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The Big Question

What does it mean that Jesus saves

By Ross Lockhart

One minute Jesus had a beard. The next minute it was gone. I stood there, mesmerized in the kitchen, trying to make sense of this miracle unfolding in my hands. A young couple in the church, aware of my deep love of tacky religious merchandise, had bought me a very special coffee mug somewhere along their travels. When I first beheld this object, it depicted a bearded 1950s-style Sunday school Jesus emblazoned with the words “Jesus Saves.” But seconds after I poured coffee into the mug, the beard miraculously disappeared and the words changed to “Jesus Shaves.” Another Christmas miracle!

Jesus saves! Why are so many United Church folks uncomfortable with this phrase? I have a hunch that for some it conjures up imagery of a street preacher wielding a Bible like a sword as wary pedestrians give a wide berth. So how can we get a handle on this statement of faith?

Last month in our Christmas pageant, a little girl dressed as Gabriel with crooked wings announced to a bathrobe-clad Mary that she would have a son called Jesus — or Yeshua — which literally means “salvation” or “God to the rescue.” The kind of saving that Jesus offers is not a passive or casual saving, like tossing a few spare coins into a piggy bank. No, this is high-drama saving, more like a search-and-rescue helicopter hovering over a floundering ship off Halifax in the midst of a raging storm at sea. This kind of rescue is risky, urgent and happening everywhere, all the time.

But what does Jesus save us from? For too long in the Christian tradition, the short answer was that Jesus saves us from “H-E-double hockey sticks,” as those of us who grew up in Winnipeg liked to call it. This fear-based approach to salvation is summed up in the bumper sticker “Jesus is taking reservations for eternity. Will it be smoking or non-smoking?”

And yet, in pastoral ministry, I have prayed that Jesus might save people from hell. Not the overheated underworld depicted so brilliantly in Far Side cartoons, but rather hell on earth: sitting as a pastor with someone whose marriage is crumbling under the weight of lies and infidelity; listening to a church member speak in hushed tones of sexual abuse endured in childhood; holding the hand of a dying person who is alone and regretting family estrangement that will not be undone in time; watching a wonderful person slip once again under the spell of addictions; standing at a grave beside a young widow and her children uncertain as to what the future will hold. Oh, there is certainly a need for Jesus to save us from hell on earth.

But what about those folks for whom life is just fine, ticking along comfortably without any supposed need of Jesus and his saving power? What might Jesus save them from?

I was reminded of this challenge recently while boarding an Air Canada flight home to Vancouver. As I found my seat, I noticed a well-known Canadian celebrity in the row behind talking loudly on his cellphone for all to hear. As I fumbled with my seatbelt, I could not help but hear this man shout at his agent, “You tell Jian Ghomeshi that I’ll never do another interview with him. And tell Peter Mansbridge that next time he needs to show me more respect.” As I tried to engage the passenger beside me in polite conversation, it sounded like the agent at the other end of the phone was attempting, in vain, to soothe the man. Finally, the celebrity screamed into the phone, “You don’t understand. I am the centre of the universe!”

The passengers around me were speechless except for the woman beside me, who rolled her eyes, leaned over and said to me, “Somebody needs to save this guy from himself!”

In short, Jesus saves us from ourselves and from the numerous and intoxicating small-g gods of this culture. Jesus saves us from a too-small vision of this world and our place in it. Jesus, with deep love, whispers, “You are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth, the kingdom of God has drawn near.” It’s no wonder that theologian Karl Barth once said, “Don’t be afraid of the wrath of God; be afraid of the love of God. For once God’s love has found you, you will never be the same again.” In the end, it’s that deep and abiding love of Christ that saves us as disciples for the gospel mission of blessing and mending God’s broken and beloved world.

Rev. Ross Lockhart is lead minister at West Vancouver United.


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