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A Chosen People: Methodists and Prevenient Grace

A Chosen People

Ephesians 1:3-14

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a video
featuring Jon Stewart of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, where in a piece
about the wedding of Chelsea Clinton, who is a Methodist, Stewart said this:

JON STEWART

“Methodists are like the University of Phoenix of religions.
Just send them 50 bucks and click ‘agree’ and you’re saved.” Now whether you
love or hate Jon Stewart, the fact is that his critique is pretty poignant
about what Methodism has become. In a lot of ways, our denomination has
forgotten who we are called to be as Christians and Methodists. As our t-shirts
suggest this morning, it’s time we did some “rethinking” of church. To do that,
we don’t need to focus first on something new, but rather pay attention to our
core identity. 

If you were to ask me to use one word to describe what
Methodism is about, I would tell you that word is “grace.” If you look up
“grace” in the dictionary, you see it defined as “elegance” or “politeness” or
“a pleasing quality.” We think of dancers and skaters being “graceful,” for
example. But in theological terms, grace has a much more powerful meaning when
it is applied to what God is and does. Biblically and theologically speaking,
“grace” means God’s unmerited favor—the fact that God loves us even when we
don’t deserve it. Grace is God’s greatest gift to us—God’s love offered to us
without any prerequisites or hoops to jump through. To put it another way,
grace is God’s movement toward us at God’s initiative.

John Wesley believed, as did many of the theologians of the
Reformation, that our salvation is only possible because God moves toward us by
offering grace. When we receive God’s offer of grace, we are “saved.” Now, in a
lot of Christian traditions, salvation is mainly about being saved from
something—going to hell when you die. I’ve been around a lot of Christians who
seem to be fixated on hell as much as, if not more than, heaven. Their idea of
grace is a theology of “turn or burn,” and salvation acts as a kind of “get out
of hell free” card.

Wesley would say, however, that while we do need saving from sin and its consequences, we are
perhaps even more so saved for
something as well—that God’s grace works in us to shape us into people who are
holy and set apart as people who reflect God’s own image. God’s grace enables
us to become the people we were created to be from the beginning—a people who
can walk with God and know the power of God in our own lives in the present.
Wesley was concerned as much about how we live as about how we die, and his
theology was less about a formula for getting people into heaven than it was
about a way to get heaven into people—the way of grace.

Using Scripture as his primary source, Wesley thus
understood grace as the means by which God works a change in us, transforming
us into God’s own image, making us fully whole and fully human in the way God
meant for us to be from the beginning. Wesley would say that God’s grace comes
to us in three movements, which he called prevenient, justifying, and
sanctifying grace. Everything that Methodist Christians do and believe flows
forth from this understanding of grace.

So, today we’re going to look at the first movement –
prevenient grace. Now, here’s a word you have probably never seen before.
“Prevenient.” It comes from the Latin praevenire, which means to “come before,
precede, or anticipate.” Prevenient grace is thus the grace that “comes before”
our conscious knowledge and love of God. It is the grace that God offers to us
even before we know who God is or what God is up to.

Prevenient grace recognizes that God has known us and cared
for us from the very beginning of our lives. Think back to our Call to Worship
this morning, which comes from Psalm 139 – one of the great psalms that remind
us who we are in God’s eyes. Listen again to the Psalmist’s words – “O Lord,
you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up…where
can I go from your spirit?…verse 13 – “For it was you who formed my inward
parts ; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am
fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very
well.” That reminds me, too, of the word God gives to Jeremiah when he calls
the young man to be a prophet: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart.” God’s grace, God’s love, knows us
intimately before we are even aware of it (Jer. 1).

The apostle Paul understood this and reminds the church at
Ephesus that they, like Paul himself, were chosen in Christ “before the
foundations of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love…” that
they were “destined for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ” (Eph.
1:4-5). We were created for relationship with God, to be God’s own children
through adoption, made possible by grace. We are all “destined” for a
relationship with God, but Wesley would say that we have a choice whether or
not we embrace it. Grace is freely offered to everyone, regardless of their
past—as Paul will say to the Ephesians in chapter 2, “You were once dead
through your sins, all of us were, but God made us alive through grace.” God
chose us first, and invites us to choose him, too.

Now, as many of you know, I am an adopted child. My adoptive
mom used to tell me all the time that I was “chosen.” But like a lot of adopted
children, I have also understood the other side of that equation. Studies have
shown that a lot of adoptees struggle to define their identity because, often,
they come into the world as the byproduct of a mistake and can come to believe
that they themselves are a mistake. The result can be either a sense of despair
and low self-esteem, or a driven-ness that seeks to prove one’s worth to those
who gave them up, even if it was for a good reason.

A couple of years ago, I learned some information about my
birth parents, whose names I still don’t know. I was born in a Salvation Army
hospital in Pittsburgh to a 24 year-old unmarried woman. My father, according
to the caseworker, was an officer in the Salvation Army—a pastor. I am the
product of a scandal, a mistake. But when I read Scripture, I realize that I am
not a mistake—I have been chosen by God. All of us have been chosen from the
foundations of the world, from the time we were born, no matter the
circumstances—to be children of God.

We are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” God does not make
junk, and God does not make mistakes. God has formed us and created us for a
purpose, to be loved and to love, and to reflect God’s own image. We are all
adopted children. We are all chosen!

Problem is that we may begin to believe another script about
ourselves. Our understanding of our worth, our chosen-ness, our reflection of
God’s image, is distorted by what the Bible calls sin. When we don’t know or
understand God’s grace and God’s plan for us, we can begin to believe that we
are something else altogether. We can begin to believe that our worth is bound
up in things like success, wealth, power, and control. We start to search for
meaning in material things and medicate the pain of our loss of identity with
addiction, anger, and despair. Sin moves us farther and farther away from who
God has called us to be.

And yet, God still does not give up on us. Even when we
don’t know God or have walked away from God, God still pursues us. Prevenient
grace is God’s way of calling us back to himself. It’s a reminder of the truth
that God is always moving toward us.

 Some commentators have described Wesley’s concept of
prevenient grace as God “wooing” us—much like one lover “woos” another into a
relationship. That’s a great word, “woo.” How does God “woo” us?

Well, think about this. How did you “woo” your spouse or
your boyfriend or girlfriend? Let me talk to the guys for a minute, because
I’ve been there. Did you approach her like a lawyer, building a case for
yourself? Did you present her with a four-point plan and a Powerpoint
presentation outlining your good qualities and how dating you would offer a
wonderful plan for her life? No! (well, maybe did…I’d love to know how that
turned out!). If you were really wooing her, you’d want to be close to her, get
to know her story, tell her your own story. You’d enlist mutual friends to tell
her about your good qualities (most people get introduced to each other via
mutual friends). You would know that you can’t force her into a relationship
with you, you want her to choose you freely.

It’s an imperfect metaphor, so work with me here, but I
would argue that God pursues us in the same way. God does not come at us with
four-point plans, arguments, and flip charts—God comes at us with a story, his
story, and with an unconditional love. God reveals his love for us through the
beauty of creation, a love letter designed for everyone. God comes to us
through the witness of others who love him, who tell us about his love for us.
God never forces us into a relationship with himself—it is always offered as an
invitation.

God chooses us, leads us, calls to us. I find it interesting
that the Greek word that is translated as “chosen” literally means “spoken
forth.” God has spoken us forth and has spoken for us. We are “spoken for” to
use the old language of betrothal!

But the invitation is not enough to save us and make us
whole. We have to accept it in order for that new relationship to begin.
Prevenient grace, when we become aware of it, convicts us of the reality that
we are not what we were meant to be. Prevenient grace makes us aware of the God
who is inviting us and reminds us that we are not worthy of that relationship
because of the sin that separates us from God. Prevenient grace can begin to
turn us toward God, however, and prepare us to accept God’s invitation. Next
week we’ll talk about justifying grace—the grace that we experience when we say
“yes” to God.

Another important thing to remember, too, is that our
salvation isn’t for us only. God wants us to be whole so that we can
participate with him in the salvation and redemption of the whole creation.
God’s grace comes to us always on its way to someone else.

John Wesley used the metaphor of a house to describe God’s
movement of grace. In that model, prevenient grace is the porch. When we were
buying our new home, one of the criteria for me was that it had to have a
porch. When I was a boy, my grandparents had a wonderful screened porch on
their old farmhouse, and I used to love to sit out there reading a book or
listening to the Pirates game on the radio, watching the cars and the people go
by on the road out front. From the porch you could see people coming, you know
who is pulling into the driveway by the barn. I could hear my cousins calling
me out to play ball from the porch.

It’s on the porch that we greet people for the first time,
it’s there that we observe the world going by in front of us. It’s on the porch
where hands are shaken, conversations held, and lemonade shared. A porch
invites a new relationship.

One of the reasons I love being a Methodist pastor is that
we have a theology of God’s grace that meets people where they are. As we
talked about last week, we celebrate an open communion, which extends the
invitation of God to everyone. We want everyone to be invited into a new
relationship with God, to step on to the porch and get to know that God who
loved them enough to die for them. We extend an open invitation because we
believe that God will meet anyone who will respond to his offer of grace and
love.

In the same way, we not only baptize those who are old enough
to confess their faith in Jesus Christ, but also infants. Infant baptism is a
sign of God’s prevenient grace – a reminder that God is at work in the life of
this child even before the child knows who God is. Parents take vows, promising
to love this child and raise them so that he or she will know how much Christ
loves them and respond to his grace. Confirmation is the time when we invite
those baptized young people then to step through the door of justifying grace
and accept the relationship that God has been offering them all along. For
Methodists, baptism is always more about what God is doing through his perfect
grace, than it is about our often inadequate and halting response. We don’t
claim our baptism as a sign of how righteous we are, but as a mark of a grace
and love that we cannot possibly earn, only receive.

No matter if you’ve been a Christian (or even a Methodist)
your whole life, or whether you are coming here for the first time and
wondering what all this about, I want you to hear today the good news that God
is extending an invitation to you – an invitation to a new life. You have been
chosen. You are spoken for. You are not a mistake. You are beloved.

This is the message we Methodists should be taking to those
around us, particularly those whose image of God has become distorted. We have
been called to approach people with grace, not judgment, with invitation and
not condemnation. Prevenient grace is a doctrine that teaches us that God is
always and everywhere pouring out his grace on people, even to those who don’t
yet acknowledge or love him. If God is doing that, we must be doing the same. If
we have experienced God’s grace, we are always looked for ways to share it with
others.

Methodists have nothing to boast about or feel superior
about, because we are all about grace. Grace is what defines us. We are chosen
people—Christians are a chosen people–not because we are pious and perfect,
but because of God’s unconditional, unmerited, and unbounded grace. We don’t
burn Korans to protest 9/11, we don’t hate people who aren’t like us, we don’t
see faith as a formula, and we don’t assign people to heaven or hell. We trust
instead in God’s grace for us and for the world, because God is the one who
chooses God’s people. We proclaim that grace through our worship and our
service, and we join God in offering it to the world, praying that the world
will respond to God’s invitation to be whole again.

My prayer is that we are no longer a people who are defined
by a lack of identity, but a people whose identity is all about grace!

 

 

 

The One Thing Needful

Text: Philippians 3:7-17

One of my all-time favorite movies is “City Slickers” –
starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. I always like movies that have
memorable lines in them and this one has one of the best. If you’re not familiar
with this flick, Billy Crystal plays a salesman who is approaching middle age
and wondering where his life is going, and he and a couple of friends head out
to a dude ranch for a couple of weeks to get away and contemplate the next
chapter in their lives. Jack Palance plays the tough old cowboy who turns out
to be a philosopher. Take a look at this scene:

(Note: If you're offended at Jack Palance's reference to, er, "crap," remember that the word that is translated as "rubbish" in Paul's letter to the Philippians is essentially the same word as Palance uses, just cleaned up by the translators)

One thing.

Every time I watch this movie I’m struck by that question,
and the more I think about it the more I realize that the failure to recognize
that one thing is probably the biggest issue that most people deal with.

A USA Today poll a few years back asked the question, “If
you could ask God one question, what would it be?” Some of the answers were
predictable, like “Why is there suffering in the world,” while others were
intriguing like, “Where do socks go when they leave the dryer?” But the number
one question people wanted to ask God was this: “What is the purpose of my
life?” In other words, what’s the one thing?

Our culture seems to driven by the pursuit of purpose.
Pastor Rick Warren wrote a bestselling book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” but it
didn’t seem to quell the hunger for meaning. People are riding to and fro
across the landscape looking for purpose in things like wealth and power, in
sex, in relationships, in work or in getting 15 minutes of fame on TV or
YouTube. Some have pursued so many things that they are exhausted, while others
still haven’t found what they’re looking for and decide to check out by
spiraling into addictions and self-destructive behaviors. Most people seem to
be living their lives by simply sticking their finger in the air to see which
way the wind is blowing today.

It seems so simple. One thing. But somehow we can’t see it.

The good news, however, is that God does. God created us for
one thing—one purpose. When I was younger and in confirmation, we had to
memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the first question of which was:
What is the chief end of man? (What is humanity’s purpose) – to glorify God and
enjoy him forever. Wesley would put it a little differently: “the one thing
needful is the renewal of our fallen nature.” – in other words, to get back to
the beginning, to become the people God created us to be from the beginning.

Our problem is that we can’t see it because there’s
something blocking the view—something the Bible calls “sin”. This morning, as
we get into our series on the Method in Methodism, it’s important that we take
the advice of the real trail boss and pay attention to the one thing that
matters

A lot of Christian traditions talk a lot about original sin,
believing that sin is an inseparable part of our human DNA. We are thus
predestined for the eternal trash heap unless God does something for us. The
doctrine of original sin takes a very low view of humanity, which many in the
Reformed tradition call “total depravity.”

We know that is certainly true—humans are broken by sin and
are helpless to overcome it on their own. What we forget, however, is that,
biblically speaking, original sin only followed what Wesley called “original
righteousness.” God created humans in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27), and
called that creation “very good.” These original humans had a face to face
relationship with God, a relationship of complete openness and intimacy where
nothing was hidden. They reflected the very nature of God.

But these humans also had a free will, which meant they
could make choices. God knew that for these humans to be authentically in
relationship with him, they needed to be able to choose that relationship
freely. Love must be authentically chosen in order to be real. The snake
reminded them that they had a choice, and they chose against God, which is sin.

The question, however, is did they HAVE to choose against
God? Could they have chosen to remain as God’s perfect image? Well, think about
us…do we have to sin because we’re human, or can we choose otherwise? Wesley
defined sin as a willful choice against God, not an involuntary state of being.
If love is an act of the will, then it follows that sin must be as well. 

Sin has been the human family’s problem from the beginning,
and if you know anything about family systems you know that family traits are
passed down not only through our genes but also through the systemic emotional
and relational patterns we retain from generation to generation. Those systemic
patterns, while influential, aren’t necessarily prescriptive. Just because your
family has three generations of alcoholics, for example, doesn’t mean you HAVE
to become an alcoholic. You can choose otherwise, recognizing that it’s still a
difficult choice. We all have the disease…only God has the cure.

Sin, willful rebellion against God, is a human family trait
passed down from generation to generation, but it doesn’t mean we have to
continue the pattern. We can make the decision to turn toward God and allow God
to reshape us, reform us, and help us grow into healthy, whole, and holy
people. We can choose God because we know that God is always choosing us!

Methodists believe what Paul believed—that the one thing,
the most important thing in life, the goal of the Christian life, is to be
formed in the image of God which is perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ—the one
who has chosen us and loved us from the beginning. I love Paul’s language
here—verse 12 – “I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

For Paul, for John Wesley, for us—the “one thing” that
matters is being renewed in the image of God. That renewal is not an event, but
a life-long pursuit. Paul didn’t believe he had arrived there yet and neither
did Wesley, but they understood that they were on the way. To be on the way,
however, means leaving some things behind.

Paul left behind a life that other Jews would have found
admirable and respectable. John Wesley left behind the comfort of being a
parish priest. These weren’t bad things in and of themselves, but they were
nothing compared to the irresistible love of Christ. Paul traveled the ancient
world risking life and limb to share that love. John Wesley risked the ridicule
of his peers and preached in the open air to people whom proper society had
forgotten. If we are to know Christ, to become like Christ, to be formed in the
image of Christ, then we have to be willing to put that one thing ahead of all
others.

How do we get there? How do we begin to form an identity in
Christ? How are we to become renewed in his image? What does Christian maturity
look like? (after all that’s part of our church’s purpose statement)?

Well, we’re going to talk about that over the next three
Sundays, because these questions are at the heart of who we are as Christians
and Methodists.

Next Sunday, we’re going to talk about how God pursues a
relationship with us. Methodists believe that God always makes the first move
toward us, wanting to make us his own. Wesley called that “prevenient grace” –
the grace that God offers even before our own knowledge and love of God. Unlike
a lot of popular religion that seeks to find God somewhere out there, we
believe that God comes looking for us, just as he looked for those first humans
in a Garden long ago. We have our “Back to Church” Sunday next week, and it’s a
great time for us to invite others to hear how much God loves them and wants to
change their lives forever. 

The next Sunday we’ll talk about justifying grace—when we
respond to God’s offer of grace, we are given new life and new birth. The
barrier of sin is removed and we can begin to pursue the one thing that matters
most—becoming the people God created us to be. We’ll touch on baptism and how
that is a sign of this new life. 

Then, on the 19th, we’ll talk about sanctifying
grace—the grace that helps us move from new birth to maturity in Christ. It’s
the process by which we grow more intentionally into the image of God.

We don’t need to keep searching for the one thing—God wants
to bring it to us through his grace!

Heaven and Hell: A Biblical Vision

 Today we’re looking at one of the most fascinating questions
of faith – What is heaven and what is hell? Probably the better way to phrase
that question (the question behind the question) is, “What happens to us when
we die?”

 From the beginning of history, this has been one of the
primary mysteries that humanity has pondered. Many belief systems have been
built around the concept including, some would say, the Christian faith. So
what I want to do today is a little more of a teaching sermon, looking at the
ways Christian faith has traditionally looked at heaven and hell, then looking
at the biblical view (I assert that these are different views), and then what
the implications are for us as we live in the present. And I have to do all
this in about 25 minutes, so we won’t cover all the issues – but perhaps this
will get you thinking “out here”.

 Let’s begin with a little exercise as we define what we know
(or at least think we know) about heaven and hell. So I’m going to flip a coin
(pick some one to call it) – choose which side of the sanctuary will be heaven
and which will be hell. Now, I’m going to give you one minute to talk with
those around you about the characteristics of the place to which you have been
assigned (this is very Calvinistic – Calvin (a 16th century
theologian upon whom much of Reformed Christian theology is based, believed
that God predestined some people to eternal bliss and some to eternal damnation
– so there you go).  Talk about
what it’s like “where you are”.

 All of these are pretty standard views. Hell as a place of
fire and torment, heaven as a place of wings and harps and clouds.
Interestingly, a recent survey said that 60% of people believe in hell but only
4% think they could actually wind up there. Both heaven and hell are comforting
in a way – heaven because of the bliss, hell because at some level most people
are glad in their belief that the “wicked” will eventually get their just
desserts.

 There’s a clear dividing line. There are winners and losers,
which we Americans tend to like.

 Of course some also believe in purgatory – kind of a cosmic
holding tank – where you could go either way. Life is just a matter of figuring
out which bin God will put you in.

 But is this what the Bible really talks about?

 Consider this. We live in the western world – a world that
in many ways has been formed by a variety of worldviews. Some would say we have
a Judeo-Christian worldview but that’s not the only one. One of the overarching
views of the world that we still hold to, subconsciously, is the Greek
philosophical worldview – particularly when it comes to talking about things
like eternal destiny.

 The Greek philosopher Plato, thought about humanity as being
of a dual nature. Body and soul being separate parts. The body is evil,
corruptible and the spirit pure. For the Greeks, then, human life was a
transient state that worked like this: a pure and undefiled spirit gets dumped
into a corruptible body – a body that has desires and lusts and needs. Life was
then like a wrestling match – the good spirit trying to subdue the evil body.
The higher state was the spirit, so the goal was to get back to the spiritual
state – but where you wound up when you got there was a function of how well
you managed to subdue and control your body. If you did well then, at death,
your spirit would ascend to a state of bliss…if you didn’t and you indulged
your body, gave in to the evil, your spirit would descend to the depths of the
underworld. Disembodiment was the real goal of Greek philosophy.

 You can see how this has affected Christian faith. Much of
it, particularly in the evangelical world, has focused on “getting people to
heaven” – getting them qualified for a good life beyond this one. In my
childhood, I learned that heaven was “up there” and hell “down there” and that
if I didn’t want to go down I needed to only pray the sinner’s prayer and
believe in the doctrines of the church so that I could go up. As I reflect back
on it, faith was more of a fire insurance policy than anything else. The Left
Behind series of books promotes this view as do many others. The desire follows
the Greek idea of being “out of the body” and back in the spirit. Even some of
our hymns reflect this – “I’ll fly away”, for example. It’s all very
individualistic – “my faith” or “my personal salvation”.

 But I want to argue this morning, along with more and more
biblical scholars, that this view is not what the Bible really talks about. In
fact I would go so far as to say that much of our focus on a disembodied
afterlife has really pushed us away from the real mission we’ve been given as
the people of God. Here’s what I mean.

 When we go back to Genesis 1, we learn that humans were
created “in the image of God”. Genesis 1:26 and 27 – Then God said, “Let us
make humanity in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of
the sea and the birds of the air, etc. So God created man in his own image, in
the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

 Notice something about this passage? It’s the plural. God
says let “us” make humans – who’s us? Well, remember back to our lesson on
God’s nature – God’s nature is relational – a perichoresis, a “circle dance” of
the persons of the Trinity. And that nature finds it’s way out in relationship
to humans – God creates for relationship. Not only that, God’s creative act
invites these humans into a vocation – caring for the creation and each other.
In other words, we can see the image of God as not just being an idea, but a
vocation – humans participating with God in the care of God’s creation. God’s
presence is represented in the creation through these humans, created in his
image.

 To be truly human, then, is to be in full relationship with
God and in full relationship with others, relationships that mirror God’s
relational care. To be truly human is not to be, as Plato said, a dualistic
body and soul, but to be whole person…an embodied person living out the image
of God in God’s good creation. The unique capacity of humanity that separates
us from the animals is not, as is traditionally thought, the presence of a
soul—but rather to be in the image of God and to able to relate to God.

 The Bible tells us that, by chapter 3 of Genesis, humans began
to distort that image and turn inward, missing the mark, veering off target.
That’s “sin” – refusing to take on the vocation and the relationship with God
and others. But God does not give up on these humans – God maintains the
relationship – even coming into the world in the person of Jesus, one who was
fully in relationship with God and others – one who was the “true” human – the
perfect and prototypical image of God. Jesus represents what Paul called “the
new humanity” and Jesus invited everyone to participate in that reality, to
take on the image we were created for in the first place.

 Jesus talked about the future – what we call the eschaton in
theological language – but only in terms of the future breaking in on the
present. When he announced the Kingdom of Heaven (or kingdom of God, the terms
are interchangeable), he wasn’t talking about some distant place that we go to
when we die. He was talking about the Kingdom always “coming”. His first sermon
in Matthew 4:17 is one sentence – “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand”.
The word “is” here in the Greek is tense ambiguous – meaning “already” and “not
yet”. God’s Kingdom, God’s reality, God’s reign was breaking into the present
from the future and Jesus’s call was for all people to once again take on the
image of God and the vocation of God to make the world more and more like what
it was intended to be.

 Even Revelation gives us this language. Revelation isn’t
about the “end of the world”, it’s about a renewal – Note the language in
Revelation 21 – it’s all about God moving toward us in the consummation of
creation, the new Jerusalem comes “down” – creation is renewed – “Now the
dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. The will be his
people and God himself with be with them and be their God.” This is the hope –
God is going to break in fully one day but, as Jesus said, it’s already
beginning to happen. Our job as his people is to begin acting out that reality
by taking on the vocation of being God’s image, God’s presence in the world.
That’s the work of salvation.

 The Christian hope isn’t a disembodied existence somewhere
far away – it’s resurrection – renewal, re-embodiment in a renewed world.
Creation matters. God will not abandon it (or us) and we will be raised to a
new life in God’s new reality – a new humanity living in community. Heaven is
but a breath away and it’s a reality we can begin to realize now. What a
vision!

 But who is this vision for? Just for Christians? Are we the
only ones who receive this Kingdom and to hell with everybody else? After all,
aren’t we the believers?

 Well, here’s a thought. We have to consider what the word
“believe” really means. In our western mind, we equate belief with the
acquiescence to a particular set of statements or propositions. When we
“believe” something it means that we’ve studied the propositions and find them
useful…but the propositions are always different. Consider the wide and varied
propositions that Christians claim to “believe” – we can’t seem to agree on
which propositions are important. If someone doesn’t adhere to our particular
set of propositions then they are misguided at best and doomed to hell at
worst.

 But here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t come to us offering a
set of propositions. He comes offering a proposal – For God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son that whoever believes
 in him will have eternal life
(John 3:16). Now read this carefully – God did not give a set of statements or
propositions, he gave himself in the person of Jesus – who delivered God’s
proposal of love. Believe, here, in the original sense of the word, means to
“be live” to be alive, to live into, to be in relationship with God. What’s the
goal? Full relationship with God and full relationship with others – THE IMAGE
OF GOD! Jesus gives us the prototype and invites us into that reality.

 Look at our Gospel lesson today – Jesus makes it clear –
many who say “Lord, Lord” – those who simply believe in the propositions but
don’t live out the relationship – will not enter the Kingdom. It’s much less
about what you understand and much more about who you know!

 As I have been saying for seven years, God’s goal is not to
simply make more Christians but to invite all people to live into the image of
God we were created to be – to “be live” in connecting with God and others in a
life-giving relationship. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

 But what about judgment? The Bible talks about that, too.
While we believe that God’s Kingdom is coming and indeed is already at work, we
also look around us and see that in many ways there are those who will actively
seek to throw off the image of God, to disengage from relationship with God and
with others – people who, in their sin, work harder and harder at becoming less
than human.

 We even use the concept in our language. It is possible for
people to become “monsters” – less than human. Crack open your newspaper and
you’ll see it every day. Genocide, war, corporate scandals…it’s all there.

 If heaven is a reality where God dwells with us and we dwell
with each other in love, then hell is also a reality where humans, in their
free will, choose to live in the pain of isolation. God doesn’t have to assign
us there – we can do a pretty good job on our own. Most of the time in the
Bible where you see God’s wrath threatened it has nothing to do with lightning
bolts from heaven. Rather, God’s wrath is seen, painfully for God, as allowing
his beloved humanity to experience the consequences of its own inwardness.

 What about Satan? Satan is less than human – the tempter,
who reminds us that we have a choice. Look at the temptation of Jesus in
Matthew 4 and you’ll see how it works. The devil doesn’t “make us do it” as in
the theology of Flip Wilson. Rather, all Satan does is remind us that we can do
it by ourselves – that we are the center of the universe. As Donald Miller puts
it: “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story
about me.”

 And when people begin to believe and live out this
self-centered reality, they are in a real sense, in “hell”. I’m not talking
about the fiery, Dante-esque hell that we often picture. When Jesus talks about
hell he uses the word “gehenna” – which was the garbage dump outside Jerusalem
–a place where spontaneous combustion kept the garbage perpetually smoldering.
He used the word to refer what would happen to Israel if they kept up their
revolutionary ambitions and, in AD 70, the Romans did in fact burn it to the
ground.

 No, the reality of hell is a deeper and even more tragic
sense of loss. It is a sense of utter isolation and aloneness. God grieves over
those who would choose to keep running away, like the Father in the prodigal
story who pines after his son. God’s desire is that all might be saved –
brought into relationship with God and the rest of the human family. But the
reality is that some will still choose for themselves. We know what that looks
like in our world. What that looks like in the end, I don’t know but it can’t
be good!

 Eventually, we know that hell will be defeated…that every
tongue will confess Christ as Lord. So our task as the people of God is not to
focus on the eternal destiny but on the present through the lens of this future
reality. Our task is to focus on the Kingdom of God, on our relationship to God
and to others, which pushes hell back further and further – to live as if we’re
in heaven now so that when it comes fully upon us, says Leonard Sweet, it won’t
be such a culture shock!

 Christian faith is less about what happens when we die and
more about how we live. That, said one of my seminary profs, is why the Bible
is so thick with all that stuff about loving God, your neighbor, and yourself.
We’re called to proclaim and live out God’s love in the present as if the
Kingdom has already come.

 God wants us all to live out our humanness in a love
relationship with him and with those around us. What would happen to our world
if we Christians, instead of focusing on who’s in and who’s out, who wins and
who loses, instead saw every encounter we have with someone as an opportunity
to give that person an opportunity to experience the Christ that is alive in
us? What if we saw every encounter we have as an opportunity for someone to
have five minutes alone with the Jesus that we represent?

 In his book “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller relates a story
about a group of Navy Seals who were sent to free a group of hostages in some
dark corner of the world. The hostages had been held for months. When the Seals
broke down the doors of the compound, they called for the hostages to follow
them to safety. But none of them moved. They had been abandoned and mistreated
for so long that they couldn’t trust anyone. No amount of coaxing could get
them to move. Then, one of the Seals realized what needed to happen. He took
off his helmet and put down his weapon and sat close among the hostages,
putting his arms around them…just sitting with them. After awhile they began,
one by one, to stand up and follow the Seals to safety – all because that tough
Navy Seal got down and entered into their world, moved into their pain and made
himself vulnerable.

 What a story!

 What if we didn’t threaten hell and pine for heaven and
instead get down to the business of simply loving those people around us,
especially those who are trapped in the darkness of isolation and sin?

What would happen? I imagine that more and more people would
cross the aisle!

 

 

 

 

Mythological Mayhem

Images One of the interesting trends that's been giving me some food for thought recently is the spate of movies that focus on some of the characters of Greek mythology. The 3-D remake of "Clash of the Titans " and "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" as well as some others are, in some sense, tapping into the roots of Western culture and its Greco-Roman influences. Heroes and villains, larger than life characters, power and glory–all are played out not only in these stories, but also in the subsequent iterations of the genre. Think about the kinds of roles played by your Schwarzeneggers and Willises–those iconic action hero characters are really just an updated form of fascination with god-like characters who are invulnerable to the bullets and pitfalls of mere mortals.

Christianity, which really emerged as a counterculture to the Greco-Roman philosophical and theological worldview, really has no such characters. Jesus performed miracles, but when given the opportunity to pull off the ultimate miracle and come down from the cross, he chose suffering instead. Paul was a titan of theology and made Odessyus' travels look like a trip across the street, yet his life was constantly punctuated by beatings, ridicule and imprisonment.

Having just come through Easter, let us be reminded that the true heroes are those who quietly give themselves away in the service of others, and those who suffer for Christ's sake rather than inflicting suffering on others. The Greeks turned to the powerful throne of Zeus–we turn to the cross for our salvation and example. The gods of the Greco-Roman-Western world are angry at humanity, our God is love.

The Harrowing of Hell – Holy Saturday

Harrowing  Holy Saturday is one of the most ambivalent days on the Christian calendar, sitting between the pain and sorrow of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. Biblically speaking,the Gospels infer nothing happens on that original Holy Saturday–Jesus is in the tomb and the disciples and women were no doubt grieving through a very quiet Sabbath, hidden away from the authorities whom they no doubt thought would be at the door first thing Sunday morning (Sunday being the first century Jewish equivalent of Monday for us). 

Some traditions begin the Easter vigil on Saturday, looking toward Sunday, while others simply wait quietly for the Easter dawn. The Eastern Orthodox tradition, however, takes a more active theological viewpoint–that Jesus not only is in the grave but that he also descends into Hades or hell to liberate those who have died before his pivotal "victory" at the cross–a belief taken from references like 1 Peter 3:18-20. Some versions of the Apostle's Creed reference this belief when we say, "he descended into hell" (which is not quite the same as "he descended to the dead"). 

Biblical scholars are not in agreement on what "preaching to the spirits in prison" really means and whether it is the same as the harrowing of hell. We could debate that for a long time. 

Suffice it to say that, on Holy Saturday, the disciples of Jesus surely descended into their own kind of hell–one to which anyone who has lost a loved one to death can relate. The finality and wrenching silence of death strikes fear in us. The silence of Holy Saturday reminds us powerfully that death isn't something to be circumvented or avoided. Death ends our relationships, ends our humanity, and ends our ability to "be." Unlike the popular Platonist notions of the immortality of the soul, the Bible's overwhelming witness is that our created-ness and humanity is tied to our embodied-ness. That's why death is such a fearsome adversary. 

Truth is that we need to go through a Saturday of death, recognizing its power, before we can realize the power of a Sunday of resurrection, when Death is defeated. 

Today is a day for us to remember those who have died, recognizing the pain of death that separates us. But we do so, always, with an eye toward Sunday and the promise of life! Jesus' resurrection is, as Paul says, the "first fruits" of our own. May we come together in tomorrow's dawn hopeful and joyful that it is Sunday, and not Saturday, that holds our future.