When I was in high school, I remember a Sunday School teacher telling us about life as a Christian.
“It’s simple,” he said, “but it’s not easy.”
Turns out that Christianity is not simple. Turns out that right thinking and right living in a complex world is not simple. Turns out that, coming after two millennia of Christian history, a simple doctrine that fits onto a 3-inch tract can only exist by ignoring the majority of Christian thought and experience.
So that’s where I have a problem with the phrase “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” It’s the one-sentence boiling-down of the essentials of evangelical doctrine. We are sinners, Jesus died, and if we just agree with that sentence then we are saved.
Never mind the two-thousand-year-old debate on what, exactly, Jesus’ death means, what it does, and how. Never mind the question of how nodding our heads in agreement to a particular phrase is supposed to separate us believers from the damned. Never mind that before he died, and after, Jesus lived, and surely there was some purpose to his life other than just getting his warm body to Golgotha. Never mind that-- right now, I’m thinking about what it means to save us from our sins.
Simple! It means we don’t go to Hell.
What a flattening-out, what a diminishing of Scripture. I remember being taught about the miracles that Jesus performed. What kind of miracles he performed were irrelevant; what mattered was that his miracles proved he had divine powers and thus could decide our eternal fate. Healing the sick just for the sake of relieving physical suffering is the province of Godless liberals, so Jesus had a different purpose in his actions: proving to humanity that he was God, which made his death sufficient to sate God’s righteous wrath against sin. With that proof of divinity, the burden is now on us to choose whether to accept him or deny him. How simple!
But the promise of not going to Hell after my life is over isn’t enough for me. Here’s another phrase: “Living in sin.” It’s a nasty way to refer to two unmarried people who are living together and presumably having lots of sex and enjoying their life together as much as any married couple does. Why has the experience of “living in sin” been simplified to that? The world is saturated with sin. Our lives are plagued by dysfunction. Disease, abuse, poverty, exploitation, and so on—aren’t the people who endure those things living in sin?
When Jesus interrupted the Torah-approved mob-lynching of a woman accused of adultery, he freed her from living in sin. Her biggest problem wasn’t participating in marital infidelity; it was the righteous crowd that was about to crush her body to pieces and then award themselves props for acting out the will of God. That crowd was the sin she was living in.
When Jesus encountered the sick, the destitute, the shunned, the people teetering on the brink of survival, he was moved. This wasn’t his vision of a functional world, a world where God’s way reigned. His miracles healed broken bodies and revived broken spirits-- saved those people from the sins they lived in. Sins of disease and discord and violence and hopelessness. Sins of individuals against themselves, sins of cultures against the weak, sins of mental illness and confusion and ignorance and death. Sin is complex. It doesn’t just mean “everything you think or do that is against God’s will, any one instance of which will send you to Hell.” It can’t be flattened out that much. It can’t be solved as easily as agreeing that, yes, Jesus died to save us. Particularly since that phrase ignores that Jesus lived to save us.
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This Christmas, I listened to a sermon from my associate pastor. It was a meditation on the birth of Jesus, and when she finished and moved to the altar to begin the communion prayer, the interim pastor stepped in front of her, took the mic, and announced that he was so moved that he couldn’t help adding a few words about the miracle of the nativity: that the true meaning of Christmas is that Jesus was born as a little baby so that he could die and save us from the wrath of God.
And that was all there was to it: we celebrate Christmas because Jesus came to die and save us from our sins. How simple. Nothing else to it. Nothing more to take away.
What bloody-mindedness we have these days, when we can’t pause and reflect on any part of Christianity that doesn’t fit into our catchphrase. Keep it simple. Get Jesus to the cross. Kill him to save us from Hell. And that’s a sin: flattening Jesus out, silencing him, reducing his life to a thirty-three-year stroll to the executioner’s hill. “Jesus died to save us from our sins.” If that is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Jesus, then the world needs more saving than he has to give.