I was surprised this week when our Bible study focused in on one small section of the text for Sunday. Paul loses his temper, people mob him and have the authorities beat him and throw him in prison. While in prison, an earthquake occurs, bursting open the prison doors and breaking the chains. Instead of fleeing, Paul and his cohort stick around. When the guard returns, fearing the worst, is about to kill himself over his mistake when he discovers that Paul is still sitting in the cell. The guard is overjoyed that he doesn’t have to take his own life and here is the conversation that occurs:
“Honorable masters, what must I do to be rescued?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your entire household.”
This is where we were caught up. The translation above is the CEB, my translation of choice. Others were reading NRSV, or NIV and there was a marked difference. In the CEB the guard asks how to be ‘rescued’ while everyone else’s version had ‘saved.’ The question was, why does the CEB avoid ‘saved?’ That seems to be pretty standard Christian terminology. Why avoid it?
I did check the Greek, and sure enough, it is the word that is most often translated as saved, so why change it? I think the translators saved it because the word ‘saved’ has way too much baggage attached.
Growing up in Aztec, New Mexico, a small town that was a bit of an extension of the Bible Belt, I, more than once, was asked that question: “Are you Saved?” Being a good Presbyterian, I didn’t quite understand the question. It wasn’t until later that I realized this was evangelical speak for, “Are you a Christian like me?” with the implied threat being that if I wasn’t I was surely going to Hell. I remember being cornered in a Social Studies Class by a Southern Baptist teacher and 28 other evangelical students who were adamant that Creationism was the only real way to understand the world, and that evolution was the devil’s trick. The only people in that class who resisted were me, the Presbyterian, the girl who was an Atheist, and the girl who was Wicca. Needless to say, after having been cornered and having to fight off evangelicals like this and many an occasion, I developed a distaste for their theology and them as people.
So frankly, I totally understand and agree with the impulse to avoid the language of ‘saved.’ I am certainly not the only one with this reaction either. I am reminded of the book, Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt , where the authors point out that the correct answer to that question, “Are you saved?” is not a date and time in which you accepted Jesus into your heart, as the Southern Baptists might expect. Rather, the answer, theologically speaking, for Presbyterians is, “Yeah, and it happened about 2000 years ago and had nothing to do with me, but everything to do with who God is.
The problem with that English version of the word, ‘Saved,’ is that it has become coopted to be about who is in and who is out. It no longer has any theological bearing on the original question that the guard was asking, but has become about identifying good guys and bad guys. Thus, my distaste for the word.
If we are to get at what this guy is really asking, it has nothing to do with shallow evangelical theology, but everything to do with someone who is overwhelmed by Paul’s self-sacrificial act, that saved the guard’s butt. This isn’t an eschatological question about where you go when you die. The guard is wanting to know, how can he live a life with the kind of integrity and honor that Paul just displayed. There is a word in Paul’s response that I don’t particularly care for either (that is for another post), but essentially, Paul’s response boils down to, “Let me tell you about how Jesus showed us how to live.” Again, the answer is not simply ‘believe,’ which is the way into the evangelical club. Another word that has been highjacked and misrepresented. No. A better understanding of the Greek word hiding behind that bad English translation is, ‘way of life’ or ‘way of being.’ This isn’t about an intellectual assent to a proposition about a Jewish Rabbi who died on a cross. This is about living in a different kind of way.
Again and again in the book of acts we have depictions of a Christian community that happily shares everything it has, sacrifices of itself to help others, heals broken people, performs amazing feats, and demonstrates a kind of presence that overwhelms people. Have you ever been around someone who you can tell is in touch with the divine? Someone who gives and gives in ways that you can’t imagine? Someone who seems to always be there when you need them? Someone whose generosity seems boundless? Someone who seems to really embody the resurrected Christ? Take that person and amplify their presence many times over. That must be what it would be like to be in the presence of these early Christians. The result of the way that these people live their lives is that others want to get them some of that. They want to be like these Christians too.
Now contrast that with my early experience with evangelicals. In fact, contrast that with much of what seems to pass as Christian in our day and age. You see why falling back on the same old tropes has become problematic? ‘Saved’ doesn’t mean anything. Frankly, talking about these kinds of realities rarely does. That is why Paul doesn’t talk here—he acts. Paul shows people what it is like when you embody the risen Christ in all you do and in all that you are. That is why it doesn’t matter if you declare you are saved or not, or when you accepted Jesus into your heart. It isn’t about talk it is about presence. It is about walking the walk. Being ‘saved’ is about living abundantly in a way that most people just don’t think about when they think of Christians in this day and age.
I will admit, “rescued’ in that translation doesn’t have the same sort of gravitas. It doesn’t work very well. But until we can a better job of demonstrating the kind of ‘salvation’ that the guard has in mind—the kind of self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-emptying, generous, loving, compassionate, overwhelming way of living that Paul embodies in this story, we may want to be careful with that word ‘saved.’