“What is that word, salvation?” I ask my students consistently, without yet offering them an answer. Grinning like an idiot, and feigning a sort of ridiculous secretiveness. I haven’t wanted to say – not quite yet. (As if I could, as if any of us could, really understand.) And in any case, I am so very tired of the usual phrases.
Saved from Hell. From damnation. From sin. What do those words mean, and why is salvation all that interesting – if it’s just some kind of rescue mission? Perhaps I can be frightened into being good. But that’s a cruel goodness indeed: all shivering, bruised submission. And for what? Heaven? What on earth is that? We repeat it as if we know.
We need patience with these words, words used so often they’ve gone and died. We need a delicate attitude toward them, as if we’re holding cracked glass, so that they may yet reflect the history we insist on forgetting. “Don’t say it so quickly,” I tell my students. “Don’t say ‘salvation.’ We’ve hardly searched our hearts.”
The much more daring thing is to let go and let the old word live among the other words that have accompanied it. The sorrow over death, the ragged covenants. The promises and the losses. And the new life.
That is the word that is much more popular in the New Testament, the word that flares with the splendor of the Old: new life.
In fact, God gives us His own divine life. We partake in God – this is what the old Christians said, long ago. We are transfigured, made “like God,” who transfigures all things, so that He is all in all. This is what resurrection means. And that is the really daring thing: salvation is the offer of divine life. Not divinity – not in itself – but the total patterning of earthly existence according to the eternity of the Triune God.
Not a rescue mission. Not a threat. Not an exchange.
It – salvation, this word we repeat too much – is a resplendent offering of what is most intimate to God. For so long this is what Christians have believed, and what we so often forget. Salvation is the sharing in the life of God. “Divinization,” the old Christians called it. I will repeat it again, and let it sink in: Christ gives us participation in the very life of God.
It is so much more vital (do you see?) than the tired phrases we repeat to forget the astounding originary life of the One who reconciled all things to Himself. The earthly life that astounds by giving Divine Life.
Do not tell me Jesus saves. It is so much more. So much.
Let us wait a while, so we can know a little.