We have not been on the road for a couple of months but driving the highways and byways of Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky when we were last traveling, I noticed that there are as many churches as there are the total of McDonalds and/or Dairy Queens. Nearly every one of these churches boasts an announcement assuring that ‘Jesus Saves.’ Since I am fairly certain that these notices are not meant as advertisements to encourage me to place my money in an interest-bearing account in one of the nearly equally ubiquitous lending/savings institutions along the way, one is moved to ask just what ‘Jesus Saves’ means?
The very number of these religious retail outlets offering ‘Jesus’ as a salvific event, consoling encounter or useful commodity leads me to assume that what is being offered is some kind of real advantage or bargain. This assumption comes from the similarities with other advertising signs regularly changed where economic specialties are offered. “Jesus Saves” appears to have a marketing appeal not unlike ‘2 Jr. Cheeseburgers/ $3.00.’
From what I know of the doctrines of the churches that advertise ‘Jesus Saves,’ a bargain is what is being offered. Apparently, sometime in the distant past, a couple of millennia at least, an itinerant teacher named Jesus invited people to follow him to participate in the emerging Kingdom of God, in which Kingdom the last would be first and the first last, in which Kingdom the meek, humble, poor and vulnerable would be highly valued and most esteemed.
This Topsy-turvy message of the itinerant teacher so threatened the civil and religious establishments of the time that he was publicly executed as a common criminal, by crucifixion.
Apparently, within a very short time, those who were adherents to the crucified itinerant’s values could see that there was going to be very little market for a story that insisted on championing the poor, the marginal and the vulnerable to one’s own self-destruction. So, they took up with another story, to wit, that the Crucified Itinerant was a god-incarnation whose death was a sacrificial atonement that offered salvific effect for everyone who deserved damnation but who could by saying over and over again, ‘Jesus Saves,’ gain a redemption from eternal punishment and receive instead eternal bliss, known commonly as ‘heaven.’
Down the street from many of these ‘Jesus Saves’ churches are other buildings identifying themselves as another kind of ‘Jesus follower type.’ If you were to inquire within these buildings, you could learn that the parent institution of these churches claims to have founded the whole enterprise. They are different though. They seldom have sign boards out front, except to announce times of ‘Mass’ and ‘Confession.’ The only advertising in front of these other churches is a statue or graphic depiction of the execution of the Crucified Itinerant.
My guess is that this latter type of church does not attract as many devotees as the ‘Jesus Saves’ type, except maybe if you are born into this group, you are inclined to stay. In any event, this other type of church offers the heaven bargain too.
What would happen to all these churches, I wonder, if they were stripped of the theological trappings they have entertained themselves with for these millennia and were left with only the notion that championing the poor and the marginalized was indeed, in itself, a way of life, not only noble and worth doing, but salvific.
I mean, imagine that ‘Jesus Saves’ could mean that existential salvation is to be found in humility and vulnerability!