grace, manifest in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, does all these things, and more, for those who turn to God in yearning, pain, hope, or trust.
What I hear in the dominance of this word, this concept, and in the diversity of the ways in which it’s used, is that this is God’s intention and desire for us, for each and all. Sozo: the name for the central thrust and purpose of God’s action in human history and individual lives. To free, heal, make well, rescue, deliver. To save. This is what God does. God saves. Jesus saves. The Holy Spirit saves.
Terrible things do happen, wars and plagues and the deaths of those we love. There’s no way to opt out of that; it comes with living in human history, having the freedom to make choices, including bad ones, being a body that breaks down and decays. Belonging to a saving God doesn’t mean that we’ll never have to spend a week juggling schedules and losing sleep over a sick child, or watch a loved one deteriorate into a caricature of herself, or let go of things we love to do because of our bodies’ limitations.
Belonging to a saving God means that in all those struggles and infirmities and griefs there is a Presence, a Love, a Force that uses every available tool and space and opportunity to work evil into good. To make the best of bad situations. To save.
Back to that “have you been saved” question: It’s a question of tense, isn’t it? Is salvation something that’s coming, still in the future? Something that’s in process, but not yet completed? Something done, finished, once and for all accomplished? There are places in the New Testament where the salvation of God is described in all these ways. Like the language about the Kingdom of God, things get kind of messy and paradoxical, perhaps because God’s time works differently from human time. It may be quite true that we have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. There are several places in the Epistles where the community of believers are named as “those who are being saved” – I kind of like that sense of being in process, on the road, still living into this things we’ve been given. But ultimately, my answer, and I venture to say our answer, to the question “Have you been saved?”, is simply, Yes. It’s done. Jesus tells Nicodemus, God sent God’s son into the world in order to save the world. And the author of the letter the Ephesians says, “By grace you have been saved through faith.” And he goes on to remind us that we cannot save ourselves, nor earn salvation: “This is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For what we are, God has made us.”
What does that mean for our lives as people of faith? It means we are not trying to earn our salvation. We don’t serve our neighbors or share our resources or worship faithfully in order to get something from God. It’s easy to fall into that mindset; the logic of merit and achievement are deep in our American Protestant ethos. But God is not holding something back. This is not a situation in which if we do enough good stuff, and get enough stickers on our chart, we’ll get that cookie. Rather, God’s saving grace is already at work in our lives. Stirring in deep and secret, subtle and urgent ways to push towards freedom and wholeness, towards human well-being and, more, human flourishing.
Our call as people of God isn’t to earn our salvation, which is already given, but to live in response to it. To live as children of a saving God, sharing our holy Parent’s work: Healing, restoring, freeing, rescuing, protecting. Striving for human flourishing. Not by adding another outreach program, but by keeping that value, that longing, at the center and heart of our life together.
What does it look like to live as “sozo” people, saved and saving, driven by the hope and intention of joining God’s work for human well-being in the community and world around us? We come to that question today in the light of last weekend’s tragedy. I’m not using the word “tragedy” to stake a position here: it’s simply the truth. One citizen of our city lost his life in the course of efforts by an officer of our city to protect the people and the law. This death is especially painful to our sisters and brothers who notice its resemblance to others like it, across our country, in recent months. All of us would rather this death had not happened, and it did. Tragedy is the right word.
All my colleagues in the other Madison Episcopal churches spoke about last weekend’s shooting and the broader issues of race and racism in Madison last Sunday. I wasn’t preaching. So this week I read all their sermons. I read some of them twice. I’m indebted to their words and insights, and grateful for their companionship, especially in these complicated times, especially as I tried to find some words for you today.
We have different politics in this congregation, and no doubt different perspectives on last weekend’s events. But nobody here wants racism in our city. Nobody is proud or satisfied by those statistics about our city, our state, the ones that show that right here, in educated, progressive, affluent Dane County, is one of the worst places in the United States to be born a black child. People of all races were calling for Madison to do better long before Tony Robison was killed. What we’ve seen this past week are those same calls to become the Madison we could be, should be, infused with anger and grief and frustration over the shooting.
My colleague Paula Harris said to her congregation, “Don’t you want to live in a society where everybody has a chance? Where nobody goes hungry? Where everybody can read, and write, and do math? Where everybody can get a decent education, and some kind of meaningful work? Don’t you want to live in a society where the jobs pay enough to support a family? And if somebody gets sick they can get help? That’s the society I want. I want to live in a city where we are at peace with each other, I want to live in a city where it’s fine to disagree because we have so much respect for each other, where we have deep relationships that enable us to listen, and to learn.”
I want those things too. And I believe that God, our saving God, wants those things.
There are no easy answers or obvious solutions here. But we have a touchstone in that word, sozo. In what Scripture tells us about God’s saving power, and our own call to live as children of a saving God, healing, restoring, freeing, rescuing, protecting. Striving for human flourishing.
Being people of salvation, people of sozo, might sometimes mean that we have to listen to voices and experiences that are hard to hear, that challenge us and make us uncomfortable, so that we recognize where our world is broken and in need of saving grace. It might mean that sometimes our tidy lines between church and civil society, faith and politics, get messy. The commemorations of the march in Selma this past week should remind us that it would hardly be the first time. Living our faith as children of a saving God might mean that we have to broaden our view, to consider the incident in light of the pattern, to consider whether what makes Madison great for me might be related in deep and significant ways to what makes Madison terrible for some of my brothers and sisters.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man is lifted up. There he is, on the cross. What do we see when we look at him? A condemned criminal who died a shameful death? A rabble-rouser who got what he had coming to him? A wise teacher who called us to love our neighbors? A confrontational prophet who challenged oppressive social structures? A God who loved us enough to share our human struggles, hurts and confusions? All of the above? …
So the Son of Man is lifted up, so that whoever trusts in him may enter into his abundant and ever-lasting life. A life lived and given for the salvation of the world. Looking to him, may we find the trust, the courage, the hope, to live in response to saving grace.