A few years ago, a book came out called “Transforming Congregational Culture,” by Tony Robinson. Like a lot of church authors these days, he was talking about the challenges our modern churches face and what we should be doing about it. One of the most interesting pieces of that book was a discussion about salvation. First of all, Robinson asks the question, “Do we need to be saved?” Then he argues that part of what is wrong with the church these days is that we seem to think the answer is … no, we don’t. Robinson believes that we in the church have bought into the underlying ideas of our materialistic culture, which tell us we are, or at least we are supposed to be, full and complete within ourselves. But if we are complete within ourselves, and we have no need to be “saved” in any meaningful sense of the word, then the whole logic of our Christian faith falls apart. Why would we bother worshipping a God whom we do not need?
Now, I do understand that salvation can be a touchy subject. Some Christians can be pretty obnoxious about it. Several times in my life I’ve had perfect strangers fix me with an intense stare and demand to know if I’ve been “Saved!” My daughter Sarah was once accosted on a beach in Southern California by three people from Campus Crusade. In the name of her salvation, they left her weeping right there on the beach. Honestly, I don’t find I respond very well to this kind of arm twisting. And I don’t preach it. Dragging people into heaven by any means necessary is not what being a Christian is all about.
On the other hand, in going out of our way to avoid being seen as one of “those Christians,” it’s sometimes a little hard to see just how far we can get to leaning out in the opposite direction. Not only do we think we don’t need to be “saved,” we can even go so far as to feeling that, in the normal course of things, we don’t really needmuch of anything from anybody. One of the most common, deeply held convictions of our culture is that we are supposed to be able to “stand on our own two feet.” We are “rugged individuals” who “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” and “make our own way in the world.” This is sort of an American ideal isn’t it. And that’s what Tony Robinson was saying. The underlying message of our culture is that we are full and complete within ourselves.
Folks, not to be offensive, not to be “unpatriotic,” but that really is malarky. None of us stands alone. None of us is full and complete within ourselves. We can pretend that we are rugged individuals all we want to. But it’s not reality. The reality is that we do need each other and we need God. We cannot be who we have been created to be all by ourselves. We need something beyond ourselves to save us from ourselves. That’s the logic of the church. That is what we have always preached, always stood for, always tried to encourage people to embrace. We need each other, and we need God.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve always found this Scripture passage by Paul to be so helpful. This is Paul, I believe, at his most humble and vulnerable. In this two thousand year old passage, he is actually a perfect illustration of modern psychology. Most psychology today presumes that within ourselves, we are not single individuals. We have whole collections of voices in our heads that argue back and forth with one another. And that’s what Paul was trying to say here. Part of me wants to do the right thing, but the more I want to do it the less I’m able to do. Part of me wants to turn away from the wrong thing, but the more I want to turn away the less I am able to. I am conflicted within myself. I am suffering from an inner turmoil that has me tied up in knots.
This is a very contemporary way of understanding ourselves. We may have some discomfort with the language Paul used, all that stuff about sinful flesh and iniquity. But the reality he was expressing is one that we are all pretty familiar with. I know I am. I have all kinds of conflicting voices in my head, and they get into some pretty interesting arguments at times. I’m going to eat that whole bag of cookies. No, you’re not. Yes, I am. No, you’re not. Yes, I am! What do those cookies represent to you? Oh, there you go being all philosophical again. No, I’m not. Yes, you are! No, I’m not. Yes, you are!
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the Bible is that it does not offer us only idealized human lives. It doesn’t give us a collection of shining examples that we are supposed to live up to. The “heroes of the Bible are real life flesh and blood people, who were dealing with real life human problems. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it that King David, for example, was such a revered person in the Bible. If you know his story, you know that he had a whole armload of human failings. But he is honored, not because he is the soul of moral perfection, but because in his life he continually returned to God. He continually recognized his own sense of need, his own incompleteness. David knew that without God his life would have been worthless. Despite his elevated position as king of Israel, before God, he was a very humble man.
Humility: that is the true spirit of a Christian life. Humility is knowing that we are not full and complete within ourselves. Humility is knowing that we need help, knowing that we need to be saved from our own narcissism, from the delusion that we are the center of the universe, that we don’t need anyone. Humility is the whole spirit of this service tonight. Ash Wednesday is very counter-cultural. It is a getting down on our knees before God, and one another. Here tonight, we’re not people of culture, we are people of God. We don’t put ourselves up on a pedestal. We worship the Almighty. We recognize our own incompleteness. We are people who need each other. We are people who need God.
When the language of our service talks about sin and darkness, when it talks about our iniquity, these are very uncomfortable words, very hard for us to hear and, especially, to apply to ourselves. But it might help to know that we suffer from much the same inner turmoil that Paul did. Like Paul, we are houses divided against ourselves. And looking at it in that light, this service is not about being bad people. It’s not about trying to avoid going to an eternal hell of God’s wrath and punishment. It’s simply about trying to bring some peace and harmony to the conflict within us. We don’t have it within ourselves, all by ourselves, to save ourselves from this inner conflict? “Who will save me from this body of death,” Paul wanted to know. Then he went on to answer his own question; “thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Robinson says it very well in his book. “The path of healing and transformation is the path of surrender. Freedom is found by letting go.” In this newly begun season of Lent, I invite you to explore this surrendering and letting go. I invite you to open your hearts to knowing that we are not full and complete within ourselves. We need each other. We need God. We need … to be saved.