Dear Working Preacher,
Hell is all the rage these days. In large part spurred by Rob Bell’s brief but provocative Love Wins, Christians of all stripes are taking sides. Though I’ve had a thing or two to say on the subject myself, today I want to offer a different response to all the hoopla over hell: let’s talk about heaven instead.
Heaven, I realize, can be a just as dicey, if a tad more pleasant, topic of conversation. Where is it? Will everyone be there? Is it filled with clouds, angels, and harps? And, perhaps most importantly, is it really as boring as most of us secretly fear? But none of these are questions I want to take up. Instead, I want specifically to talk about heaven here and now — as in the heaven Paul invites us to experience today, right now, this very moment.
Paul actually doesn’t use the word heaven; instead, he talks about salvation, and he does it in a way that has made heirs of the Reformation nervous for nearly 500 years: “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Work out your salvation? Egads! And from Paul, no less! What can this mean?
Relax. Paul is not amending his insistence that we are justified by grace through faith. Rather, he operates with a far more expansive notion of salvation than most of us do. As Susan Eastman writes in one of several excellent commentaries on the readings this month from Philippians,
“the ‘salvation’ we are to work out is not our private, individual destiny, but rather, the quality of our corporate life as it is lived under the rule of the Savior.”
Salvation, that is, is life lived now in the community of atonement and reconciliation formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And working out our salvation is therefore nothing less or more than living as if the promises of the gospel are true; living, that is, the way Christ lived. Which brings us back to the beginning of this passage. Paul writes that because — a better translation than “if” — there is encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, and sympathy in our life as Christians, we should act that way, not seeking first our own good but looking out for others trusting that our fates and lives to God.
And then Paul gives us the perfect example of such self-emptying, neighbor-uplifting love: Jesus. Except that it’s not just an example. First and foremost it’s a promise. This, Paul says, is just how much Jesus loves you — he wasn’t content to sit in heaven and luxuriate in the privilege or power that comes from being divine. Rather, he left all that behind and took on our lot and our life, experiencing all that we experience and then some, so that we would know just how much God loves us and all people.
Paul trusts that once we have heard that we are loved in such an unexpected, almost unimaginable way, we might in turn be able to regard others in the same way, not as objects to be exploited but persons to be treasured, and not as opponents competing for scarce resources but brothers and sisters deserving of our unconditional regard and support.
Moreover, having heard this good news, we are set free to be about the business of caring and loving each other — Jesus previously called it the kingdom of God — right now. According to Paul, you see, Jesus’ cross and resurrection together formed the pivot point of history, the fulcrum with which God moved the destiny of the whole universe. Nothing is the same for Paul once he has been encountered by the crucified and risen One, and nothing should be the same for us.
To put it another way, because we live in the grace of God now, this very moment is the hour of salvation. Heaven, salvation, are not future realities standing at a distance from us nearly as much as they are right there in front of us, present-tense realities waiting to be embraced, actualized, and lived into here and now. And once we step into that salvation we discover that it isn’t about us after all; that, in fact, it never was about us. For as Paul also says, “it is God who is at work in your, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure” (2:13).
So what does it look like to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”? It means going about our everyday tasks and duties with the conviction that the gospel is true — that is, that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, and that God’s promised future is bigger and better than either the past we’ve created or the future we deserve. And because the gospel is true, we are free to regard others, treat others, and care for others as Christ did.
Which means, of course, that opportunities for working out our salvation abound. From selling that used car at a fair price and emptying bed-pans at the nursing home to befriending the kid who others bully or voting in the coming election, we are granted each and every day manifold opportunities to serve others as Christ has served us. It may be at home or work, at school or through our volunteer activities, but wherever we have “the mind of Christ” as we go about our lives we are most surely working out — and witnessing to! — our salvation with the awe and respect this vision of heaven deserves. This understanding of working out our salvation, of practicing the presence of Jesus, of — in a word — heaven doesn’t need to, and indeed, can’t wait. It is right there in front of us, just waiting to be embraced and lived.
So what if this week, Working Preacher, we gave out buttons (they’re not hard to have made) that read “Heaven Can’t Wait — Ask Me Why?” and invited people to wear them as they go about their weekly routines. Or maybe we should pass out 3×5 cards with “Heaven is Now!” or “Heaven Can’t Wait” on one side and on the other side invite people to write down the places they’ve been able to work out their salvation or have seen others do the same. We could then invite them to share these episodes of grace via email and create a congregational record or log of where heaven touches earth and where we see the promised salvation of Christ being worked out even here, even now. This doesn’t have to be contained to a single week, of course – you can keep this up all fall! (Indeed, it might prove a useful antidote to all the oblique – and parabolic! – references to “the outer darkness” coming up soon in Matthew’s parables.)
However you decide to encourage your people to work out their salvation, Working Preacher, please know how much I appreciate your partnership in the Gospel. As the Apostle writes elsewhere in this same letter, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.”
Yours in Christ,