John 15:26-27 / John 16:4-15
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Acts 2:21
For me, this is one of the most important verses in all Scripture, and one which I quote perhaps more often than any other verse. For me it is both enormously encouraging and enormously challenging. Let me tell you why.
For most of us, in our 21st century computer-dominated age, when we say that we have saved something, we mean that we have put it in a file somewhere on our computer so that we can find it again when we need it. In this context, saved is merely the opposite of deleted.
But the word saved has of course long had a much wider and more powerful meaning referring as it does to having kept someone or something safe, or having rescued them. And it is pretty much always followed by the word from. A brief search on Google under ‘saved from’ brings up references to animals being saved from extinction, to an episode of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ when Edward is saved from being scrapped, and to a 1912 silent movie about a woman who was saved from the Titanic, to name just a few.
So, in our Bible reading, what do the prophet Joel, and Peter when he quotes him, mean when they use this word, when they say that everyone will be saved, and what do they imagine that people need to be saved from?
The Bible teaches that the core problem which we as humans have is sin. God created us to be like him, but, when we live contrary to his standards, we sin. Ever since the Garden of Eden, humans have been disobeying God, and that disobedience – our sin - separates us from God. This separation is symbolised by Adam and Eve being thrown out from the Garden of Eden, and therefore from their close relationship with God. St Paul in Romans 3 reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
A little bit further on his letter to the Romans, in Romans 6, St Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. in other words, that there is a clear penalty for sin, and that penalty is death. Death here means not just the termination of life and consciousness at the end of our earthly lives, but also total alienation from God for all eternity.
When the prophet Joel, and Peter quoting him, say that everyone will be saved, they mean that everyone will be saved from the consequences of their disobedience against God, that is from total alienation from God for all eternity.
And then how is it that are people saved from this, from the consequences of their sin and their disobedience towards God?
Well, the answer is summed up in one of the most famous verses in the Bible – John 3:16 - For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus was born a man so he could suffer the kind of death that all sinners really deserve. His death was accepted by God as full payment for all our disobedience and sin. In theological terms, this is referred to as the atonement. The word atonement can be broken down as at-one-ment. In other words, through Jesus’ death on the cross, we are now at one with God, and we have been saved from the separation and alienation which should by rights be a consequence of our sin.
Furthermore, in the words of Joel, as quoted by Peter, all we need to do to be saved, in other words to receive this gift from God of reconciliation with him, is call on the name of the Lord.
Our God’s love is unconditional. All we need to do is to accept Jesus for who he is – the son of God – and commit our hearts and lives to him. Our God is also the God of Second Chances. However we have messed up in our lives, it is not too late to be put right with him, to be reconciled to him. We are never too far from God. He never gives up on us. Just as the father in the story of the prodigal son was watching and waiting and longing for his son to come home, so God is just watching and waiting and longing for us to take that one simple step of faith and commitment.
Furthermore, to help us on that journey back home to him, God promises that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth Jesus refers to in our gospel reading, the advocate, the comforter, will guide [us] into all the truth. So, on this day of Pentecost, we remember again the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and into our lives. In a few moments, Emma will sing Litany to the Holy Spirit by Peter Hurford, which emphasises particularly the comfort which the Holy Spirit can give to us when temptations or doubts or sorrow seem
more than we can bear, when we are sick in heart and sick in head.
This is the gospel – the good news which is at the heart of the Christian faith.
This is why this verse so enormously encouraging, but, as I said at the start, however, this verse is also enormously challenging, and the challenge is in the first word – in the apparently innocent word everyone.
Everyone? Who is everyone?
Well, everyone is everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. That is everyone one who believes in Jesus as the Son of God and commits their hearts and lives to him. That is all someone has to do to be saved – to call on the name of the Lord. That is all that matters -a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.
So, in order for someone to be saved, it doesn’t matter about the colour of their skin, their age, their nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation, their qualifications, the church which they attend, what they believe about the place of women in ministry or the theology of the eucharist, or the myriad of other issues which from time to time seem to become so important. The truth is that none of those issues really matters at all in the whole scheme of things, but sadly the Christian church has found it, and still finds it, very hard to understand that.
Down the centuries, and still today, there are many issues have served to divide and weaken the Christian church. We have come a long way in this country in terms of religious tolerance. We no longer burn people at the stake because we don’t agree with their version of the Christian faith, as we did in Tudor times. There are those who do however still refer to other members of the Christian church as unsound or in error, and refuse to associate with them. Issues around human sexuality and women in ministry and the theology of the eucharist are still battle grounds where Christians come into conflict. There are still many who find it hard to accept the truth of this verse from Acts 2, who find it hard to accept that those from other traditions within the church, with different ideas and ways of doing things, are just as likely to be part of God’s kingdom, as those from their own tradition. As humans, we are prone to a self-satisfied tribalism which makes us feel comfortable and safe. People from other church traditions, with different ideas and ways of doing things, can threaten and bring into question our comfortable safe way of life and we don’t like it.
And this lack of understanding of the truth of this verse from Acts 2 has serious consequences of course. Firstly it causes enormous pain and suffering within the body of the church, when certain groups of people are rejected or ostracised or even persecuted. But secondly, and arguably more seriously, it weakens the power of the gospel message which we are trying to preach. Those outside the church see the petty squabbling and the listen to the at times vitriolic comments made by Christians about each other, and they quite rightly conclude that Christians are hypocrites – who preach about love and forgiveness, but whose lives are far from being loving or forgiving.
Acts 2:21 is then an enormously encouraging verse, reminding us as it does of God’s grace, of his unconditional love for us. It is however also an enormously challenging verse, reminding us as it does of our calling to live lives which bring glory to God and reflect his gracious love for us, by in turn showing our unconditional love to everyone.
Tertullian lived in the 2nd century AD in Carthage in North Africa. He was a Christian convert, raised in a pagan family, who went on to be become a priest and an influential theologian. In 197 AD he wrote a letter to the Roman authorities to plead for justice for the church and to stand up for the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of cruel opposition. In this letter he describes the attitude of the unbelievers towards their Christian neighbours saying
But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how these Christians love one another. See how they are ready even to die for one another.
We like Tertullian live in world where we are surrounded by people who do not share our Christian faith. Are they looking at us and saying the same? Are they looking at us and saying see how these Christians love one another? I fear that that is not always the case.
Let me leave you with the words of Jesus himself from John 13:34, when he says:
Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for another.
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