As most of you know, I have chosen to abandon the set lectionary readings this month in order to focus our Sunday worship on some basic Christian themes, from a Presbyterian perspective. It’s all part of Presbyterianism 101 — and today’s theme is salvation or reconciliation with God.
In our prayer of confession, we used words from “Living Faith” that acknowledge the ways in which our sin separates us from God, and in the assurance, I proclaimed the fact that through Christ our sins are forgiven, also using words from “Living Faith,” our Presbyterian statement of Christian belief. Then we joined in the psalmist’s confession with Psalm 51, and heard Paul’s proclamation of justification by faith from the letter to the Romans.
The scriptures are full of stories and teaching about sin and forgiveness, about reconciliation and salvation. I could have chosen any number of stories, but today I chose the story of Zacchaeus — the despised tax collector about whom Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”
Zacchaeus was obviously sinful! At least, those reading his story in the first century would have assumed that he was sinful — he was a tax collector, after all! We don’t really know how terrible Zacchaeus was. He might have been a reasonably honest tax collector for all we know. But it doesn’t really matter to the story very much. Everyone assumed that Zacchaeus was a really terrible person. They called him a sinner and complained that Jesus was going to stay with him. But the point was that Jesus didn’t care. Jesus chose Zacchaeus, sinner that he was, and invited himself into Zacchaeus’ home and into Zacchaeus’ life.
Presbyterians believe that we’re all kind of like Zacchaeus. We’re not necessarily known to be sinners and ridiculed by our neighbours, but we are all sinful. Our passage from Romans put it bluntly this morning: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “Living Faith” uses similar words: “All people fall short of God’s standards and need salvation.”
The Reformation theologian, John Calvin, would have pointed to “the Fall” as its explained in the story of Adam and Eve. Though humans were made in God’s image to love and care for each other and the creation, we are easily tempted and the result is pride, greed, selfishness, and ultimately separation from God.
Sin, unfortunately, is not something that we are able to completely leave behind when we choose to follow the way of Christ. It’s too strong a force — the evil that leads to sin. It’s what some theologians have called the depravity of humanity.
The awareness of our sinfulness is what leads us to approach the holy and mighty God in fear and trembling. In our Reformed Tradition, we approach God in worship not only with praise, but also with our prayers of confession. We all need God’s forgiveness — not just the criminals or the drug dealers or the abusive parents or the slum landlords, or the tax collectors. We all need God’s forgiveness, because we all fall short of God’s standards.
I get the impression that Zacchaeus knew that he needed something from Jesus. Unlike many people today who are pretty confident that they don’t need anything from anyone, Zacchaeus knew that he needed Jesus enough to run ahead of the crowd and climb a tree in order to see Jesus passing by.
And when Jesus does see Zacchaeus, and invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, Zacchaeus pledges to give half his possessions to the poor, and to give back four times what he defrauded from others. And that’s when Jesus declares that “salvation has come to [Zacchaeus’] house.”
The order in the story might make you wonder if Zacchaeus is saved because he promises to do these good things. Does he earn his salvation with the generosity he is about to enact? The witness of scripture and our Church Tradition both say “no.”
The Reformers of the 16th century, including Martin Luther and John Calvin as the leading theologians, emphasized the doctrine of justification by faith as a gift of God. We cannot earn salvation by our good works or our generosity. God gives the gift of faith, and by faith we are justified, we are forgiven, we are saved.
Again, our reading from Romans said: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” And similarly, “Living Faith” states: “Salvation comes from God’s grace alone, received through faith in Christ.”
For some, at least, the question arises, “Why was Zacchaeus saved?” “Why did he receive the gift of faith, and not the next tax collector or sinner?” Was it because he went looking for Jesus? Was it because someone told him about Jesus and encouraged him to seek him out? Was it just because he was in the right place at the right time — the lucky one that Jesus happened to glance up at?
John Calvin would have said that Zacchaeus was predestined to be saved. It wasn’t anything that Zacchaeus chose to do. It wasn’t anything that anyone else did for him, and it certainly wasn’t just dumb luck! Rather, God chose him before the foundations of the world to be saved, to be a child of God, to be healed, restored, forgiven, and sent to live a new and changed life.
Predestination is a doctrine that is closely associated with the Presbyterian Church, despite the fact that we don’t talk about it much, and many Presbyterians say they don’t actually believe it. The doctrine of Predestination says that we don’t choose God — God chooses us. Predestination says that there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn or win salvation for ourselves or for anyone else. It says that God has already determined who will be saved and gives the gift of faith to those who are elect.
Predestination is one reason why you don’t find many Presbyterians rushing around trying to make sure that all their friends, family, and neighbours get saved. Although we are called to share God’s love in words and actions with the people around us, we don’t believe that anyone’s salvation depends on us. It’s God that does the saving. We are only called to be faithful in glorifying God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. Notice that it wasn’t Zacchaeus’ action that led to his salvation. It was Jesus’ initiative — Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Of course, there’s more to the doctrine of Predestination than that. There are implications of the doctrine that I find troubling too, but we’ll talk more about it on Wednesday evening — not now.
I guess the final question has to be about what does it actually mean to be saved. What are we saved from? What difference does salvation make to us? Many Christians would answer that question by starting to talk about life after death. Salvation is about not being condemned to hell. It’s about God forgiving our sins so that we can go to heaven, which none of us sinful people actually deserve.
But though eternal life with God is a part of what we believe as Christians, it’s not entirely what our faith is about. Just think about Zacchaeus’ story. Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house!” and there’s no indication that he’s talking about what’s going to happen to Zacchaeus after Zacchaeus dies. Jesus is talking about something that is happening immediately in Zacchaeus’ life.
He’s being transformed from an outcast into one who is loved and accepted by Jesus. He’s changing from a rich man who cheats and takes advantage of the poor, into a generous man who sells his possessions and gives the money to those who need it more than he does. He’s moving from being someone who lived for himself to being someone who lives for others.
There is no mention of Zacchaeus being saved from death or hell. Rather, he is saved from a life of sin and selfishness. He is saved from a life of rejection and loneliness. He is restored in relationship to God and his neighbours.
I am reminded of the words from “Living Faith:” “Salvation means life, forgiveness, healing, wholeness. It comes from God’s grace, received through faith in Christ alone.”
The good news is that God sent a Son into the world — Jesus Christ. Jesus came and called us to repentance, called us to turn away from our sin, and called us back into relationship with God. As the sinful people that we are, we rejected Jesus and had him executed.
But even as he died, Jesus prayed that God would forgive us… we didn’t know what we were doing. Though humans killed Jesus, God raised Jesus from death, proving beyond a doubt that God is more powerful than our sin.
In Jesus’ resurrection, we see first of all that there is potential for life, even after physical death. But we also see that even after our betrayals and our denials, even though we are sinful people, Jesus calls us to follow him, to share his love, and to live in relationship with God who forgives us and calls us to newness of life.
Salvation is not just an after-life question — it’s about how we live here and now in this wonderful life that God has given us. Like Zacchaeus, we are a forgiven people — saved from our sin — reconciled to God — freed to live full, meaningful, and generous lives for the glory of God. Thanks be to God for the gift of faith — for the gift of salvation. Amen.