Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

G2A #11: "Salvaging Salvation" – Matthew 26-28

Now that I once again subscribe to cable-television, I’ve rediscovered the show Chopped on the Food Network. For those of you who are not familiar, the show brings in four chefs who compete against each other to create three meals based on ingredients in a mystery basket, which they do not open until the timer starts. After each round, the chef with the worst plate is eliminated (i.e., "chopped").

I’ve watched this show many times before but it had never provided any theological insights until an episode this week. With less than two minutes left in the entrée round, one of the chefs burnt one of his mystery ingredients (each of the mystery ingredients has to make it on the plate in order to continue to the next round). When he discovered the burning ingredient he said, “OK, now I’m in salvation mode.” So he went to work trying to fix his mistake and put something edible on his plate.

I’m sure what the chef meant to say was, “OK, now I'm in salvage mode” instead of “salvation mode;” but the lexical mix-up really stuck with me. The two words are similar and have the same Anglo-French root (salver - “to save”), but their usage brings to mind very different images.

So often we think of the concept of salvation as a neat, tidy, beautiful, perfect thing. We use words like victory, peace, and glory to describe salvation. We picture salvation as being lifted up out of the muck of daily existence, far removed from pain, sin, and the powers of death.

This concept of salvation is precisely what the Israelites had been waiting for from the very beginning of the Biblical narrative, upon Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. After generation upon generations of suffering, oppression, mistakes, faithfulness, faithlessness, greed, victory, and defeat, the Hebrew people were expecting and praying for a Messiah who would usher in a tidy, beautiful perfect salvation leading to victory, peace, and glory, enabling them to be lifted up out of the muck of daily existence, far removed from pain, sin, and the powers of death.

However, the Messiah whom God revealed to the world in Jesus of Nazareth was radically different than the one the Hebrew people had expected. Consequently, the salvation that Jesus procured for the world was anything but neat and tidy. It looked less like salvation and more like a salvage effort – similar to a chef frantically running around trying to figure out some way of turning a burnt ingredient into something palatable.

The traditional way to think about the salvation through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is to recall Jesus’ suffering for the sole reason of explaining the greatness of his victory. The bad stuff makes us appreciate the good stuff all the more.

This is a basis for any captivating story. We love stories about a football team down by three touchdowns in the 4th quarter that comes back to win the game. We love stories about how an ignored and hopeless school in the inner city overcomes all the obstacles to learning and sends kids off to college, where they excel, graduate, and thrive in careers. We love stories about people who are down on their luck, but a twist of fate gives them a second chance to do something incredible.

But what of the football team that is down by three touchdowns in the 4th quarter, sticks together and continues to fight hard, but fails to win? What about the students and teachers of the school who reluctantly show up to school, each knowing there is little hope for academic success? What about people who are down on their luck, only to have more and more problems thrown on their shoulders?

Is salvation possible in these situations?

It is, if we realize salvation is less about a neat and tidy victory and more about salvaging a life and hope in the midst of pain and pressure.

The salvation we have in Jesus Christ is two-fold. One part is the certain promise of victory over death as evidenced by his resurrection. The second, and just as important part, is the extent to which God fully embraced our suffering, pain, disappointment, fear, and death in order to prove God is with us in our suffering, pain, disappointment, fear, and death.

Salvation is not just the victorious ascent; it is also the salvaging of hope in the midst of the descent.

At this point you could well be saying, “So what? What possible implication could such theological hair-splitting mean for our daily lives?”

Well, if you feel as though your life is heading in a downward direction, it should make all the difference in the world.

If life is spinning out of control; if you find yourself doubting your personal worth or your faith in a peace and hope that shines in the darkness; if you feel hopeless, alone, or consumed with hatred and intolerance; if you are sick, close to death, or absolutely terrified of the idea of death…God is there, salvaging life out of death, hope out of hopelessness, peace out of pain.

If you feel like life is heading in a downward direction, know that God at work and the work of salvation has begun. You don’t have to wait for your life to get back on track; you don’t have to wait until your problems are solved; you don’t have to wait until you are healed to experience the life, hope, and peace of God.

Picture the image of Jesus hanging bruised, beaten, and bloodied, on the cross. This was not a necessary and noble sacrifice to appease an angry God. Rather, this is an image of God working to salvage life, hope, and peace, out of a world that had rejected him. This was proof that God has experienced the depth of human suffering and pain.

Picture the empty tomb, with Jesus’ grave clothes tossed to the ground. This was God working to salvage life, hope, and peace out of a world that had rejected him.

The message that we, as people whom God has called together to bear witness to the world, have to share with all people who are suffering is this: “God is present in the suffering; and it is there that God is salvaging life, hope and peace.”

This is a message the world desperately needs to hear. This is a message the world desperately needs to see us enact.

May you be attentive to the parts of your life where God is salvaging life, hope, and peace out of pain, disappointment, and death. May you be attentive to the parts of the lives of others where God is salvaging life, hope, and peace out of pain, disappointment, and death. And may you be bold to declare that God is present in those places.

Thank you for bearing the good and necessary news to the world.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.