|The "down staircase" at Bellevue West High School|
Up The Down Staircase
August 4-5, 2012
I went to high school in Bellevue at Bellevue West (Go Thunderbirds!). While I was there, all of the lockers were on one level in the same commons area, and most of the classrooms were on the level directly above that commons area. There were two huge, wide staircases connecting the two levels. Students would hang out in the commons area until it was almost time for class, then head up the staircases for class to start. When the bell rang as each class period ended and especially at the end of the day, a giant mass of humanity would descend the stairs all at once. We were packed together going down those stairs—it was a sight to behold. Someone could have jumped on top and body-surfed all the way down without ever having their feet touch the floor, had they wanted. If, for some reason, you were at the bottom of the stairs and tried to go up at the same time as class was getting out and 1,200 or so of your closest friends were heading down…well, it just couldn’t be done. It wasn’t possible to go up the down staircase.
Today, in our sermon series on faith questions that you were afraid to ask but your kids weren’t, we come to the question of salvation. What is salvation? What does it mean? What do you have to do to go to heaven?
Just like it was at my high school, it’s not possible to go up the down staircase.
We have this tendency to think of salvation as this staircase we need to climb, with the top of the staircase eventually bringing us to God, to heaven. Maybe we think of baptism as the first step, or for some folks, maybe it’s when they realized that they trusted God, that faith meant something to them. A lot of times, we look at how we live our lives—the good that we do, or the prayers that we say, or the lives that we touch in a positive way—as steps up that staircase. And then we consider our individual sins—what we have done and what we have left undone, not loving God with our whole heart, not loving our neighbors as ourselves—and we see them as steps down that staircase. And so we live our lives, taking a few steps forward, taking a few steps back, working hard and hopefully progressing so that one day at the last we can reach where God wants us to be.
In this model, Scripture becomes a rulebook, a guide to climbing the stairs…and our lives, at least if we’re really serious about it, if we’re really serious about our faith and about God, they become consumed by this quest.
But the thing is, for God, this staircase is a down staircase. We don’t go up, God comes down. It’s not possible to go up the down staircase. The gospel, the good news of God in Christ Jesus, isn’t that Jesus finally gives us a way to get up that staircase, it’s that God in Jesus came down. Immanuel. God with us.
And even for Christians, this is hard to understand. We are people who claim grace through faith as our life and our heritage, but our minds still tend to operate as though law, and not grace, has the final say.
When I speak of “law” here, I’m talking about much more than the rules that we find in the Bible. Those are certainly laws, but I’m speaking in broader categories, speaking of law in the way Martin Luther thought of it. In his eyes, the law is what kills the old Adam in us. The law is whatever word convicts us of our complete inability to get it right. The law tells me, “Matt, you are a sinner. You have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.”
The law operates on an if/then basis. If you do this, then you will get that. That’s language we understand. If I’m good, then God will bless me, if I’m bad, God won’t. If I’m good, I’m climbing the staircase, I’m getting closer to God. If I sin, I’m going down the staircase.
But because God came down the staircase to us, because in the cross God has met us where we are, our relationship with God is no longer based on an if/then. It’s not a matter of if I do this, then God will do that.
Our relationship with God isn’t an if/then. Our relationship with God is a because/therefore.
Because God came down the staircase in Jesus, because Jesus died on the cross, because Jesus defeated the power of sin and death once and for all, therefore you have been saved from your sin, you have been saved from needing life and faith and salvation to be about you.
You have been freed from yourself.
You no longer have to worry about the staircase, about trying to scratch and claw your way up. You no longer have to worry about whether you’ve done enough, about the number of good God points or bad sin points you’ve accumulated. In Christ, YOU ARE a new creation! And this new creation isn’t caught in the game of point-keeping or stair-stepping.
In our reading, Paul describes what Luther called the “happy exchange.” Happy exchange is an actual, technical, theological term, even if it doesn’t sound too technical. The term makes me think of the painter who used to be on PBS, Bob Ross, if he was standing in the returns line at Kohls the day after Christmas—“I’m here to make a happy little exchange.” But the meaning of the term is incredibly profound. This is earthshattering stuff. In 2 Cor. 5:21, Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God took all of our junk, all of our evil, all of our sin, and gave it all to Jesus. And at the same time, God took all of Jesus’ righteousness and gave it to us.
That’s the exchange—God takes on our sin, we take on God’s righteousness, and so we end up seeing those things together at the same time in ourselves. We are, Luther tells us, at the very same time, both sinner and saint. We are at the same time Old Adam and New Creation. The law of sin and the gospel of righteousness are both at work within us all at the same time, and so salvation is not a process, it’s not a staircase to climb. It is what lets Paul write, “See, now is the acceptable time. NOW is the day of salvation!”
Most importantly, salvation is not up to us. Ephesians 2 tells us that we are saved by grace through faith, and it’s not of our own doing—it is a gift from God. Not by our own works, so that no one may boast. If it WERE up to us, we would be right back to trying to go up the down staircase. If it were up to us, the cross wouldn’t be something new and transformational. Instead, it would be a method of self-help for us. If it were up to us, we would be right back to living under the if/then of the law. Instead, we are assured of this: because Jesus died, because Jesus now lives, because God came to us, because of the cross and the resurrection and the promises of God, therefore we have been made right with God. We have been reconciled with God. God has done it, completely on God’s initiative, because of God’s infinite love for humankind.
Our law-driven, if/then minds have such a hard time grasping this truth. Surely, we think, there must be something we have to do to make it happen. Just say a prayer, or just repent, or just…something. But we cannot add anything to the grace already shown us in Christ and still call it grace. A gift with conditions is no longer a gift. And so anytime we hear someone begin a statement about salvation with the words, “All you have to do is…” let those hairs stand up on the back of your neck because you’re about to hear an if/then law statement, and while the law is what drives us to the foot of the cross, while the law is what grabs us by the collar and confronts us with our deep sinfulness, the law is not what has the final say in our lives. We do not climb up the down staircase. Christ comes to us. All you have to do is…absolutely nothing. Jesus has already done it all and therefore you are forgiven even before you realized you needed forgiveness, you are loved through no doing of your own, you are redeemed and restored and made new through Christ who came down the staircase and met you in your sin.
We are saved by grace through faith, but when we understand faith as trust as we talked about last week, then faith is simply our response to what God has already done. It is our trust in God’s promises, it is our trust in the cross, it is our trust that it’s not up to us. Faith is not simply yet another work, it’s not simply some other hoop to jump through to make us acceptable to God. Faith is our response to the God who has come down to us.
Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in baptism. It is not baptism that saves us. Baptism is not fire insurance. It is a means of grace, a drowning of the old Adam in the waters and the raising of a new creation. When E. is baptized this morning, we will see the happy exchange right there in action in her life. But although we’re only baptized once, at the same time in a very real way it’s also something that’s continuous, ongoing. Daily we sin, daily the law convicts us of our sin, daily we drown the old and are brought to life in the new, daily we are simultaneously sinner and saint.
Our trust in the promises God makes to us in baptism, the promises of forgiveness and new life, call us into lives of reconciliation as God’s ambassadors. We are bearers of God’s promises, we carry in us and with us and through us the promises of new life for the world. And so together we can proclaim with the apostle Paul, “Now! Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!”
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church