What is salvation? What do we want to be saved from? And what do we need to be saved from? And what does our fascination with superheroes tell us about all of this?
I explored the answers to these questions in this sermon, which as also part of our sermon series on Understanding Christianity.
I’d already been thinking about the links between superheroes and salvation for this sermon and was then spurred on by a column in the Church Times which argued that presenting Jesus as a superhero wasn’t helpful. Whilst I sort of agree, I didn’t think saying what you shouldn’t do, without exploring what you could do was very helpful, so this is also my belated response to that argument as well!
Salvation; Ephesians 2:1-10
Some of us were away camping this weekend and the late night conversation turned to what superpower people might want to have. Which was handy, because I’d already wanted to talk about superheroes for this sermon but couldn’t think of the starting link!
Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman and the rest are making a bit of a comeback at the moment. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is in full swing with all sorts of interlinked films and characters, because, apparently, the world needs saving an awful lot from all sorts of villains, disasters and aliens.
So, in the best traditions of all that:
The story so far:
Over the last few weeks we have thought about our loving God, the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whose love overflows into creation. We have thought about the wonders of creation, the way that we catch glimpses of God’s love and power in creation, and the way that we have made a mess of things. We have been drawn away, and keep on being drawn away, from responding to God’s love. So God, in his love, made a people for his own, so that they could be a blessing to the world. But they kept on not being a blessing, so as we heard in the reading:
because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ.
Jesus, God, was born fully human and fully God. The incarnation. And our incarnate God revealed the Gospel, the Good News to us, through his words and actions, and particularly and especially through his death on the cross and his rising to new life. And Jesus’ death and resurrection have brought us salvation, and has and is bringing God’s kingdom back to earth.
And we want to be saved. We want to be saved from all sorts of things, big and small. That’s why superhero films are so popular. We know we need to be saved, we know that things are a mess, and we want something to happen about it.
And we need to be saved from the competing pressures and pulls of this present age, the way that we follow the wrong paths, listen to the wrong voices, take the wrong turnings.
We need to be saved from what Paul calls in this passage “the ruler of the kingdom of the air”. Which is a bit of an odd phrase, isn’t it? It’s not something that we use very often. But it’s a way of talking about Satan, the devil, and the way that his ideas, his desires, his schemes, permeate through our thinking, our society, our culture. It’s in the air, there’s something in the atmosphere. And not all of that, not all of the ways that our society thinks and encourages us to act, not all of our TV, books, newspapers, lead us to think and act in ways that lead us to God, or to do what he calls us to, what he longs for us to do.
And we also need to be saved from ourselves. Our desires, our thoughts, our cravings, what we think of as our needs, can be distorted, damaged and lead us into trouble. And, frankly, if we’re honest, we will be able to look back over our own lives and see occasions when that’s happened. I shouldn’t have said that, I shouldn’t have done that, that didn’t go in quite the way I thought it should.
And so we want superheroes. We want someone to sort out the mess. We want to be saved from the bad things that have happened and are happening. Which is what is at the heart of our faith. This is the gospel, the Good news, that, as we were reminded last week “For God so loved the whole world that he sent his only Son that we might have eternal life”. And being given eternal life is what salvation is about.
Because the mess isn’t the end of the story. Spoiler alert: God’s great love, his rich mercy, his saving grace. That would be the end of the story. Except that it’s a story that doesn’t end and it’s a story that invites us to join in, to become part of it, to get involved.
Which is the other half of salvation. We’re not just saved from, but we’re also saved for.
We’re saved from the evil and mess. We’re saved for the coming of God’s kingdom. We’re saved for our good works that God has prepared for us to do. Not because of our good works. Not because of anything we’ve done or are going to do, but because God wants us to be part of the good that is happening. We’re invited to join in.
And that joining in carries on. We, like Christ, are raised into the heavenly realms. We like Jesus are taking part in God’s kingdom. And we can discover God’s incomparable riches and carry on discovering them. Because there’s always something new to discover.
We’re given superhero powers. But they’re the ones that we really need, rather than the ones we’d necessarily want… We’re given the powers of love and grace and prayer and forgiveness and hope.
And because of God’s grace and God’s mercy, because we can catch glimpses of God’s love and God’s power in all sorts of different ways, our society, our culture, also has lots that is good in it as well. Alongside the mess, mixed up in the mess, shining through the rubbish. We can’t just see us as the only lights shining in a dark world. That’s an example of the sort of messed up thinking that we can fall into the trap of believing.
Superheroes fairly quickly realise that their powers bring them all sorts of trouble as well. Over the weekend after we’d chosen our superpowers there was a bit of discussion about some of the problems there might be with them. What would happen? How would we use them? What would be the consequences?
And that’s the case with us as well. We have to think about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, what we’re being called to do. “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” Paul reminds us. Not because of what we have done, not by our works, but because of what Jesus has done for us. And our starting response is to have faith, to believe.
But, that’s not where it ends. We are God’s handiwork, his craftsmanship, his creation. And we’re created, and re-created in Christ to do good works. In response to God’s grace, God’s love, God’s kindness. We’ve got the opportunity to join the adventure, to get to work with the things that God has prepared for us to do, to be part of the team saving the world. That’s our job, our responsibility. With God, and in his power, yes, but that’s what we are called to do.
And what this looks like for each one of us is going to be different. But still important. God’s salvation is something that we’re all called to take part in. Something that we’re asked to get involved in. At home. At work. In our neighbourhoods. In that things that we do. Telling people the Good News of our Salvation. Showing people the Good News of our Salvation in our actions. In how we treat other people. Inviting people to encounter God’s saving love for themselves. We’re saved from and we’re saved for.
Some of the newer superhero films are about a group called the Avengers. The Avenger films are about a whole group of superheroes. Because some problems are too big for just one or two of the superheroes to face alone. They need to come together, learn to work together and trust each other so that they can overcome whatever it is that is going to destroy the entire world this time.
Which is exactly what we’re called to do as well. To work together. To learn to work together. To learn to use our gifts and skills to build each other up. To learn to use our skills and talents to enhance what each of us does.
All of which is part of getting involved in God’s kingdom. Which is what Sandra will be helping us to think about in two week’s time. But, in the meantime, I want to get us to think a bit more about the last rather amazing verse in the passage we heard.
So, we’re going to read it together. It’s Ephesians 2:10:
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
We are made by God, in God’s image. Through Jesus we are restored and are being restored. And in the power of the Holy Spirit we are given works to do. Who we are is valued and valuable. What we do is valued and valuable.
We are called to work in the power of God’s salvation, to show other people God’s salvation, to invite other people to know God’s salvation, to get involved with God’s salvation.
We are not the minor characters in some superhero film, only there to run away screaming, or show how much danger there is to be saved from. We are at the centre of what is going on. We have a starring role to play. And through God’s love and in God’s power we are invited to play our part. Amen.