"Salvation as Wellness" by Heather Folliard
2 Timothy 2:8-15
8 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
14 Remind them of this, and warn them before God[a] that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. 15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.
Wrangling Over Words
Paul tells Timothy – the church is “wrangling over words.” You know –arguing over details which only “ruins those who are listening.” I’m sure Timothy was thinking, “thanks Paul, tell me something I don’t know.” People wrangle over everything from carpet color, to who belongs, and for centuries have argued over the means of salvation.
Salvation: to be saved. Saved from what? To what? By what or whom?
Saved from Hell, in order to go to Heaven, by Jesus Christ?
Saved from the Wrath of God, in order to live in glory, by Jesus Christ?
Saved from the bondage of sin and in order for there to be peace, by Jesus Christ?
There’s a “from” element of salvation. There’s a “to” element of salvation. There’s even a how element of salvation. At least we mostly agree that this is by the work of Jesus Christ.
A local church once had a visiting pastor, one who was considered famous. On that day 5 young people came forward to profess faith in Jesus. The regular pastor of that church went to each person and asked them why they came forward. One after the other they each said, “I believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” “I believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” Again, “I believe that Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” No wrangling over words there. Then the pastor came to the last boy in line who gave a different answer. “I think that Jesus was the most amazing person who ever lived – to be friends with everyone, have the power to heal, to talk to God, and to always be good. I want to be just like Him, but I know I’ll need help. That’s why I’m here.” He was loud – he was proud to be professing his faith, and he was baptized with the rest of them that day. After the service as the two pastors were shaking hands at the door, the Pastor of that church leaned in close to his famous guest and said – “I’m so sorry for how that last boy went on and on. I hope you understand…he’s mentally challenged.”
As Paul writes, sometimes wrangling cheapens the substantive communication, but conversations about salvation are necessary because they bolster real living faith. For too long, trying to keep peace in churches has meant everyone being like those first 4 people baptized that morning. It’s neat and easy: believing that Jesus saved us from our sin so that we can go to Heaven. And being “saved” became a status.
I’m speaking specifically about the “white church” where being saved is more about being redeemed from sin. The “black church” or the gathering of any people who know or lived perpetual struggle, God’s act of saving is tangible relief from that oppression. Both views can have a future orientation.
Salvation is not a Status
Future oriented religious talk becomes like elevator music to the world – we just tone it out. The wisdom writers clarify: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Prov. 13:12). When salvation is a status and not a process, there’s a loss of energy to actually receive God’s future now.
Timothy has lost his energy. It seems like Paul gives him the “tough love” speech: “Don’t give up Timothy, if you Deny Jesus, he will also deny you.” In other words, keep going or else Jesus -in that that courtroom scene the evangelical tradition has painted for us - won’t defend you to God and you’ll never have eternal life in Heaven.
(Growing up Presbyterian I largely escaped that, as I was, as Paul says – “God’s elect.” But I caught onto this presentation at Bible School at my grandmother’s Southern Baptist church).
They said, “Persevere in evangelizing now just so you can gain eternal life.” I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying – he’s bolstering Timothy’s security in eternal life but motivating him for the necessary work of the present. Paul divides his teaching into future and present. We will live with Jesus because he remains faithful even when we don’t. In the present, if we endure we will reign with him, but if we deny him we won’t get that reward of reigning with him.
The prophet’s words we heard today reveal the practical interrelatedness of our present actions and present results: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you. For in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Salvation is real only if it is obviously “now.” And, it’s never ending. God hasn’t “saved”us, rather God saves by our participation in the reign, the work, of Christ. That work of Christ is exactly what the young boy was so excited to share when he came forward for baptism.
Professing faith in Jesus means you believe a different world is possible.
To deny Christ, then, means you don’t believe a different world is possible, and if you don’t believe it can you ever receive positive change?
It seems a lot of people don’t really believe. For some this world is a “lost cause” and we’re shocked to see anything truly good.
Last week America watched an act of forgiveness pointing to the very present work of Salvation. Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean in his own apartment (thinking it was hers?) was found guilty, and sentenced to only 10 years in prison. At the sentencing, Brandt, the brother of her victim asked permission to hug her – which he did and said he forgave her. That was followed by the judge also hugging Amber, and giving her a bible while urging her to change her life.
This whole exchange was purely focused on individual salvation in the future – as forgiveness for sin and the promise of eternal life. Forgiveness is good. A life change can be good. But salvation isn’t about individual change and redemption. Salvation is a complete restructuring of existence.
We are reminded of how truly necessary that change is – especially when the key witness for that trial was shot and killed just after it was over.
Many – especially people of color- in Dallas and around the country were outraged. But, it’s not the responsibility for the oppressed to be the agent of change. Surely that’s not what Jeremiah was urging when he said in their welfare you will find your welfare.” But these are strapped with that burden and called “blessed.”
As we contend with such injustice, the reflections of womanist theologians should be at the forefront of our conscious. Delores Williams wants to counter the idea that something good necessitates an act of violence, like the murder of Botham Jean or the cross. Meanwhile, Karen Baker-Fletcher says we shouldn’t divert our attention from the violence because collective redemption is possible when we confront the evil that is. Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of the famously lynched Emmett Till insisted on an open-casket funeral for her son. This doesn’t contradict Williams opposition to the violence as salvific, this, too, is a refusal to bear any more crosses. It’s a demand to resist the production of crucifixion until it is overcome.
The apostle John writes that Jesus came to save the world and that to believe in him is to reject evil – but before that he says Jesus must be lifted up like Moses lifted the serpent. Moses lifted the serpent to show the Israelites their lethal effect – a kind of psychological vaccine. In the same way, we should be forced to reflect on Jesus’ brutal death on the cross. The cross is salvific in that we confront the evil that caused it. It is salvific in that Jesus modeled resistance to power - a resistance which was foundational for restructuring the world. However, it is the resurrection that fully signifies the complete restructuring of existence. In the resurrection of Jesus we can observe the fullness of God’s profound work of making all things well. In the life and ministry of Jesus we can see how to participate in the salvatory process – we can see our welfare inextricably bound with the welfare of the world.
The ultimate trajectory of salvation is cosmic wellness. Or, as we like to put it: “All is right with the world.” When the goal is cosmic wellness, it means if something is wrong with anything – something is wrong with the universe. Each and every individual matters. Yet, as the world is devastated by sin, the quest for wellness has unfortunately become hyper-individualized.
Wellness is no longer just an objective, it is a major business market. In a recent 1A segment on NPR, Joshua Johnson said “wellness is now a $134 billion global industry,” and it is largely unregulated. It’s unregulated because it’s too hard to define “wellness” in objective and non-spiritualized terms, and as a consequence most wellness products are marketed to people seeking to be more beautiful, or more masculine, or more productive according to social norms.
Wellness, health, beauty, strength are so intertwined in marketing, and the standards are unattainable - of course because it keeps us buying products. All together this leaves people feeling helpless and unwell.
We look to a time when we can be well. Scripture’s teaching of no pain or death or tears in heaven puts all our hope there. When considering Salvation as wellness, then we leave people not only feeling unwell now, but looking to their resurrected life expecting to be everything the advertising market fed them in this life. Paul has given Timothy, and us, good advice – we can’t wrangle over words. We can’t paint a different picture of eternal life, but we can redefine wellness, as Jesus did with each parable he told and healing he performed– “Your faith has made you well.”
To be well is not to be perfect. It’s not to have perfect health, or be able bodied, of able-minded. Wellness in no way competes with love, justice, wisdom, peace or creativity. In fact, none of that is possible without some degree of wellness. Wellness is an enabling value. It is the product of mind, body, and spirit united as it can for the work of justice and love – the work of God’s kin-dom. This is how we reign with Christ.
To be well is not only to care for God’s creation – we must receive care.
Many of my friends are teachers and have posted on social media about a teacher survival room. This is a room with calming music, lavender scented candles, massage chairs, and sleep masks. Teachers posting this aren’t saying they want a room like this – they’re saying their working lives are exactly opposite of this room and it feels like they’re barely surviving the stress.
Another friend of mine – also a teacher – said on her blog this week: True Self Care is not soft baths and chocolate cake, it’s making a choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from. She has a great point about a total restructuring of life – but how many people are fortunate enough to choose a different life pattern?
That’s why, together, we need to be restructuring our world - our social and political and economic systems so that everyone is cared for and not struggling just to care for themselves. No one should just try to survive this life to enjoy peace later. But sometimes that’s all we can do.
Where is the present work of salvation when we are just struggling to survive?
This past week was national coming out day. I think of all LGBTQ people who just try to survive each day without harassment or abuse, sometimes even violence. All who just struggle to survive in homes so they won’t be kicked out and homeless. On this day they’re surrounded by those who have gone before and those who are making similar decisions and there is salvation in solidarity.
Mindy is a professor in a community college. The class is small and the people in this program are close. She opens class with discussion questions and on this one day, one of her students opened up about being abused by her partner. She said she was always terrified of him, but if she left she had nothing to fall back on – at least not until she finished this degree. Mindy was shocked her student shared this and even more shocked by the response. Together the class supported her, gave her the space to talk and cry. They didn’t try to fix anything in that moment, but they affirmed her worth when she felt she had none, and there is salvation in that.
This week I met with a long time Ephesus Church member, June King. June’s husband Jimmy died about a year ago, but the pain of that loss and grief are still so fresh. Talking about him with her helps, and giving her space to remember him in his health is life-giving. Dealing with the death of someone we love never gets easy. I miss my mother every day – and some days it feels I can’t survive my life without her. This Friday my step-dad stopped through town and brought me sourdough bread. He didn’t make it – but got a local bakery to make it just like my mother used to. As I stood in the kitchen after he left, I ate a slice with butter and wept. Sometimes salvation comes in the taste of home.
For that reason we gather around the Lord’s table – like we do each Sunday.
Restore wellness – work of Salvation – it is true love and it reminds us a different world is possible. Because of Jesus – Amen.