One of the important differences between evangelical and liberal churches in the Pacific Northwest, according to James K. Wellman, Jr., is the prominence given to the message that Jesus is the one who can transform a person’s life. “Jesus saves!” is central to evangelical church life and a key to growth, whereas in liberal churches, this message often is overshadowed by other faith-based convictions.
Here is Wellman’s description of what he calls “the necessary engine of personal transformation [and] of social change” in evangelical churches:
At the core of the evangelical moral worldviews is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, based on an act of submission to the authority of their “Lord.” This act of allegiance is intimate and intensely subjective. It is intimate in that the submission is not merely intellectual but also an emotional commitment that is cultivated endlessly through worship, prayer, ritual, and personal piety. It is subjective in that it centers on a personal decision by each individual that engages the core identity of the self. The intimacy and subjective nature of this core are not only continually nurtured but also normatively constructed. Leadership molds how these personal decisions should be made and how one should feel about them in the process. Indeed, the transformation of this personal core is the center of what many pastors and laypeople mentioned as an “authentic faith” (p. 60).
Reclaiming the message that “Jesus saves” could become a way for liberal churches to recover the vitality that in many of them has languished during recent decades. Some preachers who are grounded in liberal theology are finding ways of incorporating this message in their sermons. While the phrase “Jesus saves” may not be one they use, the basic idea is a central focus of sermons.
A recent sermon by the Rev. Barbara Blaisdell at First Christian Church in Portland, Oregon, illustrates how this theme can be preached. Her text was Mark 5:1-20, the healing of the man from the country of the Gerasenes. A key section in the sermon asserts that in order for healing to occur, a new center of authority needs to be established:
But hear this hopeful word: Christ doesn’t need our unified desire to make us whole. Christ understands our conflicted desire and accepts it as a starting point. He has not come to punish. He has not come to punish. And he doesn’t wait until we get ourselves together. Underneath the noise of all our competing internal voices, Jesus can hear the voice of the heart asking for help, no matter how small the cry.
So he says, “What’s your name?”
“I’m not a name. Call me thousands—a number too big to have a name. I’m not a name. I’m a number.”
“Good answer,” says Jesus. It’s the truth. And that’s all he needs—the truth, even if it’s a conflicted truth and a confused confession. Any confession that’s true he accepts. He accepts it like a bridge. And he will cross it into the center of the heart. And then he gives a quiet command of astonishing authority.
Now authority is not a fashionable word these days. Because the word has been misused, claimed by principalities and powers that have no right to it. But there is an authority without which we die. Your world may be screaming and careening with chaos but the author of life, the Lord who called the earth into being still speaks. There is a living voice, which calls with authority, saving authority to master our madness, to order our chaos, to say to our darkness, “Let there be light.”
To have a divided heart and will, to be a man or a woman against the self is not to be in need of a ten-step plan. It’s to be in need of a sovereign, a sovereign who guides and centers all your impulses. Jesus Christ can make it so. If you are a Christian you have claimed that Jesus is Lord and Savior. To make that claim, to live as if it is so is to make all of the fragments come together around a healing center. To read the full text of the sermon, click Epiphany 5 Jesus Cures Hams.
As Wellman documents, it takes more than a sermon now and then to transform a person’s life and to develop vital congregations. To change a life and congregational culture takes time, but a new kind of preaching can happen soon—maybe even next Sunday!
Note: To listen to a pod cast of this sermon, as preached in the 9:00 o’clock service with music by the Joyful Noise ensemble, click here. Most weeks, the church posts both the podcast and manuscript of the previous week’s sermon. The graphic at the top is a detail from a Povey window at First Christian Church.