John Weems asked, “What is Salvation?”
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I have spent a lot of time through the years thinking about salvation.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been processing more feeling about salvation as our family lost my Uncle Garry to cancer in September, my mother-in-law suddenly on Oct. 4, and my best friend from seminary is fighting for his life in a battle with cancer.
Uncle Garry was a preacher at small churches throughout his ministry in Montana and the last thirty years in North Dakota. Having grown up on an alfalfa farm in Lancaster, CA, he would tell the story about a farmer teaching his son how to make straight rows when plowing the field. Straight rows are important in farming for practical reasons such as irrigation, and to avoid being mocked by other farmers for one’s crooked rows. The farmer told his son to focus on a single point on the opposite end of the field and not veer to the right or the left.
For Uncle Garry, that point in his life was Jesus. He focused on Jesus as a young man when he would make a little fort in the haystack to go read his Bible. He focused on Jesus while in the Air Force and entering ministry. He focused through times of joy and of challenge and all the way through his three-year battle with cancer.
He rose above the noise of the world and kept his focus on Jesus to find salvation.
As we continue our “Questions of Faith” series with inquiries from the congregation, we explore salvation.
Too often, we equate salvation with being saved from death and getting our ticket to heaven punched because we say some magic formula of words about believing in Jesus.
Barbara Brown Taylor, one of the most beloved preachers in the world today, explains: “Salvation is not something that happens only at the end of a person’s life. Salvation happens every time someone with a key uses it to open a door he could lock instead.”
“Today salvation has come to this house,” is the last thing anyone who knew Zacchaeus would have expected Jesus to say to the tax collector.
I have read this passage many times, but this week Luke 19:3 stood out: “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not . . .”
Zacchaeus’ ability to see Jesus was hindered by more than his short stature.
The guy known to some as the “wee little man” from a children’s song, wasn’t exactly a popular person in Jericho. The Roman Empire would essentially outsource the collection of taxes to people like Zacchaeus. He would then have developed a network of associates to help. They charged what we would classify as a service fee to the citizens, and were allowed to keep whatever they collected above the empire’s tax rate. This arrangement was of course ripe for corruption, but it was part of a system. People were simply trying to make a living to take care of themselves and their families. As a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus grew wealthy. Whether or not he acknowledged it, this system pushed the poor deeper and deeper into poverty. People who had owned homes and land for generations were often forced to become debt slaves, working for the wealthy.
Those impacted by this system would have been filled with contempt for tax collectors. Religious leaders knew that it was wrong and considered corrupt collectors to be outside of God’s law and therefore ritually unclean.
When you’re part of a system like Zacchaeus was, however, you don’t always see the problem. If everyone around you has made a high service fee the norm, you can become numb and oblivious to the pain your actions are causing others. For Zacchaeus, he could have had a family that was counting on him to pay for tutors and vacations. Maybe he had a nice donkey or two in the stable, and a party boat for the Sea of Galilee. Those kids and animals and boats don’t just take care of themselves, so Zacchaeus had to work.
Then Jesus showed up.
The action of Jesus represented a total breach of religious and cultural etiquette. To enter Zacchaeus’ home, sit down and share a meal with a person classified as “unclean,” changed everything. I do want to say a word about the financial restitution promised by Zacchaeus as a potential problem. I do not believe that any of us can buy our way into God’s good graces. According to Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Reformers like Martin Luther took action because the church was trying to sell salvation. For Zacchaeus, this money had opened a great void between his actions and God’s will. It was the thing that he worshipped, so turning it over was part of his restoration.
Earlier in Luke 18, Jesus encounters another wealthy man who society considers to be righteous because he says he upholds all of the commandments. In response to the man’s question about what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus says there is one thing lacking: “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22-23) The man was stunned and sad, apparently unwilling to follow Jesus’ command. Didn’t the man’s good actions get him some heaven points?
Meanwhile, Zacchaeus the unholy tax collector has one dinner with Jesus and salvation comes to his house?
So what is salvation?
Renowned faith thinker Frederick Buechner says, “Salvation is an experience first and a doctrine second,” adding “You do not love God so that, tit for tat, he will then save you. To love God is to be saved. To love anybody is a significant step along the way. You do not love God and live for him so you will go to heaven. Whichever side of the grave you happen to be talking about, to love God and live for him is heaven.”
In some church databases, there is a field called “Date Saved” or “Date Accepted Christ.” I sometimes receive newsletters from international mission organizations that share the number of people “saved” at events when accepting Jesus. At many churches at this very moment, someone is walking forward for an altar call and praying that Jesus will be their savior.
While we can act like we’re above such a simplistic approach, some of the people represented in those databases and newsletters and altar calls began a lifelong journey called sanctification. To sanctify literally means to make holy. Salvation involves the Holy Spirit’s continued work on us through sanctification and it rarely appears as a straight and easy road.
Some people know the date they first had the feeling of being saved, whether it began in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, in a church, on a mission trip, on a bus, or while riding a mechanical bull, God is working on us.
Too often we equate salvation with punching a ticket to heaven.
My dear mother-in-law, Mary Jo Lacey, has had a significant impact on my understanding of salvation before and since her unexpected passing just over two weeks ago. In terms of salvation, she had no doubt that she was going to heaven. It’s what she did with God’s gifts and the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of her that made her an inspiration.
Sometimes humans decide to make other humans a saint at after their passing. Mom knew that Christ alone was perfect and would not have claimed to be perfect. There were some things for which she had little tolerance—people letting their dog poop on her lawn, people who messed up the shoe section at Target where she still worked part time at the age of 81, or even worse, people who messed up the panty bin that she was sometimes responsible for organizing. She also couldn’t stand for people cutting in line. Legend has it that she pushed the rope down on some kids at Disneyland trying to cut around Colleen’s family in line.
These were minor things.
Though I am a pastor, I’ll be the first to admit that mom’s faith was consistently stronger than mine. I aspire to have faith like hers and dad’s.
She gave God credit for everything. When she last visited this church, she and dad found a coveted parking spot. Within seconds, she started telling strangers, “Jesus found me a parking spot. Jesus found me a parking spot. You should come to Calvary Presbyterian Church where my son-in-law is the pastor.” When she proudly told me about it afterword, I’ll admit that I shrugged it off, saying that I don’t know how much time Jesus spends finding people parking spots. She didn’t waver.
The woman who was certain that Jesus found her a parking space wasn’t one to stay parked and rest on her laurels as one who was saved. She was reflecting the light of her Jesus even more than any of us knew.
At her services and around Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, servers shed tears at restaurants where she and dad ate. There is a grieving milkman and paper delivery boy because she treated them like family and tipped very well. Mom believed in paying every possible bill in person, so people at the bank and post office and everywhere else she went were in shock and said what an impact she had on them.
In one of the most beautiful moments, we met a man in his twenties named Leonard. He was very shy and socially awkward. No one in the family knew who he was, but he rode his bike to the church, then to the cemetery, than to another church for the reception. He shed tears over a woman nearly 60 years older than he.
“How did you know Mary Jo,” I asked. “I worked in electronics at Target,” he replied. “And she was always so nice to me.”
I’d be willing to bet Mary Jo had told Leonard about Jesus because she didn’t believe in hiding her light under a bushel basket.
When dad called just before 2:00 am on October 4th, it was dark and scary. As mom’s family, we were and are shocked.
Yet Jesus has kept showing up, even when the noise of the world was very loud.
The assurance of salvation that mom was not afraid to share with the world continues to bolster our family.
“[Zaccheus] was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not . . . So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him.”
When Jesus appears, he transforms your life. His salvation frees us from getting in our own way so much, and from fear, even fear of death.
Jesus says, hurry down from that tree. I must stay at your house. Even though your acquaintances may call you a hypocrite, I am with you. I will stay and my steadfast love surrounds you. Joy will return to your house. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (HarperOne, 2012), 115.