Jesus Saves
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 14, 1997

 

Readings:

Deuteronomy 31:30-32:14 The Song of Moses (in part)
Matthew 1:18-21 He will save his people from their sins
The Heavenly City #293, 294 The Lord came to save the human race

You are to call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21)

Jesus saves! How many times have we heard and seen this? It pops up on billboards and bumper stickers. It is regular fare on televangelists' programs. And I suspect most of us could fill a good sized basket with the tracts that have come our way proclaiming the message that Jesus saves.

In our church, we tend to shy away from this kind of language. It is usually associated with a type of Christian belief that runs against the grain for us. It goes with a brand of Christianity which teaches that only those who believe in the name of Jesus Christ in a very literal way are saved . . . and that those who do not so believe are damned to an equally literal hellfire. As followers of a renewed Christianity, we cannot accept teachings that exclude other flocks and nations from the saving power of the Lord. We see God's mercy over all people, whether or not they are Christian. We see God working in many ways, through many religions, to reach out to people of all different cultures.

Still, the slogan "Jesus saves" did not come from nowhere. Our reading from Matthew says that the reason Mary's baby was to be given the name "Jesus" was that he would save his people from their sins. The name "Jesus" in the Greek of the New Testament comes from the Hebrew name "Joshua." Both mean "salvation." And there are passages in the New Testament say quite clearly that those who believe in Jesus are saved, while those who do not are condemned. We usually think of the Gospel of John as the most philosophical and spiritual of the Gospels. Yet in John 3:18, we find words that sound anything but philosophical and spiritual:

Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Doesn't that clinch the argument for the "Jesus saves" people? I think not. For we must read this in its context. John goes on to say,

And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:19-21)

This certainly is in the philosophical spirit of John's Gospel--and we need to read the previous verse in the same spirit. John's main concern is not whether people literally believe in Jesus or not. His concern is with those who reject the light of truth that Jesus brought to us. He points out that those who wish to live in an evil way will reject that light of truth because it shows that their actions are wrong.

When it comes to Christians (as compared to people of other religions), Swedenborg agrees with John quite literally. He says in True Christian Religion #107: "From this time onward, no one from Christianity can come into heaven without believing in the Lord God the Savior, and approaching him alone." This should not be too difficult to swallow. After all, why would people call themselves Christian if they did not believe in Christ as Lord and savior? For a Christian to reject Christ would be to reject their religion. If this is a move toward joining another religion, Swedenborg's statement no longer applies, since that person is no longer Christian. But if the rejection of Christ means that that person does not want religion interfering with wrong ways of living, then the person has indeed become condemned--not by God, but by him- or herself.

When it comes to non-Christians, though, Swedenborg has this to say, in the same number from True Christian Religion:

But people who do not know anything about the Lord [Jesus Christ], . . . if they believe in one God, and live in accordance with the commandments of their own religion, are saved by their faith and their life. Sin is charged to people who know, not to people who are unaware. (True Christian Religion #107)

This is also in the spirit of John's statements. For people who are not Christians, believing or not believing in Christ has little to do with accepting or rejecting the light of truth. People of other faiths see the light of truth in their own religions--and in our church we believe the Lord has provided that the religion of every culture has the basic truths people need in order to be saved. If people of other faiths accept and live according to the truth as they find it in their faith, how can they be accused of hating the light because they do not want their evil deeds exposed?

We would have to reject the rest of what John says in order to keep to a literal interpretation of his earlier statement that people must believe in the Son of God in order to be saved. That would mean pitting one part of the Bible against another. However, there is no contradiction if we read John from a more spiritual perspective. If we read him as saying that those who believe in the message of Jesus are saved, while those who reject it are condemned, then everything he says fits together beautifully.

Jesus stated the essence of his message very clearly. When a religious lawyer asked him, "Which commandment in the Law is greatest?" Jesus replied,

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.." (Matt. 22:37-40)

The religion of every culture teaches these two principles in one way or another. Every major religion places God at the center of the universe, and teaches that God should be at the center of our lives. All of them teach that we should love and care for other people. Anyone of any religion who believes and lives by these commandments is believing in the name of Jesus, because he or she is believing in the spiritual teachings that the name of Jesus represents. But anyone of any religion who rejects these commandments is rejecting religion and spiritual life, and causing his or her own spiritual destruction.

We will return to the question of how Jesus saves us personally. But I would like to briefly mention one way in which Jesus did personally save the entire human race from spiritual destruction. This teaching, I believe, is unique to our church. It was the subject of our reading from Swedenborg, and I would like to repeat part of that reading:

The Lord came into the world to save the human race, which otherwise would have died a death that lasts forever. He saved us by getting hell under control, since hell was attacking every person who came into and left the world. At the same time, by doing this he made his human side divine. So now he can keep hell under control forever. (The Heavenly City #293)

Swedenborg tells us that at the time of the Lord's coming, the world was at its lowest ebb spiritually. So many people had turned their backs on God and religion that the spiritual world was getting clogged with evil spirits who were blocking out the flow of God's warmth and love to people on earth. Basically, the evil spirits were polluting the spiritual atmosphere in very much the same way the early coal-burning factories and fireplaces produced a thick black smoke that darkened city skies on still winter days.

Throughout his life on earth, Jesus struggled against those evil spirits on a spiritual level at the same time he outwardly struggled with the religious authorities of his day who were blocking the light of truth from reaching the common people. By continually winning those struggles, he cleared away the spiritual pollution that had built up, so that the light of his love and truth could once again shine on us unhindered. We all now have access to that love and light if we will make the choice to look toward it and follow it.

Now, all of this has been just a little bit philosophical and theoretical. But the way we as human beings feel the saving power of Jesus Christ is anything but theoretical. The words of the Gospel have power, not because of any logical sense they may make if interpreted in the "correct" manner; they have power because they speak of spiritual realities that can and do reach out to us and save us from very real and personal hells. They speak of our Lord Jesus loving us and caring for us enough to come and pull us out of pits of depression, despair, and destructive living that would otherwise overwhelm us.

Yesterday as I was driving down the highway, I flipped on the radio to catch up on the news. At that moment, a man was giving a tribute to Mother Theresa. He was a doctor who treated many patients in the same kinds of desperate conditions as the people that Mother Theresa and her Sisters of Charity cared for every day. The man spoke movingly of how he would see Mother Theresa among these poor, destitute, and diseased people, and she would have a look of joy on her face. He envied her and the Sisters the deep and abiding faith that could keep joy in their hearts as they cared for these broken human beings day after day, week after week, year after year--while doctors and nurses who lack that kind of faith burn out on such seemingly hopeless work in a much shorter time.

This is the saving power of Jesus on a very personal and human level. It is a power that does not exist in any merely human endeavor such as science or medicine--no matter how much good they may do on their own level. It is the power to take the broken insides of a human being--our broken spirits--and turn that brokenness into joy and peace. Millions of people have felt the power of Jesus Christ saving them in that spiritual and emotional way. I am sure many of us here in this church today have stories we could tell of how the Lord lifted us up out of situations that would have otherwise been too much for us to bear, and how the Lord continues to sustain us through trials and struggles that would otherwise have long since overwhelmed us.

Yes, Jesus does save. But the salvation of Jesus is not simply a verbal thing. It is not simply a matter of saying, "I believe," and being saved from all of our sins. It is a matter of believing, not just with our head, but with our heart and with our gut. It is a matter of allowing the Lord to flow into our lives--to take over our lives--with the saving power of his passionate love for us, and of his brilliant, guiding wisdom. It is a matter of turning our entire lives over to that love and wisdom; turning over both our best and our worst parts; turning over our greatest joys and our deepest sorrows.

To adapt words from the Song of Moses:

The Lord sustains us in a desert land,
In a howling wilderness waste;
He shields us, cares for us,
Guards us as the apple of his eye.
As an eagle stirs up its nest,
And hovers over its young;
As it spreads its wings, takes them up,
And bears them aloft on its pinions,
The Lord alone guides us.

 

 

Music: Tears of Gold
1999 Bruce DeBoer