Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
Scripture: Acts 11:1–18
For a couple summers during college, I worked as a counselor at St. Crispin’s Episcopal Summer Camp in the Diocese of Oklahoma where I grew up. I remember the Senior High theme one year being, “Episcopal Answers to Baptist Questions.” If you’ve spent any time in Oklahoma at all, you will understand why this was a necessary skill for teens of a liturgical nature to pick up along the way.
In the small town in which I grew up, childhood play dates involved things like drawing with sidewalk chalk, playing video games, and discussing how many jewels one had on their crown in heaven. True story. NOTHING happened or was ever scheduled in the community on Sunday mornings, or Sunday nights, or Wednesday nights. Those sacred times were reserved for church even though we Episcopal heathens only attended church on Sunday mornings except maybe during Lent.
But by far, the most common question faced by every adult and child was this one: Have you been saved? Can you name the hour and place of your personal salvation? And I’m willing to bet that nine times out of ten the person asking the question had recently experienced an altar call, attended a tent revival, or some other kind of mountaintop experience and by asking others for a testimonial, they were clinging to their zeal, their joy in the hopes of stalling its eventual diminishment.
Have you been saved? If pressed to name the hour and place of your personal salvation, what would you say?
Reinhold Niehbur, American theologian from the early 20th century, is known to have said he was saved “2,000 years ago on a dusty hill named Golgotha outside Jerusalem’s walls.” During that week of Sr. High Camp, I remember the chaplain suggesting a nuanced version of the same: “Have you been saved?” “Yes, it was a Friday afternoon about 2,000 years ago near the city of Jerusalem.”
So, Jesus’ crucifixion is one good answer, but the teens in my discussion group that week decided another good response is baptism. I was saved at my baptism. For me, that was February 8, 1981, at Grace Episcopal Church in Ponca City, Oklahoma. How about you? Do you know the story of your baptism? You were saved when you were re-born into the body of Christ through the waters of baptism and re-birth. You were saved when you were marked and claimed as Christ’s own forever.
In the same spirit of Niehbur’s 2,000-years-ago-at-Golgotha response, today’s reading from Acts offers another possible come back. Have you been saved? Yes, it was about 2,000 years ago, when Peter had a vision from God in the city of Joppa. That vision or dream of Peter’s was another moment of salvation for humanity in that it moved the faith from sectarian Judaism to a faith open to all. Peter’s vision broke open the new faith, the belief in Jesus as the Messiah from a select group of insiders, to anyone—unclean and clean alike. After this vision, Christianity would include rule-followers and rebels, insiders and outsiders, Jews and Gentiles, circumcised or not. Everyone became welcome to the table that day.
So what was that crazy vision all about really, with the sheet and the animals coming down out of heaven? It was the Holy Spirit without a doubt. It was God showing Peter that the old rules no longer applied, the strict dietary rules which separated Jews from Gentiles—they were passé. What God has made clean you must not make profane. This was revolutionary!
The Holy Spirit was on the move, inspiring and shaking things up in the life of Peter once again. The Holy Spirit—on the move—in this crazy mixed-up vision that revolutionized salvation for all, especially the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit was on the move in the early believers struggling to figure out how to be church. So maybe that’s when we were saved.
It helps to have a little background on the world behind the text here—the world of Simon Peter and what was going on in his community. You see, the questions being asked in Judea at that time were these: Who is the audience for the gospel of Christ? How wide is God’s embrace? Who is worthy of salvation?
There was a rumble happening in Judea, rumbling among the apostles and early believers, all of them Christian Jews as they were increasingly faced with Gentiles converting to the faith. For them, life had been about separation through a code of laws and rituals meant to make them stand apart. So, Gentiles converting to the faith and more than that, letting Gentiles (even believing gentiles) into the synagogue, was akin to letting a fox into the henhouse, an unclean fox at that.
If Jesus being crucified at Golgotha saved us, then Peter’s vision was the day that salvation became accessible and attainable to all. This day of salvation was a pivot point in an Age of the Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit breaking open salvation. The Holy Spirit broke open salvation to all in the context of a vision to Simon Peter on the seashore and that was radical. It widened God’s embrace. It challenged the thinking around who might want to be a follower of Christ. It pushed the boundaries of that first-century community to reconsider who was worthy of salvation. Which brings us to today—to you and me.
So what does God’s salvation mean to you? Is it Jesus on the cross? Is it baptism and rebirth by water and the spirit? Is it God’s love that has been with us from the beginning of time as experienced in the movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the ages?
I’ve been walking around asking people this week: “Have you been saved?” and the responses have been widely varying and fascinating. One person’s response was something like this: “We are saved when we open our hearts, our minds, and our souls. It’s all about God’s love. That’s when we know we’re saved. You can be a Christian without believing you’re saved. But believing you are chosen by God and loved by God, and knowing that God chose you, that’s powerful. God loves you enough just as you are. God made you. When you can accept this with your whole heart, then you are saved.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, my favorite preacher, says in Leaving Church, “Salvation is not something that happens only at the end of a person’s life. Salvation happens every time someone with a key uses it to open a door he could lock instead.”
That’s about love isn’t it? It’s about accepting God’s love for us and going places we may not wish to go because sometimes the Holy Spirit works in truly mysterious ways.
I have a story that perfectly illustrates this in a big, life-changing way. I’m reading a spiritual memoir right now called No Idea: Entrusting Your Journey to a God Who Knows, written by my friend Greg Garrett who went to seminary with me.
In an early chapter he describes his discernment process and how he, a thrice-divorced English professor with a history of depression ended up following God’s unlikely call. He was sleeping in his office at Baylor University one night, as he did once a week that semester, when he had a vision from God in the form of hearing a voice. As Greg writes, “The message I heard was understandable to me, but as unwelcome as it could possibly be. The Voice seemed to be telling me to go to Nineveh.”
Greg wrestled with the Voice and what he heard, despite having a clear sense that he was being called into serious belief in God, serious Christian faith, perhaps even into ministry of some sort. God was handing Greg a key and he could have easily locked the door, ignored The Voice, and walked away, never even looking back. But he didn’t. Greg took God’s key and opened the door to Nineveh, curious enough to see what the Holy Spirit might have in store for his life. Greg reflects on that vision, saying, “The reason I think that this was one of those rare authentic messages from God is it did not conform to my wishes and desires.”
“Being saved” happens all the time in giant life-saving ways and in tiny course correcting ways. God saves us over and over again every time we choose to take a key and open a door instead of closing it. Salvation is more than just the crucifixion. Being saved is more than a having a witty retort in your back pocket. Being saved is taking the keys that God offers us—whether that’s through a vision, or prayer, or opportunity, or even the breaking open of the Holy Spirit in the most unlikely and surprising of ways, and opening doors to more love, more freedom, more risk.
So, have you been saved?