30 March, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Isaiah 52:13–53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1–19:42
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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A friend of mine was entertaining a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses on her doorstep years ago when one of them asked her, “When were you saved?” She said, “At 3:00 on Good Friday,” which is a pretty good answer. It’s a familiar question to just about anybody who grew up in the Bible Belt. But being a typical Episcopalian, I never knew what to say. If I had been a little better versed in baptismal theology back then, I could have said the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 1962, the day I was baptized, although then my questioners would have attacked infant baptism. But baptism is only the first step in our salvation. It’s the moment of our justification, when we are made righteous/just, by having all our sin washed away. There are yet two more stages in the long process of salvation, the second of which takes the whole of this life and then some, the stage we’re all in right now. It’s called sanctification, becoming holy, by far the most arduous of the three because of the constant battle between good and evil all of us are caught up in, choosing to give in to the temptation to sin or to reject it. The third stage is easy– glorification. It’s what happens when finally we hear the Lord calling us out of our graves, saying, “Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).
But none of that would satisfy my evangelical friends or the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep. “When were you saved?” To say that it happened at 3:00 on Good Friday– the moment when Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit”– doesn’t quite cover it. But neither does saying, The moment when I made my decision for Christ, which is what some of my schoolmates wanted to hear about. First of all, neither my decision nor my action can save me– that’s a heresy the Church dealt with early on (Pelagianism, 5th century). And second, you can’t pin your salvation to a particular time or date. Our evangelical brothers and sisters have a rather different vocabulary and understanding with regard to these things than catholic Christians do. And just as Anglicans have a bunch of misunderstandings that are peculiar to us, so do they. The nature of salvation is one of those things that we and they misunderstand differently. So then, what is the Church’s understanding of salvation, that is rooted in sacred Scripture, and that she has believed and taught since the day of Pentecost? What does it mean to be saved, and how does it happen? Obviously it has quite a lot to do with Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin. But how does his death save us from sin? And how does each of us know for sure that I have been saved? Well, over 2,000 years the Church has been blessed with an abundance of prayerful, biblically grounded theologians whom God has gifted to teach this stuff. As you all know, I like to quote two in particular, one of whom is coming up in a minute.
The word save comes from Latin, to make safe. And in Christian usage it implies what it is we are made safe, or saved, from, which is spelled out by the archangel Gabriel as he tells Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy: “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21)– Jesus means ‘God saves.’ That brings us back to the question, How does he do it? Is it his death at 3:00 on Good Friday? Well, that’s certainly at the center of it. But to say that Christ died for me, and that’s all there is to it isn’t quite true, because that’s not all there is to it. Yes he died as the sacrifice for my sins– not mine alone, however, but for the sins of the whole world, as St John teaches (1Jn 2:2). But my salvation isn’t assured, the process of my salvation hasn’t even begun, unless and until I do something with that sacrifice.
St John Chrysostom says, “If we wish to understand the power of Christ’s blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. ‘Sacrifice a lamb without blemish,’ commanded Moses, ‘and sprinkle its blood on your doors.’” Those of you who were here last night will recall me explaining that the first Passover was intended by God to point to, and to prepare his people for, this day, Good Friday, just as Chrysostom says. Passover prefigures everything Jesus did over these three days. The Israelites had to do something with the sacrifice. They had to smear its blood on their doorposts and to roast what was left of the lamb with bitter herbs and eat every last bit of it. They appropriated the sacrifice to themselves by obeying God’s command to smear the blood on their doorposts and to eat the lamb. What they did was to obey, to do exactly what God commanded in order to be saved.
If we were to ask [Moses] what he meant, and how the blood of an irrational beast could possibly save people endowed with reason, his answer would be that the saving power lies not in the blood itself, but in the fact that it is a sign of the Lord’s blood. In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.
And do you remember what Jesus himself says about this? We hear it every Sunday: “Take, eat: this is my Body which is given for you… Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”
So you see, the death of Christ on the cross avails each of us nothing unless we appropriate it in the way he laid it out for us. He is the sacrificed Lamb of God, whose Body we eat and whose Blood is on our lips, as on the doors of his temple. And remember that we, the Church, are the true temple of the living God. And we who have been so nurtured in the faith of the Church as to discern his presence in the Bread and the Cup, which is where he said on Maundy Thursday that he would be, we come in repentance, pleading his sacrifice for our sins, knowing that his life-giving Body and Blood will strengthen and nourish us for life in his kingdom. St Paul urges us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2.12), and this is how we do it– by returning to the source of our spiritual strength and nourishment. Because contrary to the notion implied in that question, “When were you saved,” it’s not a momentary event that locks in an eternal reward. Instead it’s a lifelong process that entails our never straying very far from our Lord’s wounded side.
“If you desire further proof of the power of this blood,” St John Chrysostom says, “remember where it came from, how it ran down from the cross, flowing from the Master’s side.” As we read in the gospel, rather than breaking his legs, since he was already dead, the soldier drove his spear into the side of Jesus, and out of his heart flowed both water and blood. This was the foundation of the Church, for that water and blood constitute the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. Beloved, Chrysostom says,
don’t pass over this mystery without thought… From these two sacraments the Church is born: from Baptism, ‘the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit,’ and from the Holy Eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam… As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church.
So you see, simply to believe that he died on the cross for my sins and to leave it at that just isn’t enough. The death of the Son of God for the sin of the world demands action, not just idle belief and sentimental expression. It places some significant demands on us, both in how we respond and how we obey. It requires of us first to worship the Lord around his altar in penitence and loving adoration, culminating in our eating his Body and drinking his Blood. Otherwise, we will have no life in us, as Jesus himself has said (Jn 6.53). This is exactly what is meant in today’s second lesson when it warns us about “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” We have to jettison that absurd notion that “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian, or to have a relationship with Jesus.” Yes, he can be with us wherever we are, but he is most assuredly present among us when we gather around his table to remember his death and proclaim his resurrection.
It demands also that we die to sin, which happens first when we’re baptized. It’s not a feeling or an attitude– you actually have to get wet. Just as the Israelites were saved by doing with the lambs what God said, we have to be baptized, to be joined to Christ Jesus in a death like his, as St Paul teaches, so that we can be joined to him in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:5). That’s when we’re put on the road to salvation. Then we have to keep dying to sin every day, because it’s an ongoing struggle for the rest of our lives (1Cor 15:31). We have to continually reject in whatever way it presents itself to us, knowing that whenever we do fall into sin– and we always do– we have only to return to the altar in penitent adoration, seeking more of the strength and the nourishment that only the crucified and risen Lord can give by means of his Body and Blood, as he taught. None of these things are of our own doing. God does them for us, and in us. He invites us to believe, he invites us to the water and to his table, and he puts the grace of his Holy Spirit in us that enables us to respond, to hear his voice and answer his call.
The last words belong to St John Chrysostom:
The soldier pierced the Lord’s side, he breached the wall of the sacred temple, and I have found the treasure and made it my own. So also with the lamb: the Jews sacrificed the victim and I have been saved by it… Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished. As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
Ian C. Wetmore+