Some things which come across Facebook are worth looking at. Others, not so much. But inasmuch as we are in the season of Epiphany here at church, my eye was drawn to a recent meme about personal epiphanies people have late in life. These are simple things it took some people all the way to their adult years to figure out, but when it came to them it was a palm-smacking-the-forehead kind of event: Like coming to the realization that pickles are cucumbers – there is no pickle plant. That was an epiphany to some. Or that artichoke hearts are not extracted from the chests of slaughtered artichokes. Or that Alaska and Hawaii are not really next to each other in the ocean south and west of California, but that was a map inset they had been looking at all those years. Yes, these are personal epiphanies actual people really had. One thought that Mr. Spock on Star Trek was the famous baby doctor. You may have had your own late-in-life epiphanies. If so, I’d like to hear them. They make for great conversation starters.
I think when we are honest with ourselves we will admit that there are lots of things we don’t get figured out until we are all grown up. As a matter of fact, I think that is what spirituality – or growing in faith – is all about. There are certain things we have grown up believing about things like heaven and hell, Jesus, salvation, faith, and grace that – later in life – we come to discover we have been looking at the wrong way. And when we discover a new way of looking at them, we have theological epiphanies – times when we smack our palms up against our foreheads and say to ourselves, “Oh, NOW I get it!”
I’ll talk about my own personal epiphanies in this sermon. They may not be yours and it may be that they should not be yours, but as I share my own faith journey you might come to see that spiritual growth can be transforming and that it is possible to have epiphanies all throughout life.
I grew up seeing Christianity in a heaven-hell framework, as I am sure many of you did, also. I was taught that I, along with all of humanity, had been born into a state of original sin because of something Adam and Eve did and I needed to be saved from that or I was going to hell which I first learned about from my cousin Jimmy who said it was a place in the middle of the earth where the devil lived and if you weren’t saved you went down there and were burned with fire for all of eternity. On the other hand, if you were saved and if you kept from doing really bad things, you would go up to heaven where you would live on a cloud behind pearly gates with God and the angels forever.
But the whole thing revolved around being saved. Now, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a Lutheran church so I at least had the advantage of hearing that we are saved by God through God’s grace, and are not saved by works that we do. But even then there was still something I had to do – and that was to have faith in all of this. Salvation by faith. This was backed up by scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” So, if salvation depended on faith then my question became (as did Luther’s), “Do I really have faith? And if so, is it good enough?” In all of this, though, was still have heaven-hell framework: I must be saved so after I die I will go up instead of down.
Now, here is one of my epiphanies – and it came long after seminary and long after my first church assignment: In the Bible, salvation is seldom about an afterlife. For almost all of the time period the Old Testament covers people did not believe in an after-life. You won’t see it in the Genesis stories or the account of the Exodus. It’s not there in the psalms or the prophets. An afterlife doesn’t appear until Daniel, chronologically the last Old Testament book to be written, and even then the afterlife isn’t connected to salvation. In the New Testament there are occasions in which salvation is connected to an afterlife, but most of the time it is not. Salvation, saved, and savior – in the New Testament -- are not primarily about going to heaven after we die and living forever.
In the Bible, salvation is about liberation from bondage. The story about Israel’s exodus from Egypt is a salvation story. God saved Moses and the Israelites from bondage and oppression under Pharaoh. It is about liberation from economic bondage. Liberation from political bondage. God saves people all throughout the Old Testament, but it is not to an afterlife. It is to a better life. Here, on earth.
The theme continues into the New Testament where salvation has to do with deliverance and rescue. It is about being delivered or rescued from that which ails us or that which oppresses us. In his very first sermon, in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.” Then he said simply, “Today, this word has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is what salvation is, right from Jesus’ mouth: Liberation of the poor, the captive, and the blind.
St. Paul’s own concept of salvation was not so much going to the sky by and by as it was dying to our old selves and rising to a new life with Christ – in this life. The Latin roots of the very word, salvation, are the same as for the word salve, a healing ointment. Salvation connotes the healing of our wounds and returning to wholeness.
In his very first sermon, in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.” Then he said simply, “Today, this word has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is what salvation is, right from Jesus’ mouth: Liberation of the poor, the captive, and the blind.
This makes a whole world of difference when, then, when we think of our own salvation or the salvation of others. Now, in our spiritual journeys we can ask ourselves, “Where is it that I need healing? What am I blind to? Where do I need new life breathed into me?” And if we want to speak of saving other people we now can ask, “Who are the oppressed? Who is being held in economic bondage? Political bondage?” What is my part in their release? How can I help with their exodus?
That is a late-in-life epiphany of mine. Again it may not be yours. Maybe it should not be yours. But it has been a palm-smack-in-the forehead for me.
But then, you might ask, what about your faith, Pastor Carl? Do you still believe in salvation by faith? And, if so, what does that mean?
Well, again, there was a time I believed in faith the same way I thought pickles came that way right from the vine. Faith meant belief in Jesus. Did I believe that Jesus was Lord and Savior? Did I believe the things we pledged in the creed each Sunday? Did I believe he was born of a virgin, died, rose again, went to heaven, and will come back again someday. Did I believe – accept as true – those things I learned in catechism. Faith meant trusting in those things I was told or those things I read. As I matured I could give up my belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy or leprechauns – but I could never dare to give up believing in Jesus. Because (remember the heaven and hell framework?), faith was accepting something as true.
The epiphany for me has been that faith may be something much richer than simply accepting a thing as true. Let me put it this way, my former parishioners back in Ohio don’t see my any more. But they are told that I am alive. My Christmas letters tell them about things I have done and things I intend to do. Now, they may choose to believe those things or not. They may have “faith” that the things they are told about me are true. Or they may doubt. I don’t really care so much whether they “believe” that I exist. But I do care if they have faith in me … as an individual, faith in me as a friend, faith in me as a pastor, faith in me as someone who has been faithful to them.
As one person has put it, it is not so much a matter of believing as beloving. Not so much of the head as of the heart. Please don’t misinterpret. I still accept as true those basic tenets of our faith. The teaching of the church has central place in the way we go about being the body of Christ. But belief and faith are not the same thing. I got the belief thing down pat a long time ago. I’m still working on the faith thing.
These have been my late-in-life theological epiphanies. As I say, if we want to discuss the cultural ones after church we can do that. I will start first by confessing that it wasn’t until just recently that I realized that “Beatles” the band and “beetles” the bug are spelled differently and that there is a reason for that. Did you know that? Did you know why?
Epiphanies are lightbulbs going on in your head. As we proceed through this season of Epiphany on this Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord, be open to the light, to seeing something completely differently because of the way the light shines on it. Be open to the Light of the World. It is what growing in faith is all about.
Text: Luke 4:14-21