Last Sunday, I had intended to begin a sermon series on the characteristics of good relationships, but we were rudely interrupted by an insurrectionist mob, which could not be ignored. Nevertheless I will not be deterred from my duty, so will pick up where we left off. You’ll remember that two Sundays ago we listened to a Ted Talk from the Harvard professor and psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the Study of Adult Development, a research project now in its 83rd year. Dr. Waldinger spoke on the question, “What makes a good life?.” Many people believe money and fame and working harder are the keys to a good life, but the Study of Adult Development said that isn’t the case. They discovered the secret to a good life was good relationships. Good relationships equal good lives.
Before Covid, I was flying into a city, looking out the window at the houses and streets, and noticed a church had shingled their roof with the words Jesus Saves!, apparently hoping for some mid-air conversions just as people were experiencing turbulence. I thought about that all the way to the ground and have been thinking about it from time to time ever since. Jesus saves. When I was in seminary, someone, a Methodist I suppose, wrote in the men’s bathroom, “Jesus Saves, But Don’t Push It.”
I’m sure you’ve seen that phrase on church signs, bumper stickers, and maybe even on that same roof. Last week, we saw it signs at the Capitol Building insurrection. Jesus Saves. There they were.
Jesus Saves is one of those sentiments Christians think they have to believe in order to be Christian.
But what does it mean when someone says, “Jesus saves.”? What do they mean by that?
Traditionally, it has meant you and I, because of our sins, were destined for hell. But that Jesus, God’s only son, who was without sin, took our sins upon himself and died on our behalf as a blood sacrifice, enabling God to forgive our sins and welcome us into heaven, which God will do if we repent of our sins and accept Jesus’s sacrifice. It’s fair to say that’s what many Christians mean when they say Jesus Saves.
But if you’re under the impression that Jesus and his disciples traveled throughout Galilee teaching this, you would be mistaken. No archeologist has ever found the Greek equivalent of Jesus Saves! written in the ruins of first-century Palestine. It was a doctrine centuries in the making, and indeed is still being reflected upon and shaped 2,000 years after the life of Jesus. It is not, I repeat, is not, something that must be believed in order to call one’s self a Christian, even though some Christians would have you believe that to be the case. In fact, this doctrine was thoroughly rejected by early Quakers, who believed we weren’t born with original sin, but with Inward Light.
But let’s go back further in time, all the way back to the early church. Two things were happening in the early church simultaneously. First, stories were circulating about Jesus, stories attributed to certain of his followers. Stories of healing, stories of teachings, stories of wisdom sayings and compassion. The people who heard those stories were drawn to them, just as you and I are drawn to them. They were powerful, compelling stories so consequently were written down and remembered and told over and over again whenever and wherever people gathered to talk about Jesus. They eventually became the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as other gospels that never made it into the Biblical canon.
Secondly, as people gathered, they formed communities whose central focus was the stories and teachings of Jesus. In the book of Acts, the author described these gatherings, which included the sharing of meals, the telling of Jesus stories, selfless generosity, mutual encouragement and support, resulting in a deep sense of belonging, companionship, and joy. Indeed, these gatherings became so meaningful and important to the participants they began meeting regularly, apart from their attendance at the synagogue, since many of these first participants were also Jewish. Because humans seek structure and meaning and order, these gatherings eventually evolved into the church.
But as I said, two things were happening simultaneously. As the people were learning about Jesus, they were also experiencing deep community and relationships. They were discovering what Robert Waldinger described in the Study of Adult Development, that the secret to happy lives were happy relationships. So were they being saved by Jesus, or were they being saved by happy relationships? I believe, and this isn’t to diminish Jesus, but I believe the relationships they developed were every bit as transformative, enriching, and life-giving as the things they were learning about Jesus, so in time it was natural to conflate the two.
So are we saved by Jesus, or are we saved by relationships? Both. We are saved by relationships, saved by our connections with and dependence upon one another. But as Christians, we believe the priorities and values of Jesus are the ideal priorities and values for healthy communities. What are those priorities and values—compassion for the least of these, healing, dignity, courage, integrity, and the grace of God. Ironically, the people holding the Jesus Saves! signs at least week’s riot were contradicting every priority and value of Jesus—supporting the dictatorial power of the richest and most privileged president in American history, ignoring his lies, while chanting for the death of those with whom they disagreed. They were no more on the side of Jesus than Hitler was on the side of Jews.
What troubled us so much last week was not just the unprecedented attack on our constitutional democracy, but the thorough rejection of American community, one segment of our American family waging war against another. It was a complete and utter repudiation of good relationship and healthy community. That’s why this sermon series is relevant. We’re going to consider together the characteristics of good relationships, not just our marital and family relationships, but our collective and community relationships, because they are all of the same thread. When the thread of harmony is pulled from the cloth, the fabric of community unravels. So in the next few months we’ll be learning how best to be knitted together, weaving for ourselves and those who follow us a garment of well-being.