I grew up in a wing of Christendom that asked one question at the close of every worship service, and most every Sunday School class, and usually on youth hayrides: “Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” It is a good question perhaps too often neglected by the progressive wing of the church. So, let me ask you: who has spiritual authority in your life? What do you venerate? What do you worship? Thomas Merton wrote that “to worship nothing is (to be stuck) in Hell.” (New Seeds of Contemplation) What sparks awe? What lifts up your vision higher and overrules your first impulse? Is Jesus your Lord, your Savior, Source, Template, and Measuring Stick?
Perhaps progressives shy away from images of “Jesus as Lord” because others anchor their theology of salvation in judgment, fear, or Hell. Now “Hell” or “Gehenna” in Greek or “Ben-hinnom” in Hebrew was a valley to the southwest of Jerusalem. It was haunted by the memory of the Topheth to Molech- an angry god that demanded unspeakable offerings on a fiery altar. (2 Kings 17:17, 23:10; Jeremiah 7, 19) “Gehenna”, or Hell, like other sites of unspeakable human cruelty, lingered with a shocked sadness that time alone did not wash away. As to Scripture, Jesus mentions Hell three times. “I say to you that everyone who lashes out with fiery words will be in danger of a fiery hell. If your right eye or right hand causes you to slip into sin, throw them away. It’s better to lose an eye than wind up in hell. (Matt. 5, 18) Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t touch your soul. Only fear the one who can destroy your soul in hell.” (Matt. 10) How terrible it will be for you, Bible experts, preachers and hypocrites! You travel over sea and land to make a single convert, but when they’ve been converted, you make them twice the child of hell you are. (Ouch!) Look, I’m sending you folks prophets, wise people, and legal experts. Some of them you will crucify. And some you will run out of town. How then will you guys be able to escape the judgment of hell? (Matt. 23) How do we understand Hell? Thomas Merton ruminated, “Hell is where nobody has anything in common with anybody else except for hate.” (New Seeds) The Apostle Paul said “that nothing remains but Faith, Hope and Love!” ( 1 Corinthians 13) How can Hell endure when nothing remains but Love?
If we cast the Cross as a punishment for sins, we may trade away God’s Love for icons of anger and judgment. John 3:16 tells us that God loves the world, and did not come to judge the world, but to save it. 1 John reminds us that God is love, and that perfect love casts out all fear, because fear has to do with punishment. (1 John 3-4) Could it be that Jesus saves us from the spiritual death of sinfulness, hatefulness, brokenness, and loneliness?
Pulling our pop-up camper home from Maine one summer, my middle school boys wrestled with Confirmation’s Baptismal question: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in Christ’s grace, and promise to serve Jesus as your Lord?” As we chatted, the intellectual formulas quickly fell away. I wept trying to explain the incarnational mystery of “Christ in us.” (Romans 8) Everyday, Jesus is saving me. Jesus is the model, template, and measuring stick of my life. (Matthew 5-7) But not just that, Christ is a deep fountain of “Living Water” renewing my dehydrated soul. (John 4) Decades ago, Jesus saved me from soul-crushing self-doubt ground into my 4th grade soul by the taunts of playground bullies. Every day, Jesus’ words on forgiveness liberate me from the bitter bile of unforgiveness. Beginning in college, Christ’s radical love broke the yoke of my literalism freeing me from the spiritual death-trap that is judging others. Over the years, I saw how Jesus saved and restored my dad from the buried traumas of emotional and physical abuse he endured as a child. I know Jesus saves because my dad broke the cycle of abuse. When my grandfather died, my brother handed a note to our dad; it read: “Dad, I can never be the father that you have been to me, for out of nothing you gave us love, and I will always give to my children from the love you gave to us.” A creed alone cannot hold such incarnational salvation.
We must be born again into love, to be born anew into forgiveness, to be born again into justice. God’s grace does not save us one time but 1 million times. Made in the very image of God, we are reborn back into that beloved image! We are saved to know our sacred worth and our true identity as God’s beloved children. We are saved from the false names the world slaps on us. God’s very Spirit daily save us from immorality, lustfulness, corruption, hedonism, idolatry, drug and alcohol abuse, magical thinking, hate, fighting, obsessing, raging, competitive opposition, quarrelling, selfishness, tribalism, greed, jealousy, escapism, and stuff like that! Are we being born again into love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? (Galatians 5) Love’s sanctification power saves us a million times.
I wish making Jesus “my Lord, Love, Measuring Stick, and Savior” was as easy as uttering a magic formula. Jesus tells us that our salvation moves through the cross. Seeing the looming cross, Jesus mourns, “Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time?’ No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. Father, glorify your name!” How often do we pray a prayer that Jesus toys with but ultimately rejects? How often do we pray for personal deliverance, instead of asking God to use us to build God’s kin-dom right here, right now, on earth as in heaven? Lord, save me from this trial; Lord, free my people from harm; Jesus, deliver me from them; God, help me get ahead. Jesus debates, “Should I say? ‘God, save me from this time?’ No, for this is the reason I have come to this time. Creator, glorify your name!” Seeing religious and political opponents working in an evil system, Jesus prays: “Lord, this is the reason I have come to this moment! Not my will, but your will be done.” Not self-interest but God’s Kin-dom come!
In the Garden Jesus prayed, “My soul is overwhelmed with grief, stay near me, for I am deeply troubled.” It is okay to be spiritually troubled, overwhelmed, and to seek comfort from others and God. But as we ponder this pandemic, consider our opponents, or see systemic injustice, will we pray like Jesus? What should we pray? Jesus, save me from this moment, this system, or this circumstance? “No, for this is the reason we have come to this time. Jesus, glorify your name!” The Cross calls us into the hard work of the kin-dom, resisting evil, injustice, and oppression.
What does this glory, Jesus describes, look like? How does God save us? How does Easter come about? “Very, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me.” Our prayers must move beyond self-interest: “Lord, save me” and become kin-dom centric: “Here I am, Lord, send me.” (Isaiah 6) Less “Lord, save our church” and more “Christ, your kin-dom come”? Less “God, bless America” and more “God, use me to help heal our world”. Less “Lord, get me out of here!” and more “Lord, empower me to bring your kin-dom to earth?”
But Hear the Good News, our self-emptying grows Christ’s kindom. Whenever we plant the seeds of God’s kin-dom love sprouts up. God’s love can be born again in us 7 million times. Even when it seems love is defeated, crucified, and buried, somehow love mysteriously springs up around us. On abandoned hillsides all over rural Tennessee and Kentucky, pink, purple, and yellow flowers spring up where old houses and even churches once stood. Those dry brown bulbs prove to be a more enduring investment than houses or cars. Each year, they spring up to dance Easter’s song. First one, then 3, then 7, then 50, and then 100 fold. Love is like that. Love saves us, not once, but a million times. So even when we are troubled-overwhelmed, let us pray: “Lord, this is Your moment. Here, I am Jesus, send me- Your Kindom come on earth as in heaven.” Amen.