Weekly Meditation: 8th May 2016

Acts 16:16-34

Psalm 97

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17

John 17:20-26

“Believe in the Lord Jesus”, so said the apostle Paul when a man asked what he “must do to be saved” (Acts 16:31). What must we do to be saved? We have to do nothing but believe.

As soon as anyone makes a statement like that we see limitations and qualifications hovering; that dreadful phrase – “terms and conditions apply” that is the suffix to every “free” gift, every too-good-to-be-true offer. In our experience, everything comes with a catch, a reason why the offer does not apply to us, a hidden cost, a condition impossible to fulfil.

It is probably for that reason that so many have difficulty in accepting Paul’s words at face value. Can we really be saved just by believing? All world religions, all so-called Christian sects or cults, and – sadly – some denominations or individual churches add qualifications to those words. Yes, you can come in, you can be saved, provided … if….but …. When I first read Paul’s statement in Acts 16, I was on my way out of a religious cult, trying to find the road ahead by reading the Bible. I was really startled by what I found in Acts 16; it was so different from what I had been told I needed to do.

I reflected on what a fellow cult-member would have replied to the question asked in Acts 16:30. It would have been something like this: read these books, study with us, come to our meetings regularly (there are three every week), take our message from door-to-door, tidy up your life (stop smoking, be careful what music you listen to and what books you read, etc, etc) answer these 80 questions (we need to make sure you won’t rock our boat), get baptised and then survive Armageddon and to the end of Christ’s millennial rule and you might just make it. A “pencil booking” was what I was promised when I was baptised into that religion.

Christian churches don’t (usually) go as far as that. But a new church that opened where I used to live, called itself “Grace Baptist Church” and had a notice on the door that told women they must wear a hat if they entered the building. This in an age when a hat is not considered an essential part of a woman’s dress, or a sign of respectability.

It is all very far from the simplicity of Paul’s words. Salvation is not simple, of course. It has been millennia in the planning and making, and it cost the life-blood of the Son of God, but the planning and making and the cost is not ours. The price is already paid; all we have to do is reach out in faith (belief) and accept it. We call it grace; it is undeserved, un-earned.

When people try to earn their salvation by performing works or keeping rules they come close to idolatry – putting their trust in man-made systems or their own performance. It is like offering to pay for a precious gift, even like throwing it back in the face of the giver as if it does not work.

The entire Bible is, like shot-silk, suffused with the light of grace; we can see it at every turn. The lectionary readings today are no exception. Psalm 97 shows us the glory of our God, and the futility of trusting in idols and images (97:7). John 17:20-26 gives us the words of our gracious Lord himself, promising us his presence and his glory. And do not be dismayed at the strong words of Revelation 22:10-26; yes there is condemnation and retribution (v 11-12), but it is for those who have deliberately rejected God’s grace, continued to do wrong, trusted in idolatry, loved falsehood (v 15). Let us pray that, ultimately, no one turns away from God so that Jesus can be the “bright Morning Star” to every one of humankind.

By Susan Thorne