Matthew 4:17-22 (Common English Bible)
17 From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”
18 As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 20 Right away, they left their nets and followed him.21 Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and 22 immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
Years ago, my wife Jennifer was in an ice cream shop in Greenville, SC, one of our favorite cities in the whole wide world. She's sitting there in line waiting to order her two scoops and sprinkles, when the man behind her strikes up a friendly conversation in the way that many Southerners will do.
"Ma'am, are you saved?"
It’s a bit odd as icebreakers go, but Jennifer is pretty quick to get onboard with whatever conversation is happening around her, so she was quick to explain that she loves Jesus and trusts him as Lord and lives to follow him. The stranger wouldn’t take yes for an answer. So Jenn explained that not only does she love Jesus, but in fact she worked in a church, and her husband was a Methodist pastor, and really, honestly, no-fooling, and no matter what you’ve heard about those Methodists, we believe that we’re all sinners who need forgiveness and we believe in salvation. But the more she said the more it became clear that this stranger wasn’t particularly concerned with all that. “But,” he protested, “how do you know that you’re saved?” and it became clear that when he asked “Are you saved?” what he meant to ask was “when were you saved?” He wanted to hear that at some point in her life there had been a particular moment when she had prayed a particular prayer that had changed everything. He wanted to hear the story of a single moment that fixed her future forever, and if she didn’t have that kind of story, he wanted that story to be written right then, right there, while she waited for her hand-dipped cone.
Well. As it turns out, Jennifer has that kind of story she could tell. But I want to tell you a different story today. It’s a hypothetical story, in which hypothetical you are the main character.
I want you to imagine yourself for a moment - imagine that you are lost at sea,
and you are treading water.
I don’t know how you got there - maybe it was your own fault, maybe you sailed into a storm like an idiot and your boat sank. Maybe you were thrown overboard by a captain who wasn’t worth your trust. Doesn't matter; the point is your stuck. You’re barely able to keep your head above water, and you have no hope of getting out. You can’t see land. Even if you are the world’s strongest swimmer, you don’t know which direction to swim. You are powerless against the sea.
Now, imagine that you see a boat cutting through the waves, and just as you turn to face it, arms raised to wave frantically, there in front of you is someone holding a life ring.
If he had thrown the ring you might not have seen it, or you might not have had the strength to swim to it. This person has jumped into the water, has taken on the waves just to make sure that the life buoy comes straight to you. This unexpected lifeguard wraps your arm around the buoy, and you feel the rope go taut - someone on the boat is pulling you in even as the life guard also begins to kick and sidestroke with you and the buoy, all the way to the boat. As you get closer to the boat, you panic subsides. You start to help, you add a few kicks of your own. Eventually, you make it to the boat.
and even though the sea is still heaving all around you, you can’t believe how good it feels just to stand on your own two feet. And then, eventually, the boat makes it back to land.
And when you reach the shore your fall to your knees, and you kiss the ground and thank God that you are home.
So here’s my question: When were you saved?
Was it at the moment that your rescuer showed up - or was it when you let him slip that buoy under your arm and y’all started toward the boat?
What kind of relief did you feel when that rope first went taut and you someone was on the other end of the line - and how did that feeling compare to the relief when you were pulled from the water to sit on the deck of the boat?
As you sat there and for the first time took a breath that didn't carry the threat of a mouthful of saline - did you think to yourself "At last, I’m safe"?
Or was it the moment you reached the shore, when you and the boat were finally and forever put beyond the reach of the deadly waves - so that you didn't just ride above them, you could live without feeling or seeing them, wasn’t that really the moment you were really saved?
When was it?
It seems pretty obvious to me that every single moment of that journey was salvation. There’s probably nothing like the feeling of first discovering that you have a rescuer, there’s nothing so dramatic and reassuring as the first grip of the rescuer’s hand and the firm tug of the line that first makes you believe everything will be alright. But if you had given up hope, if you had let go of the lifeline before you reached the ship, that moment of relief wouldn’t have changed a thing. If the wind had died or if you never raised your sails, life on the boat wouldn’t be much better than treading water. It might last longer, but with the same result. In this story of our rescue, it’s absurd to say that any one moment is our salvation - salvation is everything along the way.
The book of Acts tells us that before the people of Antioch invented the name Christianity, our faith was known simply as "The Way” (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 24:14, 24:22). Instead of calling folk Christians, they would say someone "belonged to The Way." Jesus himself talked about a narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).
The preacher John Wesley picked up this theme in a sermon entitled “The Scripture Way of Salvation” in which he said that the word salvation should be extended to “the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory.” We have talked these last several weeks about how grace works from it’s beginning to its end. And when we know the full story, we understand what the Apostle Paul means when he says...
You are saved by God’s grace, because of your faith! This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.
- Ephesians 2:8-10
Our salvation isn’t just a moment - it’s an entirely new way of life. Before we were drowning - or swimming very hard towards nowhere - now, we’ve been given power to stand and go somewhere.
When Jesus called his disciples, he didn’t say “Here’s a list of propositions I’d like you to believe in.” Jesus said, “Follow me.” Follow me, wherever I lead you. Follow me, and the path we walk together will be your salvation. It’s right there in the word: the word “disciple” literally means "one who follows." A disciple is not defined by a moment that they had; a disciple is defined by the way they are going. A disciple is saved by what they are becoming.
And what are we becoming? “Follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people.”
The God who pulls us from the flood doesn’t leave us to sit in the boat. We become part of the crew that is sailing the boat and holding the line while Jesus keeps rescuing more and more people. Grace is God’s power, and it gives us power. In the book of Philippians, a preacher named Paul put it this way:
“Now, carry out your own salvation… God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.” (Phil 2:12-13)
This is the miracle of grace: that it takes us who were powerless to save ourselves and gives us the power to help God save ourselves and to save others.
We couldn’t help ourselves, but now we can help God.
This last Sunday, I was sitting in on the first meeting of our children’s ministry team, and we were talking about where we had seen God at work. I wish you could have been there. I wish you could have been there to hear Linda Biondi talking about the day that her 9 year old, Elyza, came to her and said “I want to be baptized.” Linda said:
I didn’t make that happen. I wasn’t even asking or thinking about it. She just came to me and said ‘I want to be baptized.’ It came from her - but I know that it could only come from her because she picked it up in Children’s Church; she picked it up from something her teacher Sara said on Wednesday night; she picked it up from a bible story she learned in Sunday School.
Our salvation is entirely a gift, but it makes us a gift to others. We are saved by grace, so that we become grace to others. We don’t just get saved from something, we get saved for something. Salvation goes all the way through us...
Jesus says, “Follow me.” Those disciples gave everything to follow Jesus. James and John gave up their father, and their boat, and their nets. Today, we offer our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness because we want to follow His way. Wherever he leads; that’s where we’re headed.
Am I saved? Thanks be to God - I’ve been saved, and I’m being saved, and the one who began this good work will be faithful to complete it (Phil 1:6) . And this very moment, if it is faithful to God, if I accept the grace to become a little more who God made me to be: this moment is my salvation too.