Stealing the bishop’s silver

From the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren, one of the doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

I’m not sure why this has come home so strongly in the last week. Maybe it has to do with some things in my personal life. Maybe it has to do with this book I’ve been reading about spirituality of the unchurched.

The thought that has lodged in my brain is how poorly suited Christianity is for America. At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that we — all of us — have gone wrong. We are slaves to sin and death. And we will never be free but for the grace of God.

This does not sound like an American story to me.

In our version of the story, Jean Valjean not only steals the bishop’s silver, but he goes on to success and glory based on his own determination and will to win. He writes a series of best-selling books on seizing the moment and cheers for the New England Patriots.

What we fail to understand is that our lives are not ours. They are a gift from God. Not a single one of us has any right to be alive or expect to draw another breath. That we live at all is because God is good and generous to us. Only if we understand that, can we see our own arrogance when we speak about what we deserve and what we have earned. We’ve grabbed the silver off the bishop’s table and convinced ourselves that it was ours all along. We gobble down the apples of Eden and throw the cores at Yahweh’s feet.

But despite our arrogance and greed, there is grace. God loves us. God forgives us. God gives us life. Praise be to God.

I’m not sure how to write these things or preach these things in ways that will be heard, really heard. I know that what I’ve written here is so much gobbledy-gook to those who have no ears to hear it. I’m not sure how to make it otherwise, but the question has been with me this week.

Come to me, where chains will never bind you

In Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, he discusses the meaning of the term “salvation” this way:

Salvation is the act of God in which we are rescued from the consequences of our sin (bondage, fragmentation) and put into a position to live in free, open, loving relationships with God and our neighbors.

Perhaps it is the season, but the mental image that came to my mind as I was reading was Jacob Marley from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the ghost bound in chains stalking through eternity. What we need to be saved from, in Peterson’s description, are the damaging consequences sin has for our soul and our life. It is not that we need to be sprung free from a jury trial we are destined to lose, but that we need to be cut free from the chains we have clamped to our body and soul.

In Dickens’ story, Scrooge is not only spared an eternal fate but also he is given again the ability to love and take joy in his fellow creatures. He revels in Christmas. He lead the party. He overflows with love for humanity. This is the real salvation in that story, and, if I read Peterson properly, it is how we should understand Christian salvation itself.

In the musical Les Misérables, coming soon as what looks like an awesome movie, we hear this theme of salvation in the final scene. The spirit of the dead Fantine sings to the old and dying Jean Valjean a hauting song about rest and peace after a life of struggle. Her line is one that rings in my memory ever since the first time I heard it on stage. “Come to me, where chains will never bind you. All your grief, at last, at last behind you.” This is salvation. In Les Miz, it is not found until the final act. The promise of Christianity, however, is that such salvation is near, close at hand, if we will receive it.