Among other things, I mark the various eras of my life by the music I was listening to at the time. The Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Neil Young were at the top of my list for my first years of college. So the news of Glenn Frey’s death last week transported me back to those days.
A founding member of the Eagles, Frey had teamed with Jackson Brown to write the group’s first single and first big hit: “Take It Easy.” A line from that song stuck with me at the time and came back to me as I looked back on that juncture in my life.
“I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me.”
Now Frey and Browne weren’t talking about God. They had a girl in a flatbed Ford in mind. But they were also talking about a deep yearning that something, someone beyond themselves could make them whole. Grant their lives meaning, bring them peace, and give significance to all their striving and struggling.
Like them, I was looking for something to save me. And I thrashed about looking for it in places profound and profoundly stupid. I just wouldn’t have talked about my longing and my search in terms of salvation at the time.
This may sound odd, but lately I’ve been feeling the need for a savior more profoundly than at any other point in my life.
To tell the truth, the way a lot of people talk about salvation these days, I’m not sure that salvation language works so well to describe the yearning that today I identify as the longing that draws us all toward God.
Lots of my fellow Christians announce with proud confidence, “I’m saved,” or they interrogate near strangers with a creepy, menacing joy by asking, “Are you saved?”
Look, I love Jesus more profoundly today than ever. And I am viscerally aware of his love for me. You might be thinking, “Dude, you’re a bishop! If you really believed in Jesus, you would just know you’re saved and quit worrying about it.”
I’m not worried about being saved. I profoundly feel the need for a savior. And there’s a difference.
You see, what some Christians mean by “savior” diverges widely from how scripture describes what Jesus does. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that their image of God’s saving acts artificially narrows the broad, rich portrait of Jesus found in the Bible.
When some people ask me if I’m saved—and yes they do ask me this when I’m wearing clericals—they seem to be asking, “Have you done what it takes to get off the hook with God?” If I accept Jesus, they say, I won’t be punished for my sins.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know that I fall short of the glory of God.
My sins are not spectacular. They are mostly the mundane but infinitely corrosive sort so common on this planet. Resentment. Self-absorption. Over-fondness for comforts. Quickness to judge others for slights and inconveniences.
Jesus forgives me, and he is transforming me. Gradually
. I am deeply grateful.
And yet, I am aware that Jesus is doing more, much more in my life and in the entire creation. I don’t feel a need for a savior because I lack a savior. On the contrary, the more closely Jesus draws to me, and the more fully he inhabits my life, the more profoundly I realize my utter dependence upon him.
His love for me gives me the courage to let go of the illusion of my own self-reliance and competence. I can admit my fragility, my vulnerability, and my weakness. Being finite and imperfect is not for sissies. And being finite and imperfect is who and what we are at our very core.
You see, none of the most important stuff in life is really within our control, and yet our high calling in life is to devote ourselves to the most important stuff as if our very lives depended on it.
For instance, my sons and my daughter are dearer to me than words can express. My own happiness is inextricably bound to their well-being and security.
I cannot heal the ravages of body and soul that war have visited on my eldest. I cannot make others look past my daughter’s autism-related awkwardness to find the gentle, kind, insightful soul within. And yet I am drawn to love them as if love will make them whole and safe.
Injustice and violence and deprivation break my heart. And yet, despite my best efforts and those of faithful thousands, our prisons remain overcrowded. Mass shootings hit the news with gruesome regularity. Children go hungry in this richest of nations. Addiction destroys individual lives and shatters families.
Nevertheless, Jesus calls us to love the poor, the stranger, the outcast like love will make this world whole. Like that love is going to save us.
Our frail human love will not save us. But Jesus’s love will. And his love is flowing through us. That’s what he’s telling his hometown synagogue crowd one Sabbath morning when he reads familiar passages from Isaiah.
He is the Savior. He’s not just here to get us off the hook with God. Jesus is here to make God’s reign real on earth as it is in heaven. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come near.
Luke could not be clearer that Jesus is savior. The pregnant Mary sings about God her savior. (Luke 1:47) When John the Baptist is born, his previously mute father Zechariah breaks into song about the mighty savior that his infant son will proclaim. (Luke 1:69).
On the night that Jesus is born, angels burst into song announcing the arrival of the savior. (Luke 2:10-14) And when Joseph and Mary present the baby Jesus in the Temple, old Simeon can finally say, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” (Luke 2:30)
And now, recently baptized by John and newly emerged from desert wandering, Jesus begins his public ministry in his hometown. He tells his listeners, he tells us, what salvation looks like. He brings relief to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. Eternal life reaches its perfection and completion on the other side of life, but it starts right now.
It’s an old tune. But it’s true. Sweet love is gonna save us.