Sunday, December 18, 2016

How is Jesus Christ the Savior? How does he save?

This time of the year, many of us sing or speak of the birth of Jesus Christ the savior. O Holy Night begins with these lines:
O holy night,
    the stars are brightly shining.
It is the night
    of the dear Savior’s birth.
One verse of Silent Night has a verse which ends: “Christ the Savior is born; / Christ the Savior is born. ”

Even a television show, A Charlie Brown Christmas, broadcast annually for the past half-century, includes an excerpt from Luke’s gospel:

8And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
So what do we mean when we speak or sing of Christ the Savio(u)r?

Thirty or even twenty years ago I probably would have spouted some evangelical jargon about what happens after you die, the summary being that because of Jesus, your eternal soul’s prospects can be good rather than bad.

Today I think I’d begin instead by talking about life here and now, because that’s what Jesus spoke mostly about. The short version would be that by following him, I can live a fruitful, meaningful life and become a good (well, better anyway) person. After explaining a bit more about that, if by then you don’t think I’m a total whack job, I might mention the hope that I can be with him in the world to come.

I might begin like this. You can read a lot these days about paths to success. Recent articles on Linkedin and in print media describe ways to appear more competent or intelligent. The power of such suggestions comes from the nagging doubts we have: Am I really okay? If I do these things that make other people think I’m competent and intelligent, maybe that will quell my own fears.

Such doubts also energize advertisements: maybe I can feel better about myself if I have these gadgets or clothes or this car, or if I live in this neighborhood. And maybe I can overcome my doubts about parenting if my kids get these grades or go to these schools.

These doubts, these insecurities, can poison my life and my relationships. Maybe I’ll pressure my kids to go to absurd lengths in pursuit of some name-brand school; maybe I’ll try to enhance my self-esteem by taking on a mortgage I can’t afford, or spend so much on cars or clothes or gadgets that my family faces constant financial stress.

About those kids: maybe they’ll rebel against the pressure; maybe they’ll crack; maybe they’ll buy into my anxieties and make them their own. So that when they’re at that name-brand school—or even if they aren’t—they’ll contantly wonder, “Am I okay, really? Am I good enough?” That way my destructive legacy can live on—not a happy prospect.

What I’ve described is a kind of life that we need saving from, and by “we” I mean people like you and me. So how can that happen? How can you and I escape the pressure brought about by our doubts and insecurities?

The promise of salvation in Jesus Christ begins, for me at least, with the knowledge that I’m forgiven. Consider that famous verse from John’s gospel, “God loved the world so much that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). I’ll write more about eternal life in a bit; let’s consider the word “perish.”

When I think about “perish,” the image that comes to mind is an overripe banana. Now that’s perishable! In a way, all of us are perishable in the way that a banana is; one day, you and I and everyone we know will get to room temperature, and unless our bodies are burned or something, they will all rot.

There’s a picture, then, of a useless life: we live, we accumulate possessions, we become room temperature, and our bodies are burned or buried. That’s “perish.”

About “believe”: What does it mean to believe in God’s Son? What must we believe when we “believe in” him? Among many things said of Jesus in the gospels, the claim that he takes away sins is pretty important. In John 1:29, John the Baptist refers to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” I’ve written about this elsewhere (also here) but the short version is that unless we believe his promise enough to act on it, then it won’t have much of an effect on our lives.

In other words, it’s not magical in the sense that if I say some special phrase, the gods are compelled to do something; it’s more like if I’m hanging off a cliff by my fingernails and someone dangles a rope in front of me, the rope won’t do me any good unless I believe in it enough to grab it. The promise of forgiveness in Jesus doesn’t do me any good if I’m trying to find redemption through buying a bigger house or more toys, or by pressuring my kids to get better grades to get into a better school, or by looking smarter or more competent. I’ve got to accept forgiveness and stop my frantic pursuit of the false promise of so-called “success,” or I’ll continue to poison my life and relationships…

OK, now about eternal life. I don’t quite understand what form our immortal souls take, or what the world to come is about, but the New Testament authors make quite a big deal about it—almost as big a deal as modern evangelicals do!

All kidding aside, though, something I think of is the promise from 2 Peter 1, which talks about adding knowledge and other virtues to our faith; in verse 8 he writes “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will render you neither useless nor unfruitful…” Let me invert that and say that we can be fruitful and useful with the qualities he mentions: faith, knowledge, goodness, brotherly kindness and so on. The point I want to make, though, aside from those qualities, is the goal of all that, viz., to have a fruitful, useful life.

If my life is fruitful and useful, then the effects will remain after I’ve left this earth. Which may not be eternal life exactly, but would, I hope, be better than having a life whose effects all perish with my corpse.

And that in the end is what I want to be saved from: a life that ends when the undertaker’s bill is paid off. And that’s what Jesus saves me from: by assuring me that my sins are forgiven, he makes it possible for me to become something useful, rather than the alternative of poisoning everything in a wrong-headed attempt to escape my demons.

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