“What Does Personal Salvation Mean”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – September 16, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 19; Mark 8:27-34

     In our lesson today from Mark's Gospel, we find Jesus asking his disciples what people were saying about him.  After they shared what they had heard, Jesus asked them for their personal thoughts.  Peter responded, "You are the Messiah." 

     This morning we are going to consider what our personal salvation looks like.  Perhaps, first we need to ask ourselves: What is so awful and miserable about living in the material world that we need someone to save us? Yes, we sin and yes we make mistakes, but so what? Whether we like it or not, we are still evolving as a species from our animal instincts.

     For Jesus, Salvation had nothing to do with the political victories that the Jews wanted nor was it about people earning points to get into Heaven.  Jesus had given to his disciples a definition of the Messiah that was quite different from what their history and heritage had taught them.

     Jesus had replaced the tyrannical deity, Yahweh, in which the Jews believed with a God whom Jesus referred to as his Father, a being that was unconditional-love-in-motion.

     Many years ago, I had a life-changing discussion with Dr. Leon Wright, an adjunct professor to Wesley Seminary from Howard University.  He had an entire afternoon available and the two of us had a delightful time being engaged in a lengthy discussion about personal salvation and a host of other topics that have confused Christians through the ages.

     I was surprised to listen to his ideas about many Christian teachings that had been preserved and perpetuated for hundreds of years which have resulted from contact with a Persian religion.  

     He told me that thoughts about the Devil, demons and Hell had never been part of Judaism prior to the influence by the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.  Evil was attributed to the god of darkness.  The Persian religion had two gods, a god of light and a god of darkness that were fighting a civil war within believers.  He said, "People should not underestimate the role that fear has played in the development of their personal beliefs."  

     Further, he said that when we add to these teachings the influence of a good number of pastors and other teachers, it is no wonder that thinking-people have slowly begun to leave the Church.  Pastors had been passing along what they have been taught just as the Scribes, Pharisees, and Teachers of the Law were doing during Jesus' day.

    Dr. Wright said that re-educating people with what Jesus actually taught may take a long time.  A lot of damage has been done by the fear-mongering of Popes, the Colleges of Cardinals, Clergymen, and Bible teachers. 

     He cautioned me to proceed carefully in my ministry because people's beliefs about the dark side of Christianity are as sacred to many Christians as is the idea that God dictated the Scriptures.

     Fear is what causes people to cling to ideas that have no credible source of validation other than the assumed authority by the one doing the teaching.  Many of these beliefs have grown from fears that are part of our human nature.  However, many claims have been made about their divine origin when very few were influenced by Jesus' teachings.  (John 8:31)

     Dr. Wright was the first theologian that addressed my questions directly and clearly.   He could tell that I had become discouraged by fear-based teachings that I could never pass on to my congregations.  It was ridiculous for me to think that God needed to punish people because they did not believe or practice certain teachings. 

     We all came into this world without a book of instructions on how to deal with this new environment. We have learned that figuring out what to do and what attitudes to develop has not been an easy road for most of us.

I said, "You should write a book."  His response was classic,


What this world needs are more courageous, informed teachers rather than more books.  If books devoted to helping people mature in their spiritual development made a difference in the world, most of us would be kind and compassionate. Wonderfully written, insightful books, even the Bible, have not done that, have they? 

     King Solomon once wrote over three thousand years ago:  "What has happened before will happen again.  What has been done before will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun."  (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

     In other words, history repeats itself.  We love to hear that often-quoted mantra, but history only repeats itself when what was once correctly taught has been incorrectly learned.

     Solomon could never have imagined a day when people would set foot on the moon.  However, in another sense, Solomon was correct. Everything humanity discovers was already present awaiting humankind's prying curiosity that always causes the material world to give up its secrets.

    As we make more discoveries, the more we know that greater surprises are awaiting discovery by future generations.  Jesus knew this when he said, "Those who follow my teachings will accomplish far more than what you have seen me do."  (John 14:12f) By learning to serve one another in our vocations, we have made that discovery.

     This state-of-being that Jesus was teaching is all about the quality of life here on earth, not about our eternal destiny.  (Matthew 13:11) The confusion over separating our limited human experience from our experience as infinite spirit-beings has confused believers for centuries. 

     Jesus would never instill fear in the minds and emotions of people by holding their personal salvation over their heads as a reward.  Surviving death is a given for everyone. (John 14:2)

     Loving attitudes come as a result of the choices people make and not because of some saving-activity of God nor because Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world.  

     Being in the Kingdom will always be a matter of personal choice.  All Jesus could do was teach and model what personal salvation looks like. Jesus was powerless to instill such an ability into the minds and hearts of others. 

     Think of what happened among Jesus' disciples that were with him for three years. James and John wanted to call fire down on a Samaritan village after the town leaders rejected their desire to lodge there. (Luke 9:54) Peter brought a sword to the garden where the group had gone to pray. (John 18:10) Judas conspired with the chief priests to betray Jesus. (Luke 14:10f) Peter repeatedly told others that he did not know Jesus.  (Luke 22:61)

     God's eternal forgiveness does not wipe away the need for people to become responsible and accountable for their own choices, attitudes, and behavior.  God loves everyone equally but such love does not change what people are choosing to become with their lives. Each person was created to be free to invent, create, imagine and dismantle, the old patterns of what Salvation once looked like.

     Unfortunately, the movement of Jesus' followers ceased being free.  Once the Church had become institutionalized, powerful clergy taught that people had to conform to prescribed beliefs and doctrines to achieve personal salvation.  

     Loving others had been replaced by fear of what would happen to people if they failed to comply.  This fear was a human development needed by clergy who wanted that power over their congregations.  Being faithful with their cash flow to the church was part of the equation.

     When my discussion with Dr. Wright had ended, I came away with a renewed sense of purpose.  I did not have to parrot what others had been teaching.  Dr. Wright had given me permission to be an individual that no longer needed to be paralyzed by doctrines in which I did not believe. 

     When we leave our bodies at our physical death, all of us will understand the meaning and purpose of our earth-experience.  Physical life was an adventure, a holiday, and nothing more.  There was never anything that should have caused us to be afraid.  Fear is totally a human response to challenging life-issues over which we have little or no control.  Every thought and emotional response that arises during our lives comes from our imaginations.   

     Our mission as Christians has nothing to do with saving the souls of others.  God would never allow any soul to be in jeopardy of being damaged or lost by anything that they did during their physical lives.  More than half the world's population never heard of Jesus. What we are experiencing during our lives is a drama of our own creation.  

     God's only judgment of each of us will be like the response of the father to his Prodigal Son:

     Hurry!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet.  This son of mine has been wandering in the wilderness without a compass. His reasoning has returned to him and he has come home. Let us celebrate with a feast.  (Luke 25:22f)

     Our love for people presents countless opportunities to help when we experience others who are in trouble with life.  We are compelled to share with them what could work for them.  This is all we can do. This is what Jesus did.  

     We can encourage people to reverse their flow of energy.  Rather than remaining depressed with their self-image, Jesus taught that he had come among people as one who serves. (Luke 22:27) 

     When people do not correctly interpret what their bodies and spirits are telling them, their lives could easily become derailed. Being derailed, however, has nothing to do with their eternal destiny. 

     It is easy for limited human beings to become confused and discouraged about the meaning of life. People all the time are reaching for what will work for them.  People have taught themselves to look outside of themselves for the answers they need and want.  The external world does not offer the solutions that will work. 

     People have to make the difference in themselves by forgiving others, by being helpful with their friendship, by redefining the jobs as ones that are being performed in service to others, and by volunteering.  As already stated, people need to reverse their energy from being self-absorbed to becoming an angel who helps others.

     Eventually, all of us will return to our home-environment with many lessons that we have learned.   When we arrive at our next destination, all of us will recover our vast awareness that we had temporarily surrendered during our brief sojourn in our physical forms.  After we are home, we will quietly smile to ourselves, grateful that our nightmare or our high adventure is over.  

     We will realize that even during our period of amnesia, we never experienced anything that God would have allowed to damage us eternally. This should come as good news for everyone.  When our physical life-experiences conclude, all of us will know that all is well. 

     This happens because we recognize the invisible presence of God as unconditional-love-in-motion.  This love is God's grace being reawakened within us.  We know that we are definitely home from our adventure on earth. Any fear we once experienced was left on earth.  We are now free from all darkness.



Eternal God, during these reflective moments, each of us desires to live more loving and peaceful lives. We want to be a healing presence among others. Yet, we confess how easily our inner voice confuses such a vision. We find it challenging to let go of elements in our lives that rob us of our peace. We find ourselves wanting to play small when you created us for a far greater witness. Lead us, O God, to understand the power of love with such clarity, that no other response will ever be necessary.  Amen.



Loving and ever-present God, in the quiet of these moments, still our spirits with feelings of reverence and peace. How grateful we are that regardless of who we have been, or what rules we may have broken, or who we are at this very moment, you accept us and love us just as we are.

Teach us, O God, always to care for one another with the same spirit that you care for us. Make known to our minds the profound meaning of "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have broken their trust with us, who have hurt us with their words or deeds, or who hold values that are far different from our own."

Help us to remember that you considered each of us worthy enough to send your son to teach us about what it looks like to live in your Kingdom.  May we remember who we are when the passion of the moment wants to rob us of our capacity for patience, for understanding, and forgiveness.  Help us to remember who we are when circumstances push us to compromise our values, or to select expedience, or to walk away from an issue that takes courage and faith to confront.  Thank you for your love, your guidance, and your confidence in us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray. . .