“Three Simple Ways to Accomplish Absolutely Nothing”
1 John 2:8-3:3; 1 John 4:16b-21
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
February 17, 2019
If you plug “six steps to…” into your google machine you get the following: six steps to decision making. Six steps to problem solving. Six steps to 7 figures. And my favorite, six steps to freedom. We love steps to doing things. Searches around this type of phrase, and the number is really interchangeable, get you all sorts of applications. From the steps involved to changing a light bulb to the steps involved in self-care or meditation, we seem to love being presented things in clear, concise, practical steps.
So as I was searching I plugged in this question, “steps to get into heaven?” This search immediately brought forth a number of different websites all purporting to tell me, the curious seeker that I am, the specific steps I need to do to get into heaven. There were some variations but by and large they all trotted out fairly common tropes about sinners prayers and personal acceptance and other, similar language. While several of the sites wanted to make it clear that you could not earn your way into heaven, they then proceeded to explain what, despite this apparent truth, we must do to get in.
I must admit to you, this has never made sense to me. I have heard this incredibly common formula for much of my life. In order to be saved one must repent of their sins, accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, then get baptized. I don’t have a big problem with elements of this, or with some of the core theology; where I struggle is that despite all the disclaimers, salvation does not feel to me like something that has concrete steps. It is not like changing a light bulb or making 7 figures or learning to meditate. Salvation is something else and if it all rests on my repentance and my acceptance and on my decision to be baptized, then I wonder what room there is for God in all of that?
But here is the problem, we like steps. And because we like steps we have largely grown so accustomed to spiritual formulas like this that if it or one similar is removed from us, we don’t really know where that leaves us as regards salvation. If salvation defies steps then where does that leave us?
To answer this question I want to talk not about salvation or theology or the Bible. I want to talk about flying. Most people experience some fear of flying. Most likely you do not like to fly, and it’s not just because the seat is uncomfortable or because getting through security takes so long. You are afraid to fly because you are afraid of crashing. You are afraid that your flight is going to land the hard way. And do planes crash sometimes? Yes. But here is the thing, is it safer to drive in a car or fly in a plane? The answer is easy. You are far, far, far more likely to arrive at your destination safely in a plane than a car. Nonetheless I have yet to meet anyone who is afraid of driving in a car. Are there people we are afraid of riding with? Of course, but in general driving is no problem.
So with all this being true, I wonder what is our “steps” solution to not dying in a plane crash? I googled that too. Remarkably there is a list of things to do to survive a plane crash but let me tell you, wearing comfortable clothes and sitting tall in your seat may not be enough to do the trick. So what do we do? How do we survive a flight? It’s simple. We trust the pilot. And we trust the air traffic controllers. And we trust the mechanics. And we trust the FAA. We trust all the people who do the job of getting us to point A from point B safely. Despite our love of how tos and our love of control, when we step on a plane we are letting go of all that. We have to trust the people whose job it is to get us there safely. That’s the deal we make.
And that is the 1 John approach to salvation. Here we are in the fourth chapter and the author is trying to assure his people that they needn’t worry about the day of judgment. And I will say this. Typically you do not need to offer comfort to people about things that aren’t concerns. They were obviously concerned about salvation. And so what does he say to them? It is quite clear and quite simple. If God is love, and 1 John makes that point directly and consistently, then we do not need to be afraid of the day of judgment. Why? Because perfect love casts out fear. If God loves us, and we abide in God’s love, then fear of divine retribution is off the table. God’s love casts out our fear.
At the end of the day here is the truth about salvation. Salvation is God’s business. It is what God does and God controls it completely. If God wants you to go to heaven, you will go. If God doesn’t, you won’t. And you and I have precious little control. That is the point here in 1 John. All our fear about it, if indeed you have fear about it, is rooted in the fact that you don’t control it and have to rely on God who is, in fact, piloting the plane while we basically sit in the back and complain about the quality of the snacks. In 1 John, God is love. That is a simple and singular truth. And this love which God embodies and which we experience through Jesus Christ should, should cast out our fear about that day of judgment which is so often spoken of in Scripture.
It is understandable that we like to be in control. It makes sense. We tend to figure that if we turn things over to other people they will mess it up. And when it comes to important things we don’t trust anyone more than we trust ourselves, hence we want to know the steps. But this is a mistake in the life of faith. You can trust God. You can trust that when it comes to the promise of salvation God, who is faithful and just, will also alleviate our fear. This is what God does. God’s love sets us free. We are free from feeling like we have to do it ourselves.
Listen, you can follow the formula if you want. You can say the sinners prayer and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. You aren’t doing anything wrong, but on the other hand you aren’t changing the trajectory of the airplane. I understand why we like to build salvation around tangible steps. I get why it’s comforting but when we do that it is as if we are trying to wrest control from God. Salvation belongs to God and God is love and love, God’s perfect love, casts out fear of punishment. That is the thing. Instead of focusing on steps to take and tasks to do, as Christians we are called, in this area, to simply trust that God is who He says He is. Scripture teaches us that God is love. Scripture shows us this through the life, death and resurrection of Christ as well as through the visible Body of Christ in the Church. This is who God is. You can trust that. You can trust that God is love and that God Himself can be trusted. The nature of God takes away our fear, so smile, relax, and enjoy the flight. Amen.