Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 16:24-26; Romans 5:6-11
Several weeks ago, my sermon addressed the topic: Saving Jesus, in which I noted that the church, in very short order, went from a community of the Way, of people who were followers of Jesus, to a community of believers, who worshiped Jesus. Jesus, I noted, never invited nor encouraged worship; but always invited people to follow him. In the 21st century, as biblical scholarship has brought us to deeper awareness of the impact of culture and history on the development of the church’s way of explaining its beliefs and practices, the church is turning, it seems, once more back to its original focus on being a community of Jesus followers…hence the idea of “saving Jesus from the church”. I’ve noted over this series of sermons how many young people are leaving the church because of what they perceive to be its irrational beliefs, its anti-science orientation, its judgmentalism and prejudice, and its failure to live up to the way of Jesus.
I began that sermon two weeks ago with an adaptation of a sermon by Frederick Buechner, titled “The Sign by the Highway.” To begin our thinking this morning about how Jesus saves, let me read you some of the opening paragraphs:
A man drives along the highway in his car or a bus, or alongside the highway in a train, and he sees this and that: the signs and billboards—BURMA SHAVE, CHILDREN GO SLOW, PRINCE of PIZZA. He sees the wash hanging out back, the reflection in the window of his own face whipped by the telephone poles that rush by or the dusty trees. And then maybe once in a while he looks up at the side of a cliff so high that he does not know how anybody ever got up there to do it, or at the concrete abutment of a bridge, and he sees written out in large, clumsy letters, usually done in white paint that has trickled down from the bottoms of the letters as though they were falling apart or melting, the message JESUS SAVES—just that, JESUS SAVES—with all the other signs going on with whatever they are saying, too. And if that man is like most of the people I know, including myself much of the time and in many ways, he will wince at the message; and that is really a very strange and interesting thing, both the message and the wincing.
… And one way or another, I believe, we wince because we are embarrassed, and embarrassed for all kinds of reasons.
… It seems to me that the words “Christ saves” would not bother us half so much because they have a kind of objective, theological ring to them, whereas “Jesus” saves seems cringingly, painfully personal—somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named whatever your name happens to be. It is something very personal written up in a place that is very public, like the names of lovers carved into the back of a park bench or on an outhouse wall.” [Buechner, Frederick. The Hungering Dark, “The Sign by the Highway”, Seabury: 1981, pp 86 ]
I used to be the terrible inquisitioner on a committee of the ministry, examining candidates for ordination. My classic question to each of them—and it seemed to come as a surprise to many was—tell me how, for you, Jesus saves. One time a young man sat in utter silence for over 5 minutes with his mouth hanging open. He had no idea how to answer the question. Needless to say, he went back to seminary for another year and another examination later for ordination.
If you can’t answer that question, “how does Jesus save?”, or what does it mean to say, “Jesus saves”, then you should not be a Christian clergy person. It would seem to be a rather essential matter, to understate the point!
To explain how Jesus saves, one must begin with the crucial question, “saves FROM what?” and follow that question with “saved FOR what”?
In answer to the first question, saved FROM what, the fundamentalists, against whom this series of sermons has been aimed, would say: “from the eternal damnation of your soul.” So they have bumper stickers that ask: Do you know where you will spend eternity? as if they seem to know without question. Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as CRU, and which has on Transy’s campus the largest membership of any campus in Kentucky, , say in their “statement of faith”, that Jesus “…lived a sinless life and voluntarily atoned for the sins of men by dying on the cross as their substitute, thus satisfying divine justice, and accomplishing salvation for all who trust in Him alone.” [#3 in Campus Crusade for Christ’s Statement of Faith]
Later in the Campus Crusade creedal list, they say: “The salvation of man is wholly a work of God’s free grace and is not the work, in whole or in part, of human goodness or religious ceremony. God imputes His righteousness to those who put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation, and thereby justified them in His sight.” The Campus Crusade for Christ folks hold to a very low view of humanity: “Man’s nature is totally corrupted, and he is thus totally unable to please God.” You yourself may believe some variation of this statement, because it has dominated nearly 1900 years of Christian dogma, but it has not excluded other ideas that also have biblical foundations.
I cannot find any indication where Jesus himself would ever had said any such thing. He said he came to save the sick and the lost, but he never said that all people were totally lost. And Jesus was rarely concerned to heal people, or to “save the lost”, for the sake of their immortal souls, so much as to make the life they were living in the flesh whole, as the word Shalom, suggests. He was concerned to restore the lepers to community; to enable those who were blind both literally and metaphorically, to see the truth, and so participate once more in the fullness of life.
The reading from Romans, chapter 5, is, of course and in part, the source of such dominant creedal affirmations. Yet the fact is that Jesus himself had little or nothing to say about eternal destinations, what happens to us when we die, and he did not talk much about “salvation, or being saved.”
In the three earliest gospels, we find Jesus preaching that the “Kingdom of God has come near”—meaning, from the Greek, that it was close at hand, within the grasp, of his listeners. He invited them to repent, but he didn’t say, “repent of your sins”. He just said: “Repent,” which means to turn around, 180 degrees. It meant: you’ve got your life oriented in the wrong way. “Follow me,” he said. And the Kingdom of God was not the destination after one’s death, but was the “reign, or rule, of God, in the here and now…”, and constituted a belief that people could live, each beneath his vine and fig tree, in peace, and in compassion and gentleness with neighbors, and enemies.
When Jesus did say something about “saving”, it was usually similar to the reading we heard from Matthew, using the metaphor of dying and rising, of death and resurrection, of losing one’s life—in service to others—in order to find one’s life. He was speaking about this life, and, I trust, letting God take care of whatever is in the realm beyond our mortal deaths, although as a man of his times, and likely a Pharisee who believed in resurrection after death. But still, he did not talk about what happens to people when they die, save the thief on the cross at their respective crucifixions.
As I have noted in other sermons, if you have a God of absolute justice, then you have a god who is not merciful and kind. While this view of who and what God is may be found in the Bible, there are other, ideas that keep pushing against that unmerciful, arbitrary, God of absolute justice, for whom SOMEBODY has to bear punishment for all the sin in the world. I find a wiser and more compassionate God testified to in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the life of Jesus. It is not a god that I want to worship or love. You have a god as ultimate and final judge, for whom none but only God’s self, incarnate—made flesh—in a human being, Jesus, who lives a pure and sinless life, can somehow “atone” or be the blood sacrifice necessary to satisfy God’s requirement that someone has to be punished for all those sins in the world. Not exactly the God of love, in either testament.
This particular argument for how Jesus saves reflects the ancient and very primitive notion of blood sacrifice: that somehow God’s anger and God’s justice must be propitiated by a sacrifice, and the most valuable sacrifices are the perfect animal, the very life—which blood signifies, of that animal. I’m not sure how many of you might have heard the NPR piece earlier in the week about the rise of child sacrifices—for good fortune—in Uganda. The pattern continues into our own times.
The ancient world at the time of Jesus, and more specifically the Apostle Paul who spread the notion of sacrificial atonement of Jesus, had multiple religions arguing for ways of atoning the angry and judgmental god(s). It’s almost easy to see how the Jesus movement became diverted from the belief that one could live in the fullness of God now by following Jesus (and one might also add, the Hebrew prophets), to a movement that featured right belief for the sake of one’s eternal life.
Frankly, it requires a lot less of you to believe that Jesus has done it all for you, than to give one’s heart and one’s pattern of life to that itinerant preacher from Nazareth, to allow God to do something with you.
But, if, for example, you have a God who is holiness emanating from within all of creation, a power of love that transforms and restores life and people to wholeness, who longs for relationship and a love that we find eternal in relationship—then God saves, Jesus saves, by offering God’s very self to share our sufferings and to endure the evils that we have to endure in this life, and who—in the model of Jesus, in the metaphor, and the reality of death and new life—shows that death does not and will not have the final answer.
In other words, Jesus saves us from a life without meaning, a life of anxiety and despair over suffering and evil, and saves us FOR a life lived in hope and confidence that we have a holy power who knows every trying and wonderful thing about being a human being, and whose love keeps bubbling up to sustain us when we walk through the waters, when we pass through the fires.
From the testimony of the passion narratives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, I’m not sure that we can deduce that Jesus did go voluntarily to his death. I think he knew that his efforts to reform Judaism and to turn people away from any kind of notion that their security, their safety, their fortunes could be secured by legalistic religion or the secular state, would lead to severe opposition from the powers that be at the time, and that like the prophets of prior ages, he too would be rejected.
For me, Jesus saves by inviting me to turn from all the false gods of this world, to see the holiness that resides at the heart of creation and being itself. He is the way, the truth, the life, as the Gospel of John puts it. Is Jesus the final revelation? I don’t know. I believe him to be in the pattern of the great prophets before him: Moses, Elijah, Isaiah (and all who bore that name); Jeremiah; Hosea; Amos; Micah; Ezekiel. I believe that in him, the fullness of God, was pleased to dwell, and in him God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things, whether on earth, or in heaven….His story, his repeated use of the metaphor of dying to the old life, and rising to the new, down to his very own real and literal death, and the experiences of his risen presence, become our story—if we will accept his simple invitation, “follow me.” And so, in following him, Jesus saves. So may it be for you.