IF JESUS saves, what does he save us from? And, more importantly, what does he save us into? Christian talk about salvation is often parodied, and with reason. It’s a field where cliché and even sanctimony easily creep in. As preachers, we need to keep attending to those two questions with honesty and imagination.
”Salvation” often calls up images of final judgement. Will I be “saved” and go to heaven when I die? Of course, we want to emphasise that our choices do have eternal consequences. But heaven and hell exist now, here, today. We each know how closeness to God looks and feels — and recognise the ugly hallmarks of separation from God. Our lives are always bringing the choice of heaven or hell before our eyes.
There is nothing in the world like a conversion story. Don’t stop at St Paul, and Wesley, and John Newton. Take the mother of Manche Masemola, who, 40 years after she beat her own child to death for professing the gospel of Christ, was herself baptised. Take the religious structure of the various 12-step programmes. Where have you seen Christ lifting people out of hell and into heaven? When have you seen mercy, grace, forgiveness prevail? There is nothing abstract about salvation. It is a fact.
Salvation is another dimension of creation. It is really about becoming whole. Jesus’s healing miracles are acts of salvation. They are also a sign that God wills our wholeness: bodily, mental, and spiritual. But wholeness is never simply individual. Christ has bound us together in one body, along with Ian Paisley, Cardinal Richelieu, and the homeless woman on the pavement. In preaching, we want to ask ourselves — and the congregation — what we are doing for the wholeness of all God’s children, severally and together. We will answer for that on the Last Day.
SOMETIMES we co-operate with God’s plan for our salvation, sometimes we don’t; but God wills it continuously. What we see in the cross is not a new event: it is the nature of the eternal God, stretching out to us without ever giving up, no matter what we do. The cross shows us what a human being is like, too, and it is not pretty.
Everyone suffers (we will never go wrong in acknowledging the depths of that). And everyone has caused suffering — callously, carelessly, indifferently, ignorantly. Can we look at what a human is without flinching, shirking, self-justifying? Will we receive God’s offer of grace and transformation? We know it hurts to change, but we die if we stay the same. Preach encouragement.
Universal salvation has always divided the Church. We can’t say, as an article of faith, that all are saved, but we must hope and pray (and preach) for it. Our words will be ugly if we don’t. After all, Christ promises to draw all people to himself. And he keeps his promise.
The Revd Dr Melanie Marshall is the Chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford.