Maybe you will agree that our frequent use of the word “salvation” in a religious context almost always refers to what we hope will happen at the end of our lives here on earth. It’s a key word in the ultimate “insurance policy” we’ve bought into, whose pay-off comes at the moment of our death. We usually qualify it with the adjective “eternal,” implying that it is an action of God that produces a state of life that will be infinitely and endlessly glorious beyond our present imagination.
I believe in life after death; I believe that we are all destined to share God’s own existence in a transformed state of being. I understand Jesus to have certified that. But I also recognize another meaning of salvation that we mustn’t allow to be overlooked in our zeal for a future of everlasting happiness.
Salvation for the ancient Jews and the earliest Christians was regarded as pertaining to this world, our life as a species here on Planet Earth. To them it meant putting right all that was wrong in human society — everything that militated against a truly human life of love and peace, of collaboration and cooperation and plenty. Their idea of salvation had primarily to do with the network of relationships by which they and others were oppressed in the present life – selfish and unholy alliances that keep the poor down, that cause anxiety and fear, that facilitate hostilities and war, leaving people profoundly dissatisfied, lonely, frustrated, cheated and hopeless.
It was from just such conditions and circumstances that our Judaic and Christian ancestors longed and waited to be saved. That was the concrete salvation for which they yearned – deliverance, liberation, that only God’s anointed one, they believed, could accomplish. It would be the work of the long-awaited Messiah.
It’s hard for us who inhabit the advanced nations of the world to realize, but for most of the world today those same horrible conditions still exist. If we were to throw darts at a spinning world globe, the odds would be heavily against pinpointing a land in which there is not a people whose spirits cry out now for salvation – NOW.
In its understanding of Jesus, the earliest Christians saw him as the principle, or the agent, of reconciliation. Only through union with him, they reasoned, could any opposing personal forces be resolved into mutual acceptance and peace. This appears to be what St. Paul meant when he said that in the Risen Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither freeman nor slave, neither male nor female – in other words, whatever sets up the destructive differences between these opposites is conquered in the love of Jesus.
For four consecutive Sundays at this time in the liturgical year, today being the third of them, the church puts before us the image of Jesus presenting himself as the bread of life for all people. Persons of faith, who are trying to live in harmony with all others, who want to be reconciled before God and with every other human being and with the circumstances of their own personal lives, go eagerly to the table of Eucharist to be nourished for that precise task. In that act they are pledging publicly to align themselves as closely as they can with Jesus, who, they remember, said, “The bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”