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Salvation

By Rob Scala - March 10, 2024


Readings:

Numbers 21:4-9

John 3:14-21


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What does salvation look like?


Today’s new-testament reading refers to the old-testament reading for a reason. Each of them describes salvation from a different angle. In today’s lesson, I will look at a number of versions of salvation.


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I was born and raised Catholic.


To the Catholics, salvation could be summarized by this verse in the book of John - “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

From a young age, I had some misgivings about that theology.


I could have asked why it was so hard for God to give up his son, when He knew Jesus wasn’t really going away and that it was only for 33 years. I could have asked whether it would it have been different if Jesus weren’t an only child. And the big question was this – by what cosmic calculus does someone dying on a cross save all of humanity from certain damnation in hell?


I didn’t ask these questions. I did what most people would do in my situation, I tried to make it work. And it did work. I was all in. At least for a number of years. But like many, as a young adult I rejected the whole premise of being saved by Jesus.


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That was years ago, before I had lived much, and before I had an appreciation for metaphor.


Fast forward 50 years. Now I find the question of salvation intriguing. I have learned that there are more useful and less useful ways of looking at the world. I have learned that in the face of the unfathomable complexity of life, certain principles just work – they seem to magically make my life and the lives of people around me better. Like love. Gratitude. Humility. Lifting each other up. Living with confusion. Accepting uncertainty. And on a more subtle level, knowing that the wisdom of the ages is trying to find me.


Here's a small example of that wisdom. Toddlers use the work “mine” a lot. It’s hard for them to learn to share. And that makes sense – they haven’t experienced the joys of connecting to other people by giving a little of themselves. Sharing is a new and mysterious way to relate to others. Once they get it, there’s no going back.

Maybe salvation is the act of opening up the mind to new understandings.


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Today’s old testament reading tells of the Israelites on their long journey out of Egypt. Their leader, Moses, had taken them on a detour, and they weren’t happy with the new route or their lack of food. Instead of following the path of love, which would include praying, supporting each other, counting their blessings, they took a different path. They grumbled to each other. They complained to Moses. Their lives became unbearable. They turned against each other. Violence and starvation might have ensued. Some sort of evil had befallen them.


Eventually they realized their error and asked Moses for help. Moses prayed and returned with a simple solution. Put an image of the evil they experienced, a bronze snake, on a pole for all to see. Then whenever anyone felt their human weaknesses getting the better of them, one glance at the snake on the pole would instantly cure them and get them back on track.


The serpent on a pole was a way to re-connect to salvation.


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The new-testament reading presents another lesson on salvation. The reading starts in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Jesus compares himself to the serpent on a pole – a way to salvation.


Jesus conjures up powerful images - about life and death, salvation and condemnation, believing and judgment, light and evil. His point is that there is a clear distinction between the Kingdom of Heaven and the ordinary world of survival and ignorance. He wants us to make the right choice - so that we may have a more abundant life. Jesus wants us to choose salvation.


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In the book “Joyful Wisdom”, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche describes Buddha nature as having three qualities:

1. Boundless wisdom – the capacity to know anything and everything.

2. Infinite capability – the power to raise ourselves and others from any condition of suffering.

3. Immeasurable loving kindness and compassion – a limitless sense of connectedness to all creatures.


This sounds like salvation to me.


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In all of these visions of salvation, we are asked to give up something. The child gives up the toy that he or she loves. The ancient Israelis give up the satisfaction of their anger. The Buddhist gives up a self-involved life. And Jesus gives up his actual life. In all of these visions, the reward is life-altering.


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I woke up this morning knowing that this sermon is incomplete, and that I don’t have time to work on it. It was a kind of panic. Overnight it became more clear to me that salvation isn’t easy and sometimes just doesn’t happen. We can’t always be clear-headed. We can’t always be free from anxiety. We can’t always be hopeful. We can’t always be free from mental illness. If salvation is like being pulled from the ocean after our boat sinks, why do we always find ourselves back in the ocean?


I think that the devil has a compelling argument. Why bother with salvation? Why not just look out for number one?


With a little more humility, I looked at my sermon and realized that I couldn’t get it to where I wanted it. And I chose to accept that fact. And I felt better. It seems like salvation isn’t about making your problems go away, like in a movie, but living with reality.


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