Savior 5: Jesus makes you clean

My uncle Orville was a mechanic. If he wasn’t reaching down into, or up into, a car or truck at work, he was restoring an old tractor at home. Because of his passion for all things mechanical, Orville’s hands were always dirty. They were black around the fingernails and black in the creases and whorls of his fingers and palms. As often and as hard as he washed his hands, he could never get them clean. The grease was ground in too deep.

In the Broadway version of “South Pacific,” Mary Martin sings, “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.” You feel so refreshed stepping out of the shower. It’s like making a new start in life. Don’t you wish you could take care of problems, and problem people, so easily?

When Lady Macbeth shrieks, “Out, damned spot!” she’s not talking about a ketchup stain. She’s talking about blood she has shed. The Roman governor Pilate thinks he can wash his hands of the blood of Jesus, but no whitewashing of history can erase his treachery.

We’ve all got stains that we’d like to wash away, and no amount of soap or scrubbing can remove them. Scripture tells us that only the blood of Jesus can wash us clean.

Friends, we’re in the fifth week of Lent and nearing the end of our study based on the book “Savior,” by Magrey deVega. We’re exploring various ways of understanding just how it is that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Today we’re talking about being made clean.

In Jesus’ day, it is assumed that disease is a sign of sin and alienation from God. In the gospel of Mark, we read about a man who has a skin disease similar to leprosy. He falls to his knees before Jesus and begs him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus reaches out and touches him, and says, “I do choose. Be made clean!” And immediately, we’re told, the man is cured of his disease and made clean. (Mark 1:40-42)

We don’t all suffer from a dread skin disease, but we all sin because of our alienation from God. Our sin stains everything we do, and we all need to be made clean. In the book of Revelation, people wear robes with colors that are symbolic of their spiritual state. Unrepentant sinners wear dirty robes, while Christian believers wear robes that are sparkling white. Why are they so white? Because they’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).

It is very much a paradoxical image. Just about everybody knows how hard it is to get a bloodstain out of clothing. So how is it that robes washed in the blood of the Lamb are so pure white?

The gospel of John proclaims Jesus to be the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36). Revelation pictures him as a suckling Lamb that has been slaughtered (Revelation 5:6). That image, of course, comes from Temple sacrifice. John’s gospel makes the association clear. According to John, Jesus is crucified at the same time that Passover lambs are sacrificed in the Temple.

The Passover lamb was not sacrificed for anyone’s sin, but as a means of obtaining the freedom of enslaved Israel. Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul calls Christ “our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The book of Hebrews, meantime, says the one-time sacrifice of Christ does what the death of no amount of other lambs could ever do. It is a one-time sacrifice for all sins (Hebrews 10:12).

So it is we can say that “the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).  

So far, so good. But how exactly does that happen? Now we have to briefly drop deep into the weeds to undo several centuries of Bible abuse.

If you have an ear trained in traditional versions of the Bible, some of the Bible quotes you are hearing today will sound strikingly different from what you’re used to hearing. You may especially note the absence of two key words: “propitiation” and “expiation.” These are not words you hear in normal everyday conversation. They are the weasel words that some Bible translations use to promote a certain vile interpretation of scripture.

First up is “propitiation.” It is all about the pacification of an angry deity. Remember the movie “King Kong”? Kong is this giant gorilla, and the local population has learned that the only way to satisfy the blood lust of this monster is to sacrifice a virgin to him every now and again.

In some segments of Christian thought, Jesus is sacrificed to satisfy the wrath of his Heavenly Father against sinners. We deserve to die, Jesus takes our place, and God’s blood lust is satisfied. I think King Kong theology is despicable. God is not angry with you or eager to do you in because of your sin.

We’ve talked about this before. God’s wrath is not about zapping you with thunderbolts or flaming arrows. It is letting you go your own way and suffering the consequences of your sins. In other words, Christ sacrificing himself for you is not saving you from God’s anger. It’s saving you from your own folly.

The second weasel word you’ll often hear in these verses is “expiation.” “Expiation” is basically “propitiation” lite. It is sometimes translated as “atoning sacrifice.” What it really means is to cleanse, to forgive, to wipe out, to remove. It’s about how God deals with our sins.

It goes back to the long and complicated specifications in the book of Leviticus about how animals are to be slaughtered and their blood spattered on the altar and on the Ark of the Covenant. (By the way, cleaning those things must have been a really tough job – especially cleaning the Ark, because if you touched it, you died.) Anyway, the point is that these sacrifices remove sin. They wipe it out. And so it is with the sacrifice of Jesus.

One quick example, and we’ll move on. 1 John 2:2, from the New International Version: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” Now from the Common English Bible: “He is God’s way of dealing with our sins, not only ours but the sins of the whole world.”

Hear the difference? The key word, sometimes translated as “expiation” or “propitiation,” actually means “to be gracious to,” “to show mercy to.” That’s how God deals with our sins – by graciously showing us mercy and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.

Let’s turn to Psalm 51, the Psalm we often recite on Ash Wednesday as we begin our Lenten journey.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.

According to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.

Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. (Psalm 51: 1-2, 7, 9)

Sound familiar? That’s how God deals with our sins.

One more obscure point, for those of you reading the book by Magrey deVega. He wants to make Jesus a scapegoat, as described in Leviticus 16. The New Testament frequently refers to Jesus as the Lamb, but never as a scapegoat. There is a modern theory of atonement, taught by Rene Girard, that does make Jesus a scapegoat. We may return to it at another time. But for our purposes right now, Jesus is not a scapegoat. He is the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the sins of the whole world.

For all the Sundays of Lent, I have introduced our “theme song” of “Lift High the Cross” by showing you a painting of the crucifixion. It shows Jesus in grotesque suffering, but there is something even more striking about it that you really can’t see unless you get really close to it.

The painting was done in 1513 by the German artist Mathias Grunewald. He was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the chapel at a hospital. This hospital served destitute victims of the Black Death. The disease was noted for its oozing black sores. Grunewald painted Jesus covered with sores of the black death. He wanted those in the hospital to know that Jesus shared everything with them. Dying for their sins, he even shared the plague that was killing them.

We are all dying of a plague called sin. We all are covered with sores that will not heal. We all have stains that we cannot wash away. But there is a truth greater than these. Let’s claim this truth by owning it for ourselves and putting ourselves into these phrases from scripture.

Ownership: If I confess my sins, the Lord who is faithful and just will forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).


This message was delivered March 21, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from 1 John 1:5-2:2.     

Savior 4: Jesus restores relationships

What is most important to you? Is it the title of your job or the esteem in which you’re held in the community? Is it the size of your salary or your retirement account? Is it the spaciousness and elegance of your home, or the beauty and horsepower of the vehicle you drive?

Or is it none of these things at all? Isn’t what is most important to you a network of relationships, family and friends, people who mean more to you than any thing in the world?

If life and events have not warped you beyond recognition as a human being, then relationships are most important to you. Those other things are nice, but remember what everyone says when a fire destroys their home and everyone escapes unharmed: “Things can be replaced. People can’t.”

I have said this before, and I don’t think I can say it too many times. From start to finish, the clear testimony of scripture is that life is all about relationship – and when things are said and done, relationship is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.

At the conclusion of his famous “Love Chapter” in First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says that in the end only three things endure. These are faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Friends, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, we continue to explore how the death of Christ saves us – what it saves us from, and what it saves us for. We’re following the outline of the book Savior by Magrey deVega. In all, we’ll look at six theories of atonement, six models, metaphors or analogies, six ways of explaining how we’re saved.

Today we’re focusing on reconciliation, the healing of relationships. I must admit from the start that of all models, this is my favorite. That’s because my theology is thoroughly relational. My thinking about God and creation starts and ends with relationship, and anything that cannot be explained in terms of relationship probably isn’t important.

God created all humans to live in relationship with God and others, but sin separates each of us from God and others. Sin is the state of separation in which we all live. Sins are those acts that create and perpetuate the separation – acts of unkindness, cruelty, hatred and violence.

Sin creates a vast divide between us and God, and others as well. This chasm is so deep and so wide that we cannot cross it on our own. We cannot repair all our broken relationships by our own efforts. We cannot repair all the damage that we’ve done. Only God can fix things, and God is eager to do it.

Here’s an illustration that states it plainly. Sin separates us from God. Christ bridges the divide and reconciles us with God. We’ll return to this illustration momentarily.  

In the following scriptures, I invite you to listen for words about reconciliation, the overcoming of alienation, and the offering of forgiveness.

Colossians 1:20-22: Through Jesus, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

Ephesians 2:1 & 5: “At one time you were like dead persons because of your sins and your offenses against God. … However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of our transgressions. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!”

“Christ is our peace,” Paul continues. We who once were far away from God have now been brought near by the blood of Christ. We were hostile to God, but God reconciles us through the cross. (Ephesians 2:13-16)

You will notice that nowhere is it said that God was ever our enemy, or that God was the one who created the gulf between us. No, we are the ones who moved away from God. We were enemies of God. It’s our hostility to God that put Jesus on the cross. It’s our hostility to God that is ended at the cross, through the sacrifice of Jesus.

The result is transformation. We who once were enemies of God are now allies of God. Indeed, Paul says, we become ambassadors for God. We become God’s representatives, sent out into the world to carry God’s message of reconciliation to others.

Here’s how Paul works it out in 2 Corinthians chapter 5:

“So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation.

In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.

So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, ‘Be reconciled to God!’ ” (2 Corinthians 5: 17-20)

Talk about a transformation! Paul maintains that Christ’s death not only changes our relationship with God, it changes us as well. We were created in God’s image, but sin has so distorted and smudged that image that we are poor reflections of God’s love to the world. When we come back to the Lord, Christ’s death renews us in the image of Christ, who is the spitting image of his heavenly Father. (Genesis 1:26-27, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 1:15)

God does this, Paul says, by causing one who knew no sin to become sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus so identifies with us that he becomes one with us in our sin, and through his identification with us and sacrifice for us, he bridges the gulf between us and God.

Reconciled with God, we are justified before God, returned to right relationship with God – in Paul’s words, made holy in God’s sight, “without blemish and free from accusation.” In fact, we represent God’s righteousness so well that we can be God’s envoys to the rest of the world that has not yet been reconciled with him.

How precisely Christ’s death accomplishes all this, Paul is not crystal clear, and maybe that’s just fine.

Some other models of how Jesus saves us involve a transaction. In the penal substitution model, we deserve to die but Jesus dies in our place. In the ransom model, Jesus’ death ransoms us from our sin.

No exchange is involved in the moral example model that we looked at last week, or the reconciliation model we’re looking at today. This model does not speculate about how Christ’s death accomplishes what it does. It simply states that God’s great power and God’s amazing grace make it happen. That may not be enough for the scholastics and academic theologians, but it’s good enough for me.

Let’s return to that illustration that I showed you earlier. It’s been around since Saint Augustine came up with it in the fourth century, though Augustine probably never drew it on a restaurant or airline napkin, as so many evangelicals are prone to do.

It states the case clearly. Sin separates us from God. Christ bridges the gap. The cross is the means. You can devise all manner of explanations for how Christ does this, but they’re not what’s most important. What’s most important is that Christ does it.

If you think that’s too simple, or not possible, let me ask you this. How does God work in your life? How has transformation occurred in your experience? It’s unlikely that you were just sitting there praying, and God zapped you into a new way of seeing things. Most likely, you saw the power of God working first in others, and then you came to realize that this same power was available to you, too.

In other words, it’s most likely that God transformed you through your relationships with others. That’s how God does most everything, isn’t it? That’s how God saves you, too, through your relationship with God and others. Transformation always occurs through relationship.

The basic Christian assertion is that God is your primary relationship, and you need to love God with every fiber of your being, and once this primary relationship is right, you are liberated to love others as God’s ambassadors to them.

Christianity is about a new way of living that starts with a new relationship with God that is so exciting that it’s contagious – so contagious it’s even more powerful than COVID-19, so contagious we just can’t help from spreading it, and in spreading it we create a new community whose powerful witness change the world.

Let me share something I read just a day or two ago in the daily blog of Richard Rohr, the Benedictine contemplative. Everything is connected, he says.

“What you do to another, you do to yourself. How you love yourself is how you love your neighbor. How you love God is how you love yourself. How you love yourself is how you love God. How you do anything is how you do everything.”

And if our lives are anchored in relationship with God, we are ambassadors of God’s love to all the world.

Let’s own this model of reconciliation by putting ourselves into these assertions.

Once I was alienated from God, but God, who is rich in mercy, has reconciled me and brought me close through the blood of Christ and made me alive together with him (Colossians 1:21, Ephesians 2:2, 4).

This message was presented March 14, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Mark 12:28-31.

Savior 3: Jesus shows you how to live

Have you ever known someone, either personally or second-hand, and said to yourself, “That’s the kind of person I want to be” like?

We make a habit of recognizing such role models. On All Saints Sunday and Memorial Day, we bring to mind those people whose extraordinary lives helped shape our lives.

Many of these were followers of Jesus who showed us by their example how to live a Christian life. We consider others our heroes for other reasons, too many to list here. What matters is that they matter to us, and we want to be like them. Not that we necessarily want to do what they did, but something about the way they lived inspires us and makes them our mentors and exemplars.

On this third Sunday of Lent, we continue a series of messages looking at some of the ways Jesus saves us. One of those ways is by offering us an example to follow.

1 Peter 2:21 calls us to endure suffering. Why? “Because Christ also suffered, for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

Jesus himself fells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He follows that up by saying, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

1 John 3:16 brings it full circle. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

So there we have it. Jesus loves us enough to suffer for us, and we ought to love others enough to suffer for them. It’s not a happy vision of the Christian life, and the suffering part of it can be emphasized way too much, but the essence of it is clear. As Christians, we are called to a life of sacrifice because Christ sacrificed for us.

What besides suffering is involved in the Christian life? What are the key elements to such a life? These are among the questions we’ll glance at this morning – and only glance at, I assure you, because our focus is elsewhere.

We’re in part three of a six-part series based on a book titled Savior by Magrey deVega. One of the foundations of our faith is the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “Christ died for our sins.” But what exactly does that mean? How does Christ’s death save us?

In previous weeks we’ve looked at two explanations. Penal substitution theory says that we deserve death for our sins and Christ died in our place. Ransom theory says that sin enslaves us and Christ pays the ransom for our liberation.

Both of these explanations involve a transaction in which Christ offers himself in exchange for us. The example theory involves no transaction. We are saved because Christ died, but his death buys us nothing. Instead, it offers us an example of the right way to live. We don’t have to go to a cross, but we do need to give ourselves for others as Jesus gave himself for us. We are so influenced by knowing him that we want to follow him and be more like him. We are changed by our relationship with him.

This moral example theory stands in deliberate contrast to the substitution and ransom theories, and in fact was created as a reaction against them. Its creator was the 12th-century French philosopher Peter Abelard. Abelard says that whether Jesus dies in our place or to buy our freedom, two wrongs do not make a right; one sin cannot correct another.

After all, if salvation is about God’s forgiveness, what can payment have to do with it? No, Abelard says. Jesus’ death is all about showing us the real, relational, cost of sin, showing us what love looks like and showing us how we ought to live and love.

It all goes back to the beginning, to the book of Genesis, where it’s said that humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1.26-27). If God is love, as 1 John 4:7 says, then we are created to be loving like God. But sin makes us unable to be good image bearers who fully reflect God’s love to others. Jesus shows how to live and love and empowers us to follow his example.

Christ took upon himself our human nature, Abelard explains, because we need a spotless exemplar to show us how to be who we are meant to be so that our hearts are set ablaze with God’s love and we live as people who are marked with God’s imprint. Salvation involves becoming more able to love the way God loves and forgive the way God forgives.

So, for Abelard, the cross alone does not make salvation possible. It is simply the clearest revelation of how far God is willing to go to show God’s love for us. In fact, for Abelard, it’s not just the cross that saves us. It’s the very incarnation of Christ, his becoming human for us and everything about his life, from Christmas to Easter and beyond. It’s the whole story of Christ, not just the cross, that’s important.

Abelard’s understanding has some real pluses. It makes it clear that discipleship is about loving God and others, and that it can be cultivated by certain practices, such as prayer, study, and service. Abelard’s theory also refutes the lie perpetuated by other theories that salvation can be achieved only through violence.

But it has some weaknesses as well. It seems a little squishy where it ought to be rock solid. How exactly are we saved by Christ’s example? Can an example ever be enough to save us? Pretty much everybody knows the difference between right and wrong. Why do we continue to do what’s wrong rather than what’s right?

Jesus has been a sterling example of faithfulness to God for 2,000 years, and for all of that time most people have not cared one bit. If Jesus is saving us by example, it’s not working.

We need more than a good example. We need a savior. We are incapable of saving ourselves. We need someone to save us. Jesus does that, and offering a moral example for us is part of that, but it’s not all of it. Of course, none of the theories of atonement that we will look at tell all of the story. We need all of them together to provide a full picture of how we are saved by Jesus’ horrible death on a cross 2,000 years ago.

We Protestants prefer an empty cross, believing that Jesus has conquered death and sin. Roman Catholics prefer a cross with an agonized figure fastened to it, to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. It is hard not to be moved by such a sight. The longer I look at it, the more moved I am. But isn’t there more to salvation than me being moved emotionally?

What is there about Jesus that changes my relationship with God? How does it reconcile me with God? And how does it change me?

I am reminded at this point of Junius Dotson, the pastor and national United Methodist leader who died less than two weeks ago of pancreatic cancer.

He is remembered as a visionary leader who had a passion for justice and full inclusion in the church and yet who knew how to work productively with those who represented other ideals. He is praised for his spiritual depth and his great capacity for love, and he is fondly recalled as a loyal friend. Though he struggled for years with burnout and depression, he modeled a path to recovery.

But as good a man as he was, as faithful a follower of Christ as he was, as close to God as he was, I could never have looked at him as a savior, and he would have been horrified by the very thought.

So many of politicians today suffer from a great delusion. They think they are God’s gift to the world. But having a Messiah complex does not make you a Messiah. We’ve got only one savior, and his name is Jesus Christ. He is a great moral example to us, but he is far more than that. His death and resurrection save us. We’ll continue wondering how that works next week.

For now, let’s own what we’ve learned today by putting ourselves into these phrases from 1 Peter 2:21.

For to this I have been called, because Christ suffered for me, leaving me an example, so that I should follow in his steps. Amen.

This message was delivered March 7, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from John 15:12-17.