God: “You’re my Valentine!”
A sermon based on Romans 10: 8b-13
given at Mt Vernon, OH on February 14, 2016 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One magical Valentine’s Day a young boy caught a toad. The toad “ribbeted,” in his hand and then plain as day said, “Kiss me and I will turn into a beautiful Valentine princess!” The boy put the toad in his pocket. “Hey,” the toad loudly croaked, “How come you didn’t kiss me?” The little boy replied “I’d rather have a talking toad than a princess any day!”
I like that joke. It actually kinda reminds me of today’s Lectionary reading, a lot of modern listeners understand it as a toad, instead of understanding it as princess of a text. By that I mean, we tend to hear it as a troubling exclusive text about self belief and self salvation from hell, especially the part where Paul writes, “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.”
I know it may surprise folks to hear this from a pastor but I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve been turned off by someone touting this verse in a toad-like form to get my, or some other, soul saved from their idea of god and “his” imagined eternal damnation to hell.
My guess is many of us have heard it croaked out as something like “Accept Jesus into your heart and confess him as Lord and you will be saved from an eternity in hell.” I’ve heard that line so many times that today’s verses just come with those warts, most especially the notion that non-Christians burn forever in hell. So I’ve decided on this Valentine’s Day– a day dedicated to love– to explain how that verse is a princess-verse turned toad that’s actually packed with meaning that God unconditionally loves us. Kinda like those Valentines we used to give to everybody as kids, God’s saying to everyone “You’re my Valentine!” We are whom God loves. Everyone is.
So let me start by explaining what the toad way some of us put in our `pockets means. Believe in Jesus or go to hell tends to comes with a strange theology that “God loves you and everyone, but you are going to hell when you die if you don’t believe as we do.” Except for the “God loves you” part, the rest is to be blunt illogical and unloving. It’s a theological toad covered with warts! Why? Because of the “God is love” part. We are told over and over in the Bible that God’s love is steadfast and lasts forever. We don’t have to believe to be loved. We don’t have to do anything. We are loved. We are God’s forever Valentines– and steadfast means steadfast and forever means forever.
And that is not just supported by Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ teachings, it’s also a core tenant of the Apostle Paul’s theology. See Paul did not mean the toady ideas we think we hear in our lesson from his letter to the Romans. Yet, most of us have heard that in order to get God’s saving grace we have to do something, usually believe this or that. Paul teaches that God’s grace is free, a gift given by God unconditionally.
And sure enough my trusty dictionary of theological terms defines “Grace” as “Unmerited favor.” See grace means Jesus saves not because we accept Jesus into our hearts– but because of what Jesus did. That’s what Paul believed and preached.
There are all kinds of theologies and arguments and discussions about what Jesus did and why he had to do it in order to save humanity, but one thing is for certain, according to Paul, we cannot control the resulting grace from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Paul writes in Galatians (2:15-16) that “ a person is justified not by works of the law . . .” and Paul notes “that no one will be justified by works of the law.” 1 In other words we do not have to follow rules and do good deeds to get grace. Grace is already ours. Right now. No matter what. Sin or no sin we –everyone– gets grace.
And we– everyone– sins. Missing the mark is what the word “sin” means. We fail to hit the mark God aims us at. That is the truth and it is what sin means. Humans make mistakes and we carry wounds and scars and flaws around with us because we and others fail to hit the mark God aims us at. Paul and early church leaders wrestled with all this sin stuff. They understood the Garden of Eden Story as human beings made in the image of God, but falling from perfection by sinning. The mark God aimed Adam at was obedience and when Adam disobeyed God he sinned and fell out of the Garden of Eden, out of grace. That’s early Christianity’s explanation of humanity’s separation from God – how our human images of God got tarnished to only dimly reflect God.
Paul and other early founders understood humankind as falling from grace because Adam first did, but they saw Jesus as the opposite of Adam. Where Adam was disobedient, Jesus is obedient and restores grace to all of humanity. Jesus fixed the problem of Adam’s fall. His life and death and resurrection result in an atonement, a word that means “at-one-ness.” All are restored to oneness with God by Jesus’ actions. This is basic to Paul’s theology regardless of belief or unbelief or works or non-works.
All of what I have just said may not be what we were taught in Sunday school or what “Accept Jesus or go to hell” means, but it is actually early Christianity 101 going back to Paul . . . It’s in the Bible! Unlike a lot of modern Christianity Paul’s theology does not picture us needing to choose to climb out of sin’s sea into the lifeboat of Christianity to avoid drowning in a hot water of hell. Paul imagined all of humanity already plucked out of a sea in the lifeboat, already saved from drowning by Jesus.
This early form of budding Christianity – in the Bible– used the words faith and belief a bit differently than we tend to. Back then the Greek words for those concepts included the meaning “to hold dear.” The English word “belief’ actually comes from the Old English phrase “be loef,” which literally means to hold dear, to belove. To have faith or belief in the Biblical context can be understood to mean “to belove.” 3 Belief and faith mean to hold dear. We hold dear God. We hold dear Jesus. Christian belief and faith mean God is my beloved, Jesus is my beloved. This is especially true with Paul’s text that we are considering this morning. Context gives meaning!
We also need to understand that when Paul speaks of Jesus’ resurrection Paul does necessarily mean Jesus was physically raised. Paul experienced the risen Christ in a vision. He encountered a real – but not a bodily– Jesus . . . rather a spiritual Jesus. The Gospels record the resurrected Jesus had a new kind of existence, he could not re- experience death, and time and space no longer applied to him 2. That’s why he appears not just in a known form, but in unknown forms, in a gardener, a traveler, a stranger on a beach. He can be seen even when walls are up or eyes are shut or blinded.
The resurrection, though mysterious has four truths connected to it:
(1) Although Jesus was killed to stamp out his life and his cause, both continue to exist;
(2) Jesus was experienced in the form of both himself and in strangers by those who knew him in his lifetime;
(3) Jesus was also experienced by those who did not know him in his lifetime; and
(4) The Body of Christ lives on as the Church.
In short, Jesus’ resurrection means Jesus experiential presence continues on. We can believe that, belove that, and hold it dear. It’s true.
And it is fair to hear Paul’s use of the word believe as beloving, especially beloving in our heart that God raised Jesus in some fashion– from the dead, whether it be physical or metaphor or in a spiritual manner.
So let’s look again at Paul’s phrase “ 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.” The word “Lord” is a translation of the Greek “kurios” which means the one to whom something or someone belongs, the ruler/master/lord. Can we confess with our lips that we belong to Jesus? Christians are Jesus followers by definition. He’s the one who ought to be our ruler, the master of our life (in a non-slave way) the lord of our life in all things. So it ought to be somewhat easy for followers of Jesus to claim that he is Lord in that sense. He’s the one to whom we as Christians belong.
“[I]f 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.” Can we believe that as Paul meant it? Can we hold dear, belove, in our heart that God raised Jesus somehow from the dead? Physically? Metaphorically? Spiritually? Yes!
So far I don’t get the willies when I hear it that way! It’s not about believing the unbelievable or about exclusivity . . . or anyone going to hell. It’s about beloving the wonderful truth that Jesus lives on somehow and rules our personal lives.
Now comes the last, and perhaps hardest, part for a lot of us. The “will be saved part.” “ [I]f 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.” “YOU. WILL. BE. SAVED” Many modern Christians insist this makes the Christian path exclusive. Accept Jesus their way or go to hell. The text, however, literally makes no such claim. It doesn’t mention hell as what we are saved from. Moreover, there is no exclusivity about it.
Paul doesn’t claim this is the only way to be saved. He says if you do it you will be saved, not if you don’t do it you won’t be saved. In fact, as we heard Ann read, Paul wrote a few sentenced later that
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.”
By claiming there is no distinction between Jew and Greek Paul makes it clear that there is no difference between humans in God’s eyes we are beloved equally and in God’s grace equally. And God is God to all and all you have to do is call on God by any name. Jews and Greeks have different names for God but it doesn’t matter.
Paul understands Christ as God on earth for everyone and generous to everyone and promises grace to everyone. God’s grace is free and it’s ours whether we want it or not. In other words, metaphorically Adam’s disobedience has been erased by Jesus’ obedience and so all of us have been rescued from sin’s sea of cosmic trouble and are in the lifeboat out of cosmic hot water (as it were). If we’re already in the lifeboat, what are we saved from then if we confess Jesus is our ruler and if we belove that Jesus lives? “Salvation in the Bible is seldom about afterlife.” Marcus Borg wrote that ‘in the New Testament salvation: is occasionally about an afterlife– but most of the time it is not. So also saved and savior are not primarily about being saved from our sins so that we can go to heaven. . .” 5
In the Bible salvation mostly means being rescued from oppression like the Hebrew Exodus and Exile Stories, or the repeated rescue from peril recounted in the Psalms. In the Gospels it’s often about Christ giving opportunity for transformative new life on earth, Jesus the Christ brings sight, he brings health, he brings justice, he brings food, he brings open hospitality, he brings love, and ever since Easter we’ve understood that Christ does all of this for everybody here, now, in the lifeboat of grace.
What Christianity saves us from is our old way of life. We are all on the life raft (of grace), but if we confess Jesus is our ruler and if we belove that God resurrected Jesus then we can be saved from the lesser way we’d otherwise be if we didn’t follow Jesus’ Way of love. We get a new life on the life raft. We are not better than others, and it has nothing to do with anyone going to hell. What we are is saved from the lesser life we would otherwise have had by not living the new life that God wants for us – because God so loves us. Salvation is living a life where we become God’s love in action that’s what saves. It saves us from life on earth without that love. Jesus’ Way is about God loving us and being God’s love. It’s about God bringing to others – through us– health, justice, food, hospitality, love– a better way of being.
That’s why we confess Jesus is our ruler and why we belove that Jesus lives because it provides the promise of salvation from our lesser older way of being, and when we act on that promise it does indeed save us and the world from a lesser existence we’d otherwise have had!
God so loves us we are – all of us– rescued by grace. Grace and love are like the Valentines young children freely hand out to everyone. God loves us so much he sent us Jesus and His Way, a Way that can re-aim us in every moment of our life toward salvation from the lesser life we might otherwise have. That’s what our loved soaked Valentines’s princess of a lesson teaches us.
* This sermon is based in part on a sermon I originally wrote in 2013
1. Laughlin, Richard, Remedial Christianity, 175
2. Ibid. I got these ideas from p 178.
3. Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, 118-119
4. Borg, Marcus, Wright, NT, The Meaning of Jesus, 135
5. Borg, Speaking Christian 39
6. Ibid., 47
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