Work in our own salvation
John 4; John 7: 37-39; Philippians 2: 12-15
The scene between Jesus and the woman at the well is an awkward moment. There was a sensibility during that time period, an attitude that said Jews are superior to Samaritans. To see a Jew lower himself by acknowledging the presence of a Samaritan, let alone engage in conversation with one, well that sort of thing just wasn’t done. And all kinds of negative emotions would get stirred up by this social faux pas.
This doesn’t happen in our country. Seeing a Jew speaking to a Samaritan doesn’t flip anyone out. But how about seeing a black person speaking to a white person, especially if one is a man and the other is a woman? Or seeing two men holding hands? Or two women walking by with their arms around each other, and it’s obvious that they are more than friends?
Some people see that and it makes them feel uncomfortable, they have both an emotional reaction and a physical reaction of discomfort. These couples aren’t criminals. They haven’t broken any laws. However when some people see such couples together, it upsets these observers’ internal sense of what is proper and appropriate and what isn’t.
Some people have a stronger reaction when their sensibilities are offended. They stiffen. It’s not like they say to themselves, “I shall now stiffen to show my disapproval.” It’s not a conscious reaction, it happens in a split second, before they have given it any thought, they have clenched their muscles.
And then there are those really scary reactions where people lose control, the emotional pressure builds and they explode and attack, physically harming the couple.
These are escalating degrees of reaction to situations that offend our sense of propriety-- discomfort to condemnation to punishment. Think of it as a scale. A person at one end of the scale would say they feel unsettled, something about a situation is disturbing their peace of mind. At the opposite end of the scale is violent aggression. In between these two are emotional states of gradually intensifying feelings of stress.
We see different degrees of stress reaction in the Gospel lesson. The woman’s responses are a little combative, she keeps throwing the Jewish-Samaritan difference in Jesus’ face. When the disciples arrive on the scene they are shocked by what they see, all of these unspoken questions run through their minds and fester. They nag Jesus to eat but they don’t pester him for an explanation. They can deal with Jesus on a basic level, everyone needs to eat, the disciples just focus on that non-threatening need, but this other thing, Jesus talking to that woman, they are not going to go there.
And Jesus’ reaction? Patience. He is so patient with the woman at the well. He doesn’t get provoked by her, he doesn’t get defensive. On the contrary, he shows her love. He tells her that he is her Messiah. He offers her salvation.
And with the disciples, Jesus patiently explains to them what is going on, even though they didn’t ask. He helps them see the bigger picture, that the woman is their co-worker. She is laboring in the field, making disciples, right along with them. She can reach people that they can’t.
This reaction, Jesus’ reaction, is the one that we would like to have as Christians. When an awkward situation arises, we would like to be more patient, less defensive. We would like to deal with the situation in a constructive manner, not avoid it. We would like our response to be more like what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Philippians. Less murmuring and arguing. More shining like stars in the world. More working out our own salvation.
Here’s one way to think about Paul’s description-- You’ve got a sore muscle and you massage it. You are trying to work out the discomfort, the stiffness, the physical pain, right? Well, we carry emotional pain in us, too. Places in our lives that need to have salvation worked into them.
Ideally, we would catch these places of pain while our reaction is still at the mild end of the stress scale. As soon as we become aware of that unsettled feeling, that feeling of “this is not going to be good,” we would start applying the gift of salvation that Christ has given us to that situation. Start working grace into that moment.
Just one problem. We know how to rub Bengay into a sore muscle. How do we work salvation into a tension-filled moment?
Here’s my advice-- advance preparation. We know the people and situations that make us lose our cool. So prepare ahead of time. Before you walk into that situation or cross paths with that person get yourself ready for the encounter.
Here’s an example. We are getting ready for charge conference. Most of the meeting is routine. There are forms to sign and votes to take. We know what’s expected of us. But there’s this one thing we do at charge conference that makes everyone feel uncomfortable to one degree or another (though I don’t think we’ve ever come to blows over it)-- Going over the list of inactive members.
Wouldn’t it be nice to avoid this awkward moment? There would be no list, we wouldn’t see the names, we wouldn’t have to face the fact that for two years these folks have not attended a worship service here and they have not donated to the church. We wouldn’t have to face the difficult decision to remove their names from the membership roll.
If we just stuck with the non-threatening items on the agenda, we wouldn’t have to worry about hurting people’s feelings. We wouldn’t become anxious wondering who are we going to offend? We wouldn’t have to panic about people getting defensive at charge conference. We wouldn’t have to dread that we will leave charge conference in a foul mood and then take it out on everyone we come across.
We do not want to have the reputation of being a church of angry, condemning people. But that’s how others will perceive us if we don’t catch our stress reactions at the mild stage and work salvation in to them. Our Christian witness will be undermined if we are unable to handle awkward situations with grace.
I know that it is emotionally painful to see the list of names identifying inactive members. It hits us in the gut. We know these people. They are our children, our grandchildren. So many emotions flood us-- a sense of loss, of sadness. A sense of failure. I can’t tell you the number of parents who ask me where they went wrong? They raised their children in the church, and they can’t understand why their children stopped going.
Here’s what I think about that. Parents, it is not your fault. Some people just have the wrong idea about what church membership means. They put it in the same category as registering as a Republican or a Democrat. They pick a political party affiliation, and their only involvement with the party is when there are major elections. In a similar manner, some people pick a religious party affiliation, and their only involvement with the church is when there are major events like weddings or funerals.
They have no conception of the church as the place that helps us work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Church as a community where we support each other and encourage each other to keep working salvation into even the painful and difficult parts of our lives.
Here’s how the church helps me cope with discomfort and deal with it so that emotional pain does not build up into condemnation or punishment. In church I am reminded of Paul’s words, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I believe that Paul is speaking the truth. God is at work in each of us. By grace, we are enabled to behave in a manner that is pleasing to God even in the most upsetting of situations.
The church helps me work out my salvation by reminding me of Jesus’ words when he compared the gift of salvation to “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. Salvation will become in believers streams of living water that will flow out of them. Literally out of their κοιλία, their abdominal region.
Jesus’ description make me think of the breathing process. We breathe in, our lungs expand and push down our diaphragms. When we breath out the diaphragm presses against the bottom of our lungs and helps push the air out.
So, what if we used our breath in as an opportunity to remind ourselves that God is at work in us? And our breath out could be a reminder that the Spirit of grace is flowing out of us towards others. I find this idea very comforting, this notion that the peace, the calm, the contentment I feel can be picked up on by others and potentially help them feel at peace.
Of course the opposite is also true. If I am feeling anxious or angry, I can pass my stress on to everyone around me. It is as if I have put a cork into my belly button and stopped the flow of grace.
We need the salvation experience of calm and peace worked into charge conference. We need to dial the volume down on our stress response. We do that by preparing ourselves ahead of time. Set aside time every day leading up to charge conference imagining that moment when you will see the list of inactive members, let the emotions hit you, and breathe.
Breathe in and pray, “Lord, thy will be done in me.” Breathe out and pray, “Lord, thy will be done at charge conference.” See if you can stay with a mild feeling of discomfort without the stress building into anxiety, panic, defensiveness or anger. Feel sad. Feel hurt. And work salvation into that emotional pain by making space for the Spirit to work.
See our bodies have automatic stress responses that we don’t have control over. We feel scared or hurt, hormones start to flood our bloodstream. The more hormones pumped out, the stronger our negative reaction. It can take the body a while to realize that there’s no danger here. Nothing that can cause it physical harm. Once the body recognizes that the situation is safe, other hormones, calming ones, are released.
When we stop and work salvation into an awkward situation we are giving the body a chance to catch it’s breath and calm down. It’s as if we are uncorking the belly and once again letting the Spirit flow between us and others.
We can also work salvation into a situation by being the church for each other. If you see someone’s child or grandchild on the list of inactive members, let them know how you are feeling. Offer to pray that God’s will will be done in their family member’s lives.
God’s Spirit is at work in us. And God’s Spirit is at work in our inactive members. We’ve been reaching out to our inactives by sending them a postcard about The Story and members of the adult Sunday School class are calling them. I encourage all of you to also contact the inactive members you know. If that idea makes you feel awkward or uncomfortable, then work out your own salvation with fear and trembling and ask God to give you the words to say.
My hope is that as soon as our inactive members realize that the church is there for them in more ways than just during life’s big events, we will put them back on the membership list right away.
Why don’t we start this prayer practice right now. Think of someone who needs the ministry of the church. Breathe in, “Lord, thy will be done in me.” Breathe out, “Lord, thy will be done in _____.”