In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.
Next Sunday we will celebrate the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Matthew:
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
Maybe Jesus Saves written up there on the cliff or the abutment of the bridge is embarrassing because in one way or another religion in general has become embarrassing: embarrassing to the unreligious man because, although he does not have it anymore, he has never really rooted it out of his soul either, and it still festers there as a kind of reproach; embarrassing to the religious man because, although in one form or another he still does have it, it seldom looks more threadbare or beside the point than when you set it against very much the same kind of seventy-five-mile-per-hour, neon-lit, cluttered, and clamorous world that is represented by the highway that the sign itself looks down upon there.
And maybe, at a deeper level still, Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing, if any part at all of what it is trying to mean gets through, what it says to everybody who passes by, and most importantly and unforgivably of all of course what it says to you, is that you need to be saved. Rich man, poor man; young man, old man; educated and uneducated; religious and unreligious—the word is in its way an offense to all of them, all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, "You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole." That is an unpardonable thing to say to a man whether it is true or false, but especially if it is true, because there he is, trying so hard to be happy, all of us are, to find some kind of inner peace and all in all maybe not making too bad a job of it considering the odds, so that what could be worse psychologically, humanly, than to say to him what amounts to "You will never make it. You have not and you will not, at least not without help"?
And what could be more presumptuous, more absurd, more pathetic, than for some poor fool with a cut-rate brush and a bucket of white paint to claim that the one to give that help is Jesus? If he said God, at least that would be an idea, and if you reject it, it is only an idea that you are rejecting on some kind of intellectual grounds. But by saying "Jesus" he puts it on a level where what you accept or reject is not an idea at all but a person; where what you accept or reject, however dim and far away and disfigured by time is still just barely recognizable as a human face. Because behind the poor fool with his bucket there always stands of course the Prince of Fools himself, blessed be he, in his own way more presumptuous, more absurd and pathetic than anyone has ever managed to be since.
Jesus Saves.... And the bad thief, the one who according to tradition was strung up on his left, managed to choke out the words that in one form or another men have been choking out ever since whenever they have found themselves crossed up by the world: "Are you the Christ? Then save yourself and us." With the accent on the "us." If you are the savior, whatever that means, then why don't you save us, whatever that involves, save us from whatever it is that crosses us all up before we're done, from the world without and the world within that crosses us all out. Save us from and for and in the midst of the seventy-five-mile-per-hour, neon-lit crisscross of roads that we all travel in this world. And then the good thief, the one on his right, rebuked the bad one for what he had said angrily, and then in effect said it again himself, only not angrily, God knows not angrily—said, "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power." And finally the words of Jesus's answer, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise," which are words no less crude than the ones trickling down the cliff side, in their way no less presumptuous, absurd, pathetic; words that express no theological idea as an idea, but words that it took a mouth of flesh to say and an ear of flesh to hear. I can imagine that the guards who had been posted there to see that the execution was carried out properly might themselves have felt something like embarrassment and turned away from the sheer lunacy of the scene.
Such a one as that save me? That one—the spindle-shanked crackpot who thinks he is God's son, bloodshot and drunk with his own torture, no less crossed up, crossed out than any other mother's son. Such a one as that—Jesus, scrawled up there on the concrete among the four-letter words and the names of lovers? Only somehow then, little by little, a deeper secret of the embarrassment begins to show through: not can such a one as that save me, but can such a one as that save me? Because I suspect that at its heart the painful wincing is directed less to the preposterousness of the claim that Jesus saves than it is directed to the preposterousness of the claim that people like ourselves are savable—not that we are such sinners that we do not deserve saving, but that we are so much ourselves, so hopelessly who we are—no better, no worse—that we wonder if it is possible for us to be saved. I suspect the reason why the name "Jesus" embarrasses us when it stands naked is that it inevitably, if only half consciously, recalls to us our own names, our own nakedness. Jesus saves ... whom? Saves Joe, saves Charlie, Ellen, saves me, saves you—just the names without any Mr. or Mrs., without any degrees or titles or Social Security numbers; just who we are, no more, no less. I suspect that it is at our own nakedness that we finally wince.