Salvation! It’s a major theme in the Christian tradition – but perhaps not one we talk about enough here at St Michaels and St Marys. We preach quite a bit about Jesus’ teaching and miracles, and the odd thing about ethics, but too rarely do we get round to discussing salvation.
If you want to find out about salvation, I must discourage you from turning to the internet. A Google search for ‘salvation’ throws up numerous pages about an American TV series of the same name that launched last year. The premise of Salvation the TV show, crudely culled from the films Armageddon and Deep Impact, is that an asteroid is heading towards earth and catastrophe beckons. It is a gripping plot: we all know that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs; a similar event today would not do wonders for the neatly-tended lawns of the Verulam Estate.
Of course, asteroids have nothing to do with Christian salvation, but the makers of the TV show chose their title well, mindful that the threat of an asteroid strike raises fundamental questions, a bit like when Christians discuss salvation.
An asteroid strike would be urgent, massive and personal; by analogy, these are among the reasons why Salvation is so important to Christians. As Jesus said, ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’
My friends, today’s gospel is not just a deep and meaningful conversation between Peter and Jesus, it was recorded by St Mark as a message for us. Mark thought that Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi was very significant indeed. He placed it slap-bang in the middle of his gospel, in chapter eight of a sixteen chapter narrative. In addition, Peter’s confession acts a hinge. Immediately after this event, Jesus begins his fateful journey towards Jerusalem and the cross. Losing one life to gain another is conceptually and literarily at the heart of Mark’s account of Jesus and of his invitation to readers.
From today’s gospel I would offer three points about salvation. Firstly, the passage shows that there is an intimate relationship between christology and soteriology – what we say about Jesus and what we say about being saved. That is why the passage opens with a question about Jesus’ identity not about salvation. ‘Who do you say that I am?’, Jesus asked the disciples. They all thought he was an amazing guy. Most looked back to the heroes of the past for their point of reference: they thought he might be an ancient hero like Elijah or another prophet returned from the dead – or perhaps the more contemporary preacher, John the Baptist, whose head had ended up on a grisly platter just two chapters before. But Peter did not look back to dead heroes, rather to promises: in Jesus he saw the fulfillment of God’s pledge to send a Messiah, a Christ, a redeemer figure. ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew (‘Christ’ in Greek) means someone who is anointed, appointed by God for a special task. Quite who the Messiah was and what he would do were moot points in the early first century. However, Jewish speculation found in their scriptures that God had anointed Kings and Priests and Prophets. Just so, they reasoned, God’s future anointed-one would exercise kingly, priestly, and prophetic functions. That is what Peter saw in Jesus: not a towering figure from the past but someone in a wholly different category, the personal embodiment of God’s promises for the future. ‘You are the Christ, the anointed one’. Confession of Jesus’ identity is therefore fundamental to Christian salvation. This is because our calling to salvation is a calling to relationship, the recognition that Jesus is a king to me, a priest to me, a prophet to me. In being called to salvation in him, we are being called to relationship, called to answer the same question which confronted Peter and which echoes down the ages to us: you are the ‘Christ’, the one anointed for me.
So my first point is that there is an intimate relationship between christology and soteriology. My second point from today’s gospel is that salvation is both punctiliar and process; a one-off thing, and an ongoing journey. Peter’s confession was instantaeneous, a light-bulb moment that allowed him to recognise and articulate truth that his colleagues had not yet twigged. That’s the punctiliar bit. But confession was not enough, because Peter was immediately challenged to delve deeper. He saw Jesus as Christ, but was labouring under a misapprehension that Jesus’ ministry was about glory not suffering. So within moments of having accepted Peter’s confession, Jesus needed to qualify it. It’s a ‘yes–but’: I am the Christ, but my Christhood leads to the cross.
We should not be surprised by this new challenge to Peter. That is because immediately before Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Mark records a very odd miracle. It is the healing of a blind man in the village of Bethsaida. Jesus put saliva on the man’s eyes but this only did half the job, ‘I can see people’, the man said, ‘but they look like trees walking’. So Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes again, and this time his sight was fully restored. This incident, just before Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi is the only two-stage healing miracle in the gospels. It is not that Jesus lacks the power to get it right the first time but that the miracle is a symbolic anticipation of Peter’s two-stage journey to clarity. He confesses Jesus as Christ, God’s anointed one, but then needs further teaching about what this means.
My friends, Christian salvation is just like this. There is that moment of recognition and confession where we accept Jesus as Lord, where we accept his invitation to loving relationship and that his cross puts us right with God. Theologians call this point ‘justification’, the moment at which we are put right with God. But then we equally know that Christian life is a pilgrimage into deeper knowledge of God. If that moment of confession is justification, theologians call the ensuing journey a process of ‘sanctification’, a life-long quest into greater holiness.
So salvation is punctiliar and process. A wonderful hint of this lies buried in what we heard Jesus say in verse 34. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ Here the original Greek verbs to ‘deny’ and to ‘take up’ are punctiliar, once-off actions in the past. But the verb to ‘follow’ is present-continuous. Having denied ourselves, and chosen the way of Christ’s cross (justification), we are summoned to that life-long quest of pursuit, of sanctification.
We are tipping here into the third thing I want to say today about salvation, namely that good works flow from saving faith. As through the process of sanctification we are drawn inwardly into deeper holiness, this naturally finds outward expression in acts of loving kindness. Christian service is where the rubber hits the road on a daily basis for those who accept Jesus as Christ.
We must at this point take the briefest sideways glance at today’s second reading from the epistle of James. Not the cautionary detail about how you should use your tongue but the wider message in James about good works. Readers of the New Testament soon realise that the message of James’ letter is rather different from that in the epistles of Paul. Paul talks about salvation through faith but James chapter 2 says that faith without works is dead. Some theologians have struggled to reconcile these approaches. The German reformer Martin Luther, was so wedded to the Pauline standpoint that he condemned James as ‘an epistle of straw’ and relegated the letter along with three other books to a naughty corner at the back of his New Testament. Now Paul and James might well have found their positions at variance had they ever sat down for a pint. However, I would encourage us to view this debate through the prism of the gospel we have just unpacked: Peter’s one-off confession of faith led to a life-time of following. Justification leads to sanctification: those who have saving faith will perform good works.
So here is exhortation in bucket-loads. We are not hearers only. What we do in church informs and inspires how we live our week. We are seven-day Christians, of which the first day of the week is Sunday, and which should fire and equip us for each Monday to Saturday which follows.
To recap: there is an intimate relationship between christology and soteriology. Salvation is punctiliar and process. And good works flow from saving faith.
Peter said, ‘you are the Messiah’. And Jesus replied, Yes –but: ‘if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’