(The UCU Standard – Monday, November 17, 2014)
MUKONO, UGANDA ✦ It’s a risky move, of course, to open up your Sunday morning message to questions. You never know who might ask what.
But this is what happened last Sunday. The minister who I listened to had a post-sermon question-and-answer session and a woman stepped forward with what they call a show-stopper.
Her voice quivering, she asked rather plainly and desperately, “So just how do you get saved?”
It was a striking taste of what it must have been like when some people – Nicodemus comes to mind – asked Jesus just what in the world He was getting at with all this talk about being “born again.”
Two thousand years later, if that minister had followed what has become the unimaginative convention of our time, he might have said, “Well, let me share with you the sinner’s prayer, and, if you wish, you can even repeat it after me right now.”
In some church subcultures, this has become the clichéd and standard response.
Some extra religious prohibitions might then also be added, usually relating to activities like drinking or dancing or Sunday recreation, injunctions that have embarrassingly little to do with the irreligious example that Jesus actually left for us.
This is what the Scriptures reveal, that the God who offers such wild promises and relationship is less interested in hearing any prayers by formula or route as much as honest expressions. And this is why, I suspect, this minister then answered this woman by sharing the story of the thief on the cross.
There he is, this career criminal, looking death in the eye, looking over his sorry existence, mustering at least a dying moment of truth. And what does he say? Simply, “Jesus, when you enter your kingdom, will you remember me?”
It wasn’t much. But it wasn’t concocted either. It was from his own deep place, a place of unconditional surrender.
And that was enough for Jesus to give the remarkable revelation that this man was somehow not only forgiven, but about to have a cool drink, so to speak, with God himself on the seaside of eternity.
The tongues, even at the cross, must have wagged all the more. Are you kidding me? That hustler? That old rogue? Saved? Now? And isn’t this is the real rub of it? That God’s ways are not our ways?
Yes, it may be true that God’s followers have always been called to live holy lives, but this is not the heart of salvation. It’s not the core. Mystery is. Mystery, like the wind, said Jesus. Where it comes from and where it goes next is anybody’s guess. You can’t make or fake it.
Too often, though, salvation is now reduced to this other step-by-step instruction on how to, say, bake a cake: just do this and add this and mix this and how sweet it all is. And, in our time, skeptics, of course, have a heyday with such weak professions of so-called faith.
But now there is you, here at this university where the target before you is real faith, the substance and evidence of things that may be unseen, but a target with substance and evidence, nonetheless.
And if this is true, then this university, at its best, is a place not unlike that minister, not just giving didactic one-way messages, but one that opens itself to questions and critical thinking to test ideas and ensure they’re not just being passed around like cheap currency unbacked by a gold standard.
Yes, you’re big enough to not just sit and listen idly, but to look into these important matters for yourself and ask your own questions to come to your own conclusions, and, by God’s grace, your own place of spiritual reality and surrender.
And as you’re changed and later leave this university, you’ll, even in a small way, be able to change your own world.