Romans 10:8b-13

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

            Salvation seemed simpler when I was younger. The way I always heard it, we were all in need of salvation for the very same reason: because we were all sinners condemned to hell and only God’s action, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, could save us if we believed in and confessed Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

We even memorized the “Romans Road” to salvation – a series of passages in the book of Romans that explained the whole predicament and God’s plan to solve it – so that we could easily share the message with others. And today’s passage was one of the verses we learned: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” Salvation, we were told, happens at the moment one makes this confession and believes it sincerely in one’s heart. That was it.

You have to admit, it has a certain appeal to it: simple, to the point, everyone in the same boat. There’s no need to figure out what particular configuration of religious things you need to do or which doctrines to believe or what rituals you need to perform in order to gain your particular form of salvation. Admit you’re a sinner and believe in Jesus and confess him as your savior. Pretty simple. But as simple as that message is, there are many preachers who can deliver a 45-minute sermon on the matter week after week and based the message on nearly any passage in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.

While this more Evangelical conception of salvation as one-time confession of Jesus as savior has a simple elegance to it, the Catholic tradition offers as a gift to us the ongoing practice of confession – speaking aloud in the singularity of our own being the ways we are complicit in sin and evil. This practice, too, has it’s roots a passage of scripture from the book of James oft overlooked by more liberal brands of Christian community. James says, “Confess your sins to one another, and prayer for one another, so that you may be healed” (5:16). Lots of people pay good money to a therapist to do what Catholics have been doing in the confessional for centuries.

I kind of wonder what a progressive Christian’s confession would sound like if we were to practice it regularly:

“I confess that, last week, I purchased clothes at a store that I knew upholds unjust labor practices for its workers but the sale was just too irresistible. Yesterday, I drove my car to work when I could have taken the T, thus contributing to global warming. And, finally, I have been drinking coffee at the office all week long, not knowing whether or not it is fair trade.”

I’d say “evil” was a lot simpler when I was younger, too. When we were taught about evil and its personification in the “devil,” it was somewhat like today’s Gospel lesson: grand temptations from a markedly malevolent source ultimately leading you to deny God and turn your life over to Satan. We even had elaborate plays and musicals and walk-through, interactive “hell houses” that provided tableaus to illustrate how these choices present themselves in the lives of teenagers which always ended with an entire group of teens dead in a very life-like staged car accident followed by a chilling scene in hell, complete with a maleficent devil sending the unsaved teens to eternal torment, and then releasing the roving audience into a final scene of heaven where Jesus embraces those in the group of teens who had, indeed, believed and confessed.

For such a simple message we really did have the most elaborate ways of telling it.

But neither that perspective on salvation nor that perspective on evil prepare us very well for the gravity of either of these terms in how they are expressed in reality. And, as good liberal Christians wanting to put a bit of theological distance from our more conservative siblings in the faith, our choice is often to scrap the terms altogether.

Liberal preachers are apt to use this passage in Luke’s Gospel as a metaphorical springboard for dealing with the temptations of succumbing to pride, and seeking after glory, or turning to lesser gods of power and money. In each instance, Jesus models the way of discipleship, quoting the text of scripture in resistance to temptation.

But temptation to participate in evil rarely comes with such clarity as portrayed in this passage from Luke: “Look, you can just worship the devil and you can have everything you’ve ever wanted or you can worship God and serve God only. You choose.”

Nor do these types of temptations – for most of us, at least – have such high stakes like, you know, having authority over all the kingdoms of the world.

The choices we make to pursue the good and turn from evil are rarely so black and white. “The choice is not [often] between good and bad but between bad and worse or good and better.”[1]

But maybe there’s more to it than a metaphor for our own choices in overcoming temptation.  

Even for Luke, the story is told in the light of other, much older sacred stories, cast in their image as was typical of the Jewish tradition of sacred story telling. The temptation of Jesus in the desert is a scene that roots Jesus’ life and mission firmly within his own Jewish tradition at the outset of Luke’s Gospel, hearkening back to the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. As Alan Culpepper explains,

“Like Israel, Jesus was led by the Spirit in the wilderness. The period of forty days also evokes the period of Israel’s testing. The temptation to make bread evokes memories of the manna God supplied Israel. Even more clearly, the three quotations from Deuteronomy link the temptation scene with Israel’s experience. Consequently, the three temptations themselves may be seen as corresponding to the temptations of Israel, which involved bread…testing the Lord…and idolatry.”[2]

            And now we, too, are on a forty-day journey – patterning our liturgical lives in the image of Jesus, led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 days, and the Hebrew people before him, led by God for 40 years in the wilderness. Now, you and I are traveling through the wilderness of Lent – cultivating a spiritual practice of wandering in our worship together.

Over the entire course of Lent, our worship services will invite us into a reengagement and re-imagination of some major themes of the Christian tradition – many of which have been “turn offs” to many of us in the ways they have been used manipulatively by churches in our past: salvation, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, deliverance.

It began this past Wednesday when some of us gathered in the darkened chapel to recognize the place of sin in our lives and to look unflinchingly at our own mortality. We took the sign of the cross upon our foreheads, marked with the ancient symbol of the penitent: ash upon flesh. And we read the passage that we have chosen as the thematic starting point for this Lenten season at OCBC, Isaiah 58:9: “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.”

And now, we hear the words of the Apostle Paul, beckoning to us from across millennia with the same message. He beings by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” And then he continues, “Confess with your lips…believe in your heart…Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

            It’s a bit of an affront to our progressive sensibilities – harkening back to such rudimentary lessons as the “Romans Road” to salvation and such crude depictions of good and evil as “hell houses.”

Sometimes we come up with new words to describe what we might once have described with the word, “salvation,” after that word has become too tainted by those who abuse its profundity. Words like “redemption” or, perhaps the even less pious sounding, “renewal,” have sometimes done the trick.

Other times, we’ve just constructed the predicament from which we need salvation (or “renewal”) in a more socio-cultural way, pointing to the evils of structural racism and sexism and heterosexism and environmental degradation. It’s a gift that more liberal, justice-conscious churches have offered our Christian siblings in shifting our perspectives on sin and salvation to focus upon those structural evils that contributed to violence and the degradation of life for others.

But sometimes we can get a bit careless and we’re liable to reduce a complex and robust and theologically rich metaphor like “salvation” to little more than a haphazardly baptized principle or virtue.

Losing sight of rich theological themes like “salvation” is often a shortcoming of the liberal churches. And I confess that I haven’t quite worked out how to develop this theme more fully from the theological perspectives in which we are rooted here at OCBC. It’s good for you to see me struggling to do the work of theology in sermonic form – not always quite arriving at anything very definite or conclusive. Constructing a practical theology is the work we share together in community. So I’ll just say, I’m not quite sure just what to say about “salvation.”

There is, of course, a component of social justice to it, but in a season like Lent that calls us into the wilderness – into places of discomfort and confrontation with the depths of our humanity – let’s not stop exploring such profound theological themes when we’ve arrived at a comfortable understanding.

“‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’…confess with your lips…believe in your heart…Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Theologian, David Kelsey, asks a pertinent question for anyone exploring the theme of salvation. He asks, “‘What difference can Jesus make here?’ that is, for some particular persons in some concrete situations.”[3]

            So as we work through these things together, traveling through the 40-day wilderness of Lent – cultivating a spiritual practice of wandering in our worship together. I ask you: When have you experienced salvation in your life? When have you witnessed salvation in the life of someone else? What difference does Jesus make here? What place does a heartfelt call to Jesus have for you, here, now? In what ways are you in need of salvation?

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” in The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. IX, ed. Leander E. Keck, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 101.

[2] Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” 98.

[3] David H. Kelsey, Imagining Redemption (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 11.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • February 13, 2016