Of all the theological terms that are frequently tossed around among Christians, the term salvation is one of the most misunderstood and misused of them all. What does it mean to be saved? I’m sure at one time or another we’ve been approached by an enthusiastic Christian of the evangelical fundamentalist variety who has recently had a dramatic experience of the Lord in his or her life. Bursting forth with zeal they approach us with that fundamental question: Have you been saved? or Have you received the Holy Spirit? I have often told the story of a wonderfully holy yet bit naive woman who ran up to the late Cardinal Timothy Manning at a Confirmation. She was bursting with her newly experienced charismatic fervor and asked the Cardinal, “Have you received the Holy Spirit?” Without missing a beat or losing one once of episcopal composure, he turned to her and said, “Madam, I give the Holy Spirit.”
Confronted with these fundamental questions that touch at the heart of our Christian existence, God’s word to us this day provides a healthy and traditional guide for us to understand what salvation is really all about. It challenges us to reflect on what it truly means to be gifted by the Holy Spirit in the Reign of God.
And so, what does it mean to be saved? So often the notion of salvation is rather narrowly and simplistically understood as a dramatic turning point in one’s life. It is often imaged as a highly emotional personal experience that brings one to acknowledging Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior. This picture of salvation painted with broad strokes is classic among the Evangelical and more fundamentalist Christians denominations. It flows from a Reformation tradition that saw the priority given to one’s personal surrender in faith to the sovereign Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther’s classic maxim taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans placed salvation squarely on the shoulders of faith alone - sola fide. It was faith alone that would bring salvation and justification to an individual. This became the rallying cry of subsequent Protestant reformers.
The orthodox and traditional Catholic position on the question of salvation, however, balances this Reformation emphasis on faith alone with the concept of faith in action - living our faith through good works. Historically, one could say that the Reformation was rightly reacting to a poorly articulated belief and almost magical understanding of the relationship between good works and faith. Among the common folk and uneducated clergy of the time there reigned a belief that as long as you performed certain pious practices correctly, regardless of where your heart was with God, these external practices somehow guaranteed salvation. This belief, however, was a gross caricature of authentic Catholic belief - an authentic belief that flows from the Word of God and refined down through the centuries by theological reflection.
God’s life giving word in the Scriptures calls all to share in the rich banquet of God’s life and love which Isaiah speaks of in symbolic terms. No one is excluded from this invitation. Yet, this invitation awaits a response - as do all invitations. That response to the call of the Lord is ultimately rooted in our willingness to surrender in love and trust. In other words, faith gives shape to our surrender to the Lord’s invitation. It is our saying “yes” to share in his banquet of unending life and love. Faith is grounded in a personal surrender to the Lord of our lives, Jesus the Christ. And faith is lived fully when it is enriched, challenged and deepened by the Body of Christ which is the Church.
The authenticating gauge, the truest test as to whether faith has truly taken root in our lives is the evidence we give that we truly wear the garment of the invited guest - the garment of righteousness. Each day the Lord continues to invite us to let our faith be seen in action - through our care for the poor, through our moral choices, as well as the political decisions we make that are informed by Gospel values. To be saved is not to isolate ourselves into a privatized “me and Jesus” world, but rather to open our lives in service of our brothers and sisters who like us have been invited to feast at the Table of the Lord.