Sermons

"Answering Emails:" Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 10, Year B

"Answering Emails:" Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 10, Year B

Jul 12, 2015

Passage:Ephesians 1:3-14

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Season After Pentecost

Category: Love, Grace, Salvation

Keywords: baptism, faith, grace, joy, salvation

Summary:

This week, I had the pleasure of "going deep" into some major theological questions as part of an email conversation. This sermon follows the general pattern of that conversation, addressing many of those questions through the lens of the Book of Ephesians. The questions include: Why do we have infant baptism? What is the nature of salvation? Do we have to accept God's salvation in order for it to be valid? Are all people going to go to "heaven" as opposed to some going to "hell"? Do you have to be a Christian in order to receive God's grace?

Detail:

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

I really love being a priest. Of course, there are good days and bad days, just like with everything else. But one of the things I love is that people ask me the coolest questions.

And what's great about it is that I don't always have answers, but I have the privilege of being part of the conversation.

Earlier this week, I had a delightful email conversation with someone that got me thinking about this topic. Today, in this sermon, I want to take elements of that exchange, and add some things from our Ephesians reading, which is quite relevant to the topic of the conversation.

The email conversation started with the person asking about our church's practice of infant baptism. Specifically: "if a person is baptized as an infant, how does that relate to their salvation?" On occasion, I get questions about this. Why do we have infant baptism? Why don't we require all of our folks to be adults before they are baptized so that they can know what they are getting into? That, of course, is the case in a large portion of the Protestant Christian Church. One has to make a conscious assent to be baptized. And in that baptism be "born again."

I was, of course, happy to answer the question, as I always am. And I was particularly pleased this week, because I knew that today, we were going to be having a baptism.  Declan Cade Hilleary, who is an infant, is being baptized today. So I could invite the person asking to come be with us as we celebrated this Holy Sacrament together.

What I told the person is this: "We do believe that the Holy Spirit is present at baptism, whether that baptism is for an adult or for a child or for an infant. Of course, when we have child or infant baptisms, we ask that parents and godparents promise to raise the child in the faith, and that they see to that child's spiritual growth. But as far as salvation goes, we do not believe that there is anything a person can do to gain salvation. There is no prayer ("the sinner's prayer" for instance) or no further action on a person's part that can gain salvation for a person. Salvation is completely and totally a gift from God. It's God's grace, given through the great sacrifice of Christ for us all. Like we hear in Ephesians, in Christ "we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us" (1:7-8).

"Baptism is the sacrament (the outward and visible sign of God's inward grace) that makes us members of Christ's church. With Baptism we enter into the responsibility of helping to heal God's creation. Some are baptized as infants, and grow into the knowledge of that membership. Others are baptized as adults and embrace that membership head on in their adult lives. Either way, Christ calls us to be a witness to the Gospel--the good news of God's reconciling love in the world."

Now, I was hoping that I was thorough enough in that answer. But I worried that I may not have gotten to the heart of the question. And I was right.

The person sent me a follow-up email asking, essentially [and I'm paraphrasing here]: "I understand that salvation is a gift from God, and you can't 'gain' it. But don't you have to 'accept' that gift--as in 'I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior?' In other words, are you born with salvation?"

Wow, now it's getting pretty good! My guess is that there are people here today that have a general idea of the theology behind the preaching and teaching here at St. Andrew's. BUT, perhaps we all aren't sure of the answers when it comes down to the specific questions like the ones asked.

So, in answering the person's questions, I started off making it clear that I do not speak for the Episcopal Church as a whole. It's important to realize that we, as a church, can maintain a breadth of theological understandings and still come to the table, worshiping God and loving one another.

I responded to the question: "You ask: 'are you born with salvation, or do you have to consciously accept it?' Before I answer that, I want to clearly define a few terms, just so I can be very clear about what my answer means. Often, throughout the Christian tradition, salvation and heaven have been linked together. Here's the thing: I think salvation and heaven are in many ways separate issues. When we study the Holy Scriptures, Jesus talks about heaven as the place we are to create on earth, here and now. Jesus came to transform this world into God's image and to help us bring about 'thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.' But heaven is also a place that, once joined with the earth, will mean that God's Kingdom will be fulfilled. We hear in Ephesians that the 'mystery of God's will' is a 'plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth' (1:9-10). In other words, the goal is not just to 'save us so that we can go to heaven when we die.' There is not some sort of transactional acceptance of God's grace that has to happen (which is popular in many Protestant teachings). I can't simply 'accept Jesus as my savior' in order for Jesus to allow me to go to heaven.

"Instead, here's what I do think... We ARE all created in God's image. We are created out of love for love. We are created for the purpose of loving God and loving each other. In Ephesians, we learn that 'God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in love' (1:3-4). But we don't always love one another. We fall short of that proper end--that goal. That falling short is sin. The separation we have from God's purpose for us IS sin. We need to be healed from that separation--from that sin. Healing is salvation.

"So... in one sense, we are not born with salvation, in that the moment we are born we are in the presence of God, and don't need healing. But soon after, there are things in this world that may separate us from the knowledge of and the hope in God. That's when it becomes clear that salvation...God's healing presence... is actually always there for us (and always has been there for us) from the beginning of creation. We see this salvation most clearly and strikingly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ."

So now the person's follow-up question was even better! The person wrote: "So, is everybody going to heaven? Does anyone go to hell?"

By now, of course, I was hoping for Jo to get back from vacation! But here's where I went with it: "As far as heaven... Of course, we are to strive to make present God's heaven on earth. But, the great gift we also know, is that through Christ God has defeated death for all time. So, back to your question about "is everyone going to heaven?" I'll assume what you are getting at is "when we die, will everyone be in the place popularly known as 'heaven' rather than 'hell'?" -- Of course, I cannot speak for God (nor would I ever try to do so). But here's what I think: If Christ destroyed death forever, we will be in the presence of the Lord forever. That's part of the "mystery of his will" and the 'plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things on heaven and things on earth' we hear about in Ephesians (and of course, many other places in the Holy Scriptures). This should be a place of ultimate joy, happiness, fullness, and completion of who we are.

"However, we also know that there are some who choose to separate themselves from the love of God in this life, and perhaps, will continue to choose separation, even after death--perhaps even throughout all of eternity. This separation we know results in pain, anger, shame, hopelessness, and darkness--in other words, it is a kind of hell. I don't think that is a result of whether they 'said the sinner's prayer' or it is punishment for how they lived in a particular way their whole life. Instead it is their choice of separation.

"But, I also have to say that God's grace is probably more powerful than my imagination about what can thwart God's grace. The truth is, I'm not sure that even the most determined individual could resist the love of God for ALL of eternity (it is, after all, ETERNITY)."

The person's final question was this: "Do we have to be Christians to get this salvation or grace?"

I responded: "If we look at Ephesians, it could sound like God chooses certain ones of us to be Christians, and others not. It says: 'He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ' (1:5). If we read this and other parts of the New Testament in a limited way, it makes it seem as if being a Christian is the only way to access God's grace. But I say that's not the point here at all. The point is that for those of us who are Christians, we should feel joy in our faith. When we 'hear the word of truth, the good news of our salvation,' like little Declan Cade today, we are 'marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit' (Ephesians 1:13).

"We do believe that we are called to live out our faith. Throughout the New Testament, the word 'faith' is an action verb. It's not just about passive belief in something. We are to actively 'be' Christians. We are to 'be' the reconciling love of God in the world. We are to 'be' salvation. We will continue to fall short (to stumble), we will confess, and we will repent. But in the midst of all of this, we will know that God is with us, and that together, we are the continuing Body of Christ in the world. We will try to bring God's healing love to all around us.

"I do believe that we are greatly privileged to live our lives as Christians. It's hard for me to imagine a more intensely personal or powerful experience of God than the incarnate Christ--the Son of God. This intensity of experience comes when we know we have 'the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, that he lavished on us,' as described in Ephesians (1:7-8).

"But, this does not mean that God's grace is not available to people in other faiths. How can we possibly limit the creator of all that is, seen and unseen? Our job, as Christians, is not to try to 'win souls' or to 'convert people' to our faith. I once heard that as Christians we are called to be the kind of people that others want to be around. Our job is not to constantly harass others to become like us. We should be so active and consumed with living the good news of God's reconciling love in our lives that others notice the joy of Christ in us. And then, perhaps they, too, would like to find that joy, whether it's in their own faith or in adopting ours."

And, finally, as Christians, we should be grateful for our blessings. So, we close today as our Ephesians reading began--being grateful:  "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places..."

Amen.