Since there is already plenty of speculation about what it will be like when Jesus comes back, my imagination is wandering off in a different direction.
What would it be like if St. Paul returned?
I imagine him running into some eager Christian asking him, "Are you saved?"
Paul furrows his brow, in disbelief that someone would ask such an ignorant question.
"Sir, do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?"
Paul chuckles, with plenty of scars to prove it, and says, "Oh yes."
"So you are saved," the Christian continues.
"No, obviously not," Paul replies.
Now the Christian makes a face, perplexed, confused.
"No one is saved, pal" Paul explains, exploding a few more brain cells.
"Don't you see all the injustice and pain and idolatry and longing and anxiety and self-
centeredness and suffering in the world and everyone in it?
"No one here is saved.
"But I do have complete peace with God because I am justified thanks to Christ."
Whenever Paul wrote about salvation, it was always work in process, not mission accomplished.
It was never we are saved; it was always we are being saved.
Salvation is a condition in which all things are made right, within us and around us, and we ain't there yet.
In salvation, all relationships and body parts and systems and creation are healed and made well.
God is working on it, but we don't see the finished product yet, in the world or in the mirror.
We are being saved; we are justified.
Our relationship with God, right now, is fine.
There are no obstacles to overcome, no debts to pay off, no sins to apologize for—all that was removed by Christ before we even asked and long before we had any threadbare reason
to pretend we deserve any of it.
All we do is trust it is true—that trust, or faith, is how we relate to the God who gave so much in order to stay in relationship with us.
The peace, the grace, the justification are fully ours now; we can bank on God's love for us and our good standing with God because of Christ.
But we're not saved.
Read the headlines and look in your own heart: we're not there yet.
So Paul guides the Romans, who liked to boast about their own accomplishments on social
media and feel proud of what they have achieved and believe they deserve good things as
a reward for their virtue and hard work (maybe you've met people like this), to start
seeing life very differently.
Christ did it all, when we were still enemies of God, so grace has nothing whatsoever to do with our deserving even a sliver of credit.
So let's boast instead about our sufferings.
Let's post about our failures, insecurities, vulnerabilities, shortcomings, struggles, and the
secrets that cripple us with shame and grief and pain.
Let's trumpet to the world how weak and hurt we are.
It's a truer picture of who we are and also who God is.
And it sets the stage for the beauty and power of Christ's work in our own dog-eared story.
The fruit of suffering is patience, the most celebrated virtue in the early church.
The fruit patience produces is reputation, a verified character.
The fruit that produces, as anyone who has a trustworthy mechanic or dentist or plumber
will tell you, is hope that does not disappoint.
When suffering comes, therefore, we have such confidence in God that we can celebrate,
knowing that God will work it in the direction of healing and hope – that when we are
suffering, we know that our friendship with God is secure and that somehow beyond our comprehension and control we are in the process of being saved.
That takes faith, which is a lot more than we can muster on our own, but we already have what we need: God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has
been given to us.
Not drizzled, not sprinkled, not rationed—poured.
And it is this Spirit, Martin Luther insists, that gives us the gift of trust named faith:
I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened
me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers,
enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus
I believe that I cannot believe.
I trust that any and all of the power and credit belong to God.
This faith is incredibly unusual, unAmerican, annoying, counter-intuitive, and liberating.
It sets us free to get over ourselves.
We don't have to worry about God like I did about teenage girls—does she like me?
What do I have to do to earn the love I want and need?
Already having more of it than we can fathom sets us free to see others with the heart of God, to be recklessly compassionate and gracious.
God's Spirit empowers us to extend, in Romans scholar Katherine Grieb's lovely phrase, the
"outrageous generosity" of God to others who are not saved yet, who are suffering, who
are scared because they don't know they are loved and justified, maybe because they are
listening to Christians who would frustate St. Paul...who spent his first four chapters
laying out how everyone is a sinner and no one is righteous so judgment and boasting and
measuring up and measuring others are all a fat waste of time.
We are free to live and talk differently, not with undertones of fear but with a mighty undertow of love.
We are free to follow the lead of poet Linder Unders, following the lead of God:
All this talk of saving souls.
Souls weren't meant to save, like Sunday clothes that give out at the seams.
They're made for wear; they come with a lifetime guarantee.
Don't save your soul.
Pour it out like rain on cracked, parched earth.
Give your soul away, or pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or laugh it up the wind.
Souls were meant for hearing breaking hearts, for puzzling dreams, remembering August
flowers, forgetting hurts.
These folk who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies who blow out candles before you sing happy birthday, and
want the world to be in alphabetical order.
I will spend my soul, playing it out like sticky string into the world...
So I can catch every last thing I touch.
Next time someone asks, "Is your soul saved?"
Say, "No, it's spent, spent, spent!"