Author’s Note

Rather than follow the lectionary this Lenten season, I am working with the six ways that Diane Butler Bass (in her book, Freeing Jesus) describes relating to Jesus. There are countless more than six, of course, but I thought hers provided some wonderful food for reflection.


Each week during Lent, we have been answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am.” Last week we said, Teacher. The week before, Friend. Today we are exploring what we mean when we answer, Savior.

Here’s something I find most interesting, given how frequently the church calls Jesus, Savior. The gospel writers rarely do. Only twice, actually.

We heard the woman at the well call Jesus, Savior. That’s one time. The other is the Christmas story. “Do not be afraid,” the Lord’s angel sings to Bethlehem shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…”

When it comes to referring to Jesus as Savior, the gospel writers hold back. What gives?

To my mind, these men were doing what good writers of every age do: they chose showing over telling. They opted to describe Jesus being the Savior rather than repeatedly declaring this sacred identity.

In scene after scene, verse after verse, the gospel writers hid Jesus the Savior in plain sight. They told us who Jesus saved, how he saved these people, and why he saved them.

All before the cross. All while he was on the ground, moving among his people.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus saved those around him from struggles and unjust realities in this world. In contrast, the Jesus whom the epistle writers celebrated as Savior saves ultimately, eternally. Have a listen to two examples:

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.” (2 Peter 3:18)

The Jesus of the four gospels grasps that we need saving here and now. Not just eventually. Our lesson today highlights this in-the-moment need.

So does Jesus’ nighttime conversation with the learned Pharisee Nicodemus, who, despite his credentials, had urgent spiritual questions.

Jesus the Savior ministers to disciples terrified and overwhelmed in the midst of a turbulent storm.

Another story to consider is Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery. Religious leaders were set to stone her as a punishment for a sin she may or may not have committed.

Jesus saved this woman. And in a number of ways. First, he came to her aid when no one else would or could. That’s saving. Then Jesus stood in solidarity with her. That, too, was saving. Refusing to side with her accusers, Jesus saved her again. And finally, Jesus sent the woman on her way without a sliver of condemnation. If each of these actions and all of them together aren’t saving, I don’t know what is.

The Jesus of the gospels Jesus saves again and again within this life. In the epistles, the saving Jesus does is ultimate.

We don’t need to choose one kind of saving over the other. Both ways of experiencing salvation, both ways of encountering Jesus the Savior can and do bring help, comfort, and peace.

Here’s a sad irony that I see, not in the gospels but in life: not always do the saved feel saved. They can fear that their salvation is in some way flawed or insufficient. And they can project those fears onto others.

Recently an internet stranger private messaged me through an online game we had just begun playing. “Can I ask you a question,” they began five minutes into our word game. “Are you 100 percent certain you are saved?”

“Yes,” I typed immediately.

“But how can you be sure? How do you know you won’t actually wind up in eternal torment?”

“I’ve been an ordained minister for 25 years. I’m good,” I replied.

“Fair enough. But many will be the preachers who will be judged to have preached a false gospel. Hell will be their reward. How can you be sure you’re truly saved and will be with Jesus in heaven forever?”

That’s when I moved on. But this unlikely exchange sure got me thinking.

Jesus’ most consistent message was, “Do not be afraid.” Do we really need to spend our days afraid (or making others afraid) that we aren’t saved or saved enough?

Ian Wrisley, the pastor of our sister church in Gunnison, recently told me that years ago, his theologically-minded young daughter came to him with a serious question. “Daddy, why do people ask each other if they have accepted Jesus when the whole point is that Jesus accepts us? Maybe we should be asking people if they have accepted that they’re accepted.”

Here’s the thing about accepting Jesus as our Savior. Although Christians in our culture have made salvation a private matter, our salvation is bound up with our neighbor’s salvation. Any self-respecting Jew understood this without even having to be told. Jesus included.

Here’s a ponder-worthy question to go along with the one Ian’s daughter asked. From what, exactly, does Jesus seek to save us?

American Christianity would say sin. American Christians are preoccupied with it—just ask our LGBTQ siblings.

On a personal level, this fixation always perplexed me because I just couldn’t relate. Sure, I sinned. But that wasn’t my main issue. Was I so sinful that I refused to admit my sinfulness?

No. Marcus Borg changed everything for me when he said quite plainly: sin is not everyone’s burden, not everyone’s principal place of suffering or separation from God.

Yes, we sin. But no, this is not what keeps some of us awake at night. Our sinfulness is not what we pray Jesus might save us from.

What saves a sinner is forgiveness. But forgiveness doesn’t do a thing for someone whose principal struggle is that they feel exiled. Forgiveness for a person in exile is like giving a rubber band to someone who’s starving. The exile doesn’t need forgiveness; he or she needs a holy homecoming.

But just as not everyone relates to being sinful, not everyone relates to being in exile. And Borg is helpful here too. For some, he noted, the burden is slavery; it’s the exodus experience. And here, what is saving isn’t forgiveness or homecoming; it’s true and lasting liberation.

In our culture, sin has largely been regarded as a personal matter—which is why it’s hard for us to see the sins of our systems. It’s much easier to see how whole groups of people have suffered exile or exodus and found Jesus’ message and presence saving.

The Jesus who has been busy within the LGBTQIA community has, again and again, saved them from exile right here on earth. He has saved them from the soul-crushing agony of having to live as they are not. As I’ve said, for exiles, Jesus’ salvation feels like a homecoming.

For those living out a modern version of the exodus story, salvation looks like liberation from the enslavement and dehumanization meted out by the Pharaohs of this world.

Oppressed communities haven’t sinned but have been sinned against. Their Jesus saves them because he sees their enslavement, literal or otherwise, and brings liberation.

This same Jesus is also the Savior of American service workers, non-union employees, and younger generations. This Jesus says, “This economy is crushing you. It’s killing your hope, your vision of the future, your sense of worthiness. Come, find your hope and help in me, in the vision I hold out for a realm laced through with love and justice. Come, meet my friends; they are laboring on your behalf to bring the kind of justice that can set you free.”

Is Jesus our Savior? Maybe there are more faithful questions to ask. How does Jesus save us? From what does he save us? For what greater purpose does Jesus save us?

As I tried to make clear earlier, the Jesus of the gospels has a concern that the Jesus of the epistle writers and thousands of years of tradition are less interested in.

The Jesus we encounter in the four gospels places a high priority on saving others here and now. The salvation that the Jesus of the gospels brings is restorative; that is, it seeks to make people and communities whole again—here and now, not simply in the hereafter.

The salvation that the Jesus of the gospels brings is a salve, a balm, a source of healing and health. Salve and salvation, after all, come from the same root word.

And they’re not far removed from shalom, which is the deeply, decidedly Jewish sense that peace and wellness are inextricably bound, and cannot be dispensed one person at a time but rather flow into and restore whole communities, even nations, and indeed the world. To be saved is to be made safe from all that would hurt or harm.

When Jesus is Savior, how does he save? From what? And for what greater purpose?

Sit with these questions until the answers start to sound more like Love and less like anxiety. More like the Spirit and less like that online guy. Sit until your answer elicits waves of peace, not shivers of fear.

I don’t know about you, but Jesus saves me from this culture’s prison of individualism. From an unhealthy, unhelpful preoccupation with sin. From fears or preoccupations about the next life. Jesus saves me from a life without purpose or meaningful relationships with others. Jesus saves me into this life, into love for creation and every creature, great and small.

Jesus even saves me from the ways western Christianity has so grossly misunderstood him and freed me to encounter him as the Savior he really is, not the one you and I have been pressed, even oppressed, to proclaim.

What about you? How does Jesus save you? Save us? From what? For what? And for what greater purpose?

Let us pray:

Jesus, in you, we find our lives.

Through the stories of your love made real in the gospels, save us. Through the witness of the early epistle writers and the earliest Christian communities, save us. Through the words of scripture that come when we seek them and especially when we do not, save us. Through reason as well as relationship, save us.

Whenever we are lost or lonely, frightened or overcome, find us and save us. Not merely as individuals but as neighborhoods, nations, and even as a global community.

Jesus, you promised in John’s gospel that you would never leave us orphaned. You speak to us through Paul’s letter to the faithful in Rome, saying that nothing, nothing, nothing can or will separate us from the love we find in you.

For these saving promises and for all the times you have saved us, we are grateful. Keep saving us, we pray. Amen.