A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
Too Good to be True?
April 28, 2011
One of my all-time favorite sports scenes is of North Carolina State University men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano running onto the floor as his team had just made the last-second shot to win the NCAA national championship in 1983. Their defeat of Houston’s vaunted “phi slamma jamma” team remains one of the greatest all-time championship upsets in college basketball history. Down by one point, N.C. State’s best shooter had a shot with two seconds left, and he missed so badly that a teammate hauled it in like a pass and put in the layup for the winner. Immediately Coach Valvano exploded onto the floor, careening from side to side, arms flailing, eyes like saucers, mouth agape in a mixture of ecstasy and disbelief. It was the closest human imitation of a chicken with its head cut off I’ve ever seen. He was utterly “beside himself” – which is the literal meaning of “ecstatic.”
This is but a pale analogy to the disorientation that marks the reactions of his followers to Jesus’ resurrection. They respond at once with joy, fear, thrill, and disbelief. The Gospel writers attempt to explain – “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9), they were “slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken.” (Luke 24:25) Easter took them entirely by surprise, despite all that Jesus had said and done to prepare them for it. So when it happened, they hardly knew what to make of it, let alone how to respond.
That’s how it is with salvation – it is the last thing you’d expect to happen to the likes of us. I like to think of “salvation” as a contraction for “salvage operation” – something that has been trashed is rescued from the reject pile, deemed precious once again, and made useful. The last thing you’d expect from us is that we would be so loved by God that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Yet that is exactly what God has done, claiming us as his treasured possession despite our being so sullied by sin that we ought to be simply discarded as so much trash.
Such salvation is nothing short of resurrection. And it is just as unexpected, even shocking, as Jesus’ resurrection was on Easter. But just as Easter no longer astonishes us, so we have become rather inured to this amazing gift called salvation. Then God jolts us again by choosing to salvage others whom we never would have expected to be in on this remarkable turnabout. That’s what happens with Peter when the Holy Spirit is poured out on the Gentile Cornelius in Acts 10. Suddenly Peter sees that this salvation-world is far larger than he’d ever dreamed. He reports his discovery to the disciples in Jerusalem, and they have as hard a time accepting this news as they had with Jesus’ resurrection. It can’t be true – it goes against everything we’ve ever seen, heard, or been taught. We discover that God’s salvage operation extends far beyond all reasonable imagination.
More than being shocked that God has chosen to save others whom we’d never include on our salvage list, let us again remember just how stunning it is that we are in on this unspeakable, utterly unexpected gift. Resurrection happens – wonder of wonders, it happened to me! I am risen with Christ to new life (Colossians 3:1) – an event as improbable as Jesus’ resurrection Easter morning. As it did with the disciples on Easter, resurrection leaves us staggered, bewildered, even disbelieving, just as it renders us ecstatically joyous. May we never lose the wonder of Easter – that God would raise to new life not only the perfect only-begotten Son, but even more amazingly, would grant me, a miserable sinner, the same gift. Amazing, utterly amazing!
Amazed by grace,
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The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery