‘Jesus Saves’ the sign read, illuminated in the night by neon lights, appropriately framed by an outline of a cross. I saw this sign each time I took the evening #6 bus back home through the South Loop from downtown Chicago to my apartment back in Hyde Park on the South Side.
‘Jesus saves; what does that really mean?’ I’d think to myself each time the bus passed. Now, I knew what the sign was getting at. Actually, I knew all about this idea of Jesus saving me from my sins by the time I was a teenager, and I first received the ‘Power for Living’ book that arrived in the mail back in Cleveland, Ohio; all you had to do was call this number that was provided on TV, and someone would send you this free book! It talked about the joy of being saved by Jesus, and the opposite consequence for those preferring not to be saved by Jesus—let’s not go there.
The stakes for such a decision were further communicated as my friends and I went to a local youth group gathering to enjoy some cool-looking college students who were special guest speakers. After giving their testimony of how God saved their lives, the doors were closed behind us in the gym by the adult chaperones, and then all of us were asked a simple question: “Are you ready and willing to allow Jesus into your hearts, to make him your Lord and Savior, and to go to heaven?” To be honest, I was thinking more about the free pizza they promised.
I also remember my first experience with a street preacher. He set up shop just outside the student center at the College of Wooster where I was a student. He spoke loudly from a megaphone, yelling really, about the evils of living in sin by having sex outside of marriage or being homosexual (whichever you preferred to identify with), and how there is one way to save us college students from eternal damnation: say the sinner’s prayer and accept Jesus into your life so that he can save us from our sinful ways. I don’t remember whether or not he actually had an actual milk crate or soap box to stand on or not.
Just about everywhere I turned I remember seeing messages about Jesus saving—maybe that was just a product of growing up in the Midwest. Billboards, bumper stickers, even signs in the crowds during football games—Jesus Saves!
All of these memories kept returning to me each and every time… I saw that neon cross-shaped sign that read ‘Jesus Saves’ on the side of a church in Chicago, illuminating the night with neon lights.
All of these memories kept returning to me… as my eyes were then drawn to the homeless men and women who sat on the sidewalks in the cold, dark, winter nights in Chicago, just below that neon sign.
All of these memories… kept me wondering just how much saving was actually going on by Jesus, whom everyone kept talking about, yet the world still seemed to be going to hell, even with all of these amazing examples of Christian living that I kept coming across, offering salvation.
Is this what Jesus is all about? Is this what Christianity is all about? How do we who identify as Christians sleep at night knowing that time and time again, we offer heaven to those who trust in Christ, and time and time again, there are millions of individuals who live in hell each and every day? If this is what being a Christian was all about, then honestly, I wanted nothing to do with it.
Part of me wants to blame John, the author of our text today. Every time I came across one of these books, or speakers, or signs talking about salvation, they always seemed to reference this passage: John 3:16.
Who was John anyways, and why did he seem to have the corner on the salvation market? John seemed to be pretty clear; either you are living in the dark or the light. You are heading towards condemnation or salvation. You are focusing on earthly things, or eternal things.
We hear this in today’s reading as well:
18Those 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.
19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.”
Like I thought and heard time and time again, either you are in, or you’re out.
This way of thinking, when things are black or white, in or out, saved or condemned, real or fake, this way of thinking is called dualism. In fact, many within Christianity think this way about daily life, and many think this way about faith. Things are either good or bad, we are believers or skeptics, things are black or white. There is no room, or need, for ‘gray’ in this world.
But if we keep on reading in John, if we keep on reading about Jesus, we begin to hear another side to things:
14“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (reference to the Exodus story), so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Well, maybe there is something more to John after all. Maybe the message of Jesus is not as black and white as we first imagined. And if we look further into the Gospel, like the beginning of this very chapter, we have Jesus speaking about salvation and God in different, even mysterious, ways. A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness of the night and asks Jesus how to attain salvation in this world. Jesus responds with a message of salvation in the Spirit; of being ‘born from above’. In the next chapter Jesus will confront a woman at the well. And while she is concentrating on the need for physical water to sustain our lives here on earth, Jesus will share with her a message of grace and mercy in the living waters of God’s presence.
It seems that salvation is not such a black and white issue after all! Jesus spoke to these characters about salvation in such life-giving ways, that they were able to meet Jesus, to experience him, on their turf, with their daily realities, and questions, and doubts, and they were able to embrace God’s saving love in a way that made sense to them. Salvation, it seems, does not have to be defined by the guy with the megaphone on the street corner, or the preacher in the pulpit, or even us good Christians here at church on Sunday mornings. In fact, salvation has a way of coming from the most unexpected places, liberating individuals to live grace-filled lives; not to condemn them to shame and guilt, but to offer new life.
Maybe that’s how we can understand salvation today: God reaches out to us and frees us to live our best lives today and for eternity. In fact, perhaps salvation is not only a heavenly issue, but salvation can be realized here, today, on this earth as well; right here in our daily lives. Salvation can be a daily occurrence!
I would like for us to think about these three ideas on salvation:
- The life and ministry of Jesus reminds us time and time again of the mysterious nature of salvation—it is not a black or white issue; it is a Spirit
- The life of Jesus also reminds us that salvation is a present concern just as it is a future concern. When we talk about salvation, we talk about daily salvation as we also talk about eternal salvation.
- Our salvation is eternally bound with the salvation of others—not only our sisters and brothers in Christ, but the rest of Creation.
Jesus would have no part of this dualistic thinking. For him, God’s kingdom was here now, as it was being realized each and every day. We are called to proclaim, but more importantly, to live into God’s Beloved Community being realized today! God’s salvation reaches further than we can ever imagine!
I wish someone told me that as a teenager. I regret that there are many who grew up hearing such messages of an ‘either/or’ approach to Christianity; you’re either in, or you’re out. Many grew up only to reject the idea of such dualistic thinking, and along with it this idea of salvation and Christianity all together.
But we have a message to share with the world today. It is not for us to determine the rules of who is in and who is out of heaven. In fact, God moves in most amazing ways to save us each and every day—this is a God thing!
May we live with such good news to share each and every day. May we awake from beds with such good news awaiting us, and a joy to be able to share such news with those whom we encounter. Today, tomorrow, and every day in eternity God offers us salvation in Christ Jesus. May we carry this message to the cross this season of Lent: Jesus Saves!