Harrowing Of Hell
February 25, 2024

The Spiritual Journey Between Sin and Salvation

To watch the sermon click here.

Do you know what this is? That’s right – canoe paddle…and you’re wondering why I’m holding this morning. Well, it’s because we say every single Sunday, at every single service, that “Wherever you are on your spiritual journey you have a place at Epiphany.”

So, I think a lot about spiritual journeys. I think a lot about my spiritual journey and your spiritual journey; and this paddle has something to do with that.

It all started when a parishioner dropped by my office to talk about sin; and as we talked a metaphor came to mind that had to do with a paddle and a canoe trip. It is a metaphor that will be our through-line this morning, so, bear with me as it unfolds.

We begin with rivers. They are predictable and unpredictable, they’re refreshing and they’re treacherous, they give life and they bring death. And you never step into the same one twice. If you’re riding down a river in a canoe it moves you along, like the march of time, without your needing to do much.

As you go the landscape changes: there are canyons and rapids, boulders and sandy beaches, there are eddies and hot springs, tributaries and hidden logs. Sometimes there are even branches that lurch out from the riverbank.

God has given each of us a paddle. It’s helpful when we are in a canoe going down a river. It can act as a rudder to determine the direction of our bow, or as a source of power, when drawn through the water to move us in a particular direction.

We all have a paddle, because all of us are in a boat, because all of us are on a spiritual journey. If we are alive, we are on a spiritual journey, and we are holding a paddle.

On that paddle are written two words: sin and salvation. The paddle can be used to guide us toward God, or to row us away for God. To row away is sin, to guide toward is salvation. One paddle, two words: sin and salvation. Here’s another thing to note about this canoe ride, we’re facing backwards in the boat looking up stream. That can be confusing because our brain fools us into thinking that where we’re looking is where we’re going… not on the spiritual journey. On the spiritual journey we “walk by faith and not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7) or shall I say we paddle by faith and not by sight.

And so today, I want to talk about how to read the river we find ourselves floating down on this spiritual journey. I want to give us some tools to help us know where we are, and where we are going… even though we’re facing backward in the boat.

To read the spiritual river requires being attentive to three orienting points: the currents swirling around us; the riverbanks passing by us; and the other boats on the water with us. Three points of orientation: the currents, the riverbanks, and other boats. So, with these three things in mind let’s return to the paddle in hand, the paddle of sin and salvation.

Sin is one of those trigger words, which is why my friend stopped by my office the other day. None of us see ourselves as sinners, particularly. Sure, we may make mistakes. Yes, we have compulsions…. but sinner? That may be a bridge too far. We might accidentally do a bad thing or two, but not on purpose. We’re all good people, am I right?

Well then, if that is the case, how do we think about sin? Let’s return to the metaphor, where we are holding that paddle. Says sin right on it. So, I might suggest that sin is rowing against the patterns and the preferences God has woven into creation. Sin is straining to row upriver, towards a point in the past we can never return to. Sin is forgetting that we are sitting backwards in the boat, believing that we are looking at where we are going. Sin is believing that we are the center of the river, which is an impossibility. There is no center to a river.

Sin is the delusion that how we paddle determines the direction of the current. Think about that…Sin is the delusion that how we paddle determines the direction of the current. It does not. That is hubris. That is self-centeredness. That is sin. And sin will get crosswise with the current; which causes anxiety; it causes unnecessary tumult and conflict, and inevitably frustration accrues like a wet cape. And with this soggy rug around our shoulders, we expend energy rowing against the current toward a place we will never reach.

As Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans: “Who hopes for what can be seen? But if we hope for what we do not see we wait for it patiently” (Rom 8:24-25). We ride the current. Sin is being out of sync with the river.

Salvation is simpler. It is active, yet easier; using the paddle as a rudder, to dip into the river keeping the bow aligned with the current that is drawing us toward God.

Jesus was a master oarsman. We find him today floating with his disciples from Caesarea Philippi toward Jerusalem. As they go along, he is talking to them about what’s going to happen, how he will be rejected by the elders, chief priest and scribes, then killed, and after three days resurrected.

He is dipping his paddle in the water so as to direct the bow toward Jerusalem. He knows it will lead him into contact with the power brokers there. He knows they are going to bash him with their paddles, and capsize his boat. But he dips his paddle anyway because he also knows where he is in relationship to the riverbank. His time has come, his teaching complete, the Passover fast approaching, he knows it is time to go to Jerusalem.

Jesus also reads the current. It is speeding up. Rough waters head. And still salvation, always resurrection, he floats by faith, which is why he dips his paddle toward Jerusalem.

And then there’s Peter. He pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. Imploring him to row upstream, back to a point on a bygone shore where the idea of the Messiah is a conquering king, who defeats his enemies with a sword and reigns from a throne in Jerusalem.

Jesus responds: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” In other words, you think where you’re facing is where you’re going; you have forgotten you’re sitting backward in the boat. In other words, you think that by the movement of your own paddle, you’re influencing the current of the water. You are not. That is sin. Get behind me Satan.

Jesus rebukes Peter by calling him Satan, the Tempter, for he is tempting Jesus to ignore the current, to avoid other boats, to misread the riverbank. Jesus does not.

And he goes on to say: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves take up your cross and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life will save it.” Life being the key word. In Greek it is psyche; which is better translated as soul. The canoe is our soul in which we ride the currents of the Kingdom of God.

The well attended spiritual life considers the soul, first and foremost, and tends to it by knowing where we are in relationship to the current, the riverbank, and the other boats. Or to say the same thing a different way: by knowing where we are in relationship to the time, the place, and the people in our life right now.

Jesus teaches us how to read the water by modeling his relationship to these points of orientation, time, place and people; and then gently using his paddle as rudder to steer the bow (by faith), into the currents of God.

Jesus gives us the model, the question is: “How do we implement it in our lives? How do we artfully dip, rather that brutally drive the paddle? How do we navigate more by salvation and less by sin?”

Luckily, we are in Lent, and Lisa and Susan have invited us to take on the spiritual exercise of silence. Silence is an exercise that facilitates reflection on time, place, and the people in our lives.

Silence allows us to wonder whether we are rowing upstream toward a place in the past that we can never return to, or if we are attune to the riverbank that we are passing right here, right now. Silence orients us to the reality of our present circumstances. Silence also allows us to gaze upon the currents around our boat (which is our soul). To see the water bunching up against the gunwale because we are running crossways to the current, or if our boat is aligned with the flow of God.

Silence enables us to assess the source of our frustrations and anxieties, and then decide what role we play in exacerbating their presence in our lives…and then dip our paddle. Finally, silence allows us to look around to see who we’re next to, and if we are rowing desperately toward them, or gently gliding next to them. Silence gives us time to assess the health of the relationships we are in.

We are all holding a paddle, the paddle of sin and salvation. Silence is an exercise that can glide us toward the good life. That is not to say that the good life is without rapids or rocks or submerged branches; but rather that the good life is knowing where we are on the river; it is reading the currents of our time, and the position of our soul in relationship to other people, and seeing the riverbank as the place where we are right now, then dipping our paddle and letting it guide us, not by the power of our strokes, but by the currents of God.

We are all on the spiritual journey. We are all in a canoe. We are all facing upriver. We are all being moved along by the current. The question is: How do we use our paddle? Let silence provide the answer.