Archive for May, 2011

An Anglican Response to the Rob Bell Controversy

May 23, 2011

I don’t know how many of you may have seen news reports of the latest flap circulating in evangelical circles these days. Now, I don’t mean the obvious fact that Jesus did not return in glory yesterday – no mature Christian, Catholic or Protestant takes these kinds of “predictions” seriously.

No, this has to do with a new book written by Rob Bell, the young pastor of a huge mega-church in Grandville, Michigan, called the “Mars Hill Bible Church.” Rob is the founder and producer of the “Nooma” film series we have been using for the last several years as part of our Adult Education offerings on some Sunday mornings.

His new book is entitled “Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Not a very modest title, which may be one reason that the book has caused such an uproar in some circles. He has been accused by some of denying the existence of hell and of being a “Universalist” – that is, one who believes that everyone will eventually make it to heaven. He has denied both accusations and staunchly defends his book as not denying the reality of hell, but questioning some of his fellow-evangelicals’ certainty that they know just exactly who is going to hell and who is not!

In one exchange, he argues with a fellow pastor who claimed that Gandhi was certainly in hell. Rob replied, “Gandhi in hell? Really? We have confirmation of this? Without a doubt?”

Of course, those who claim that only Christians —  or even only born-again Christians – will make it into heaven often quote the very passage we have from John’s Gospel this morning: in response to Thomas’ question about how they can know “the way” to where Jesus is going, he replies, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

The first part of that citation is Jesus’ primary point and he goes on in the rest of our Reading today to elaborate on what it means to say that he is the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is the way to God because, as he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father?” (John 14:9)

The point here is that the fact of the Incarnation means that Jesus is the “human face of God.” God is really quite beyond anything we can touch or feel or see or even comprehend fully. But the Christian claim is that all we NEED to know about God can be discovered in Jesus. When we look at Jesus, we know what God is like! Does that exhaust everything about the nature of God? Probably not. But, again, all we NEED to know about God, we believe we have found in Jesus Christ. He is “the way” for us.

Next, we are told that Jesus is “the Truth.” And John’s Gospel goes on to quote him as saying “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10) So, when Jesus teaches, he is not just teaching on his own, he is conveying “the truths” he learned from his Father.”  Jesus is speaking the truth about God because God is speaking though him.

And finally, we hear that Jesus is “the Life.” Well, I don’t know anyone – Christian or non-Christian – who does not believe that Jesus lived an exemplary life and that if more people lived more like Jesus, this would be a considerably finer world. Or, as Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do…” (John 14:11-12) We are to live life like Jesus!

So, we believe that Jesus shows us the way to God…teaches us the truth about God…and exemplifies for us the kind of life God would have us live. He is, therefore, the way…the truth…and the life! But does that mean that only Christians will get to heaven? And, if so, what kind of Christians? Practicing Christians? What about non-practicing Christians?

Catholic Christians? What about Protestant Christians? Conservative Christians? What about Liberal Christians?

Yet, John’s Gospel does quote Jesus as saying: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” What does he mean by that? Well, Peter Marty (our colleague up the street at St. Paul Lutheran) puts it this way in a recent review of Rob Bell’s book in The Christian Century magazine: “the glue holding Bell’s project together is the firm conviction that Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He is the cosmic Christ who will not be co-opted or owned by any one culture. He is supra-cultural.”

“The apostle Paul wrote, ‘In Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself’ and Bell is not willing to say that what Paul really meant was a reconciliation of the Christian world. Similarly Bell thinks that when Jesus announced that “God so loved the world…’ he actually meant the world. Had John been interested in shrinking the gospel or lessening the scope of the cross, he might well have proposed that ‘God so loved only Christians.’ But John did not.” (May 17 Christian Century, page 25)

No, John did not propose that…but sometimes Christians seem to wish that he had! Some of this debate is new to evangelical Christians, and that’s why Rob Bell has been so roundly criticized by some of his fellows. It’s not a new debate to Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican theologians. Roman Catholics believe in Purgatory which may allow a way for former unbelievers yet to be recipients of the gift of heaven.

Orthodox and Anglicans often speak of an “intermediate state” called Paradise where we will continue to grow in grace after death while we await the final judgment, and where those who have never heard the word of Christ or who have had it so poorly presented that they rejected it, likewise may have the opportunity to be introduced to Jesus and walk through that “door of the sheepfold” into eternal life with God.

I remember my professor of systematic theology at Seabury-Western once saying “We absolutely must posit the existence of hell…because God will not force anyone to spend eternity with Him who doesn’t want to. BUT,” he continued with a smile, “ if you and I do our jobs, it is not necessary to posit that anyone will actually end up there…finally!”

Well, to be honest, I expect there actually will be those who choose to turn their backs on God once and for all. There are some people who seem actually that self-centered. But let us not join those who criticize people like Rob Bell who at least hold out the hope that, in the final analysis, Love does indeed “win.”

And that those who – knowingly or unknowingly – follow the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus will one day see him face-to-face and (like us) will receive the Gift that neither they, nor we, deserve.

The Gift of Eternal Life!

After Baptism…then what?

May 9, 2011

Easter 3A – Community of Celebration.

As former ecumenical officer for The Episcopal Church, I am a great supporter of our having adopted the Revised Common Lectionary. That’s the scheme which selects and organizes the Lessons from Scripture we read every week. We now share this Lectionary with the Church of England, the Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and others.

Churches like ours which follow a set Lectionary have a great advantage, it seems to me, in that we cover large portions of the Bible each year and it is not up to the preacher to pick and choose which Scripture he or she will preach about each week.

Rather, we have to start with the Word of God, start with the selections provided for us, and then say our prayers, do our commentary work, pay attention to the world around us and the parish we serve, and allow the sermon to be framed out of the interaction of all those factors. So I appreciate the work of those who developed the Lectionary we use.

Having said that, I am at something of a loss to understand why they stopped at what I believe to be one verse short in our First Reading from Acts this afternoon! We come in at the tale end of Peter’s great Pentecost sermon, the very first Apostolic sermon preached after the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit upon the Church, that event which transformed that ragtag bunch of disciples from a fearful, if excited, new Community which had just experienced the Risen Christ, into the most formidable band of missionaries and evangelists the world had ever known!

Peter begins with the Old Testament prophecies, rehearses the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection and how that ties into those ancient prophecies, and concludes with this powerful line: “Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified!” (Acts 2:14).

Well, that got their attention and the text says that:  “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter tells them that they must “repent” (must turn around and go in a new direction – must now follow the One they had betrayed, or at least deserted) and be baptized so that their sins might be forgiven and so that they might receive that same Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit. We’re then told that his hearers welcomed that message and were baptized – some 3,000 persons on that very day! Pretty impressive!

And I suppose that, if all we were interested in was “church growth,” creating “mega churches,” and putting (as it is sometimes indelicately stated) “more butts in the pews,” that might be a good place to stop the First Lesson for today. But look what the next verse says, the verse that was “left out” for some strange reason: “…that day about three thousand persons were added. THEY DEVOTED THEMSELVES TO THE APOSTLES’ TEACHING AND FELLOWSHIP, TO THE BREAKING OF THE BREAD AND THE PRAYERS! (Acts 2:42)

Beloved, coming to faith in Jesus Christ and being baptized into his fellowship is just the first step in a life of Christian discipleship! In some ways, that’s the easy part. Then comes the life of discipleship! Then comes the day to day, week to week, year after year after year JOURNEY INTO CHRIST! And Luke describes that journey, in the Book of Acts, as having at least four components:

The first is being devoted to the Apostles Teaching. Those early Christians were going to have to devote themselves to sitting at the Apostles’ feet, week after week, just as the Apostles had sat at Jesus’ feet week after week, and be instructed in how to live the Christian life!

At the very least that was going to entail learning how to love God and loving their neighbors as themselves. That was going to include treating other people with justice (treating people as God would treat them). It was going to entail healing the sick and feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and turning the other cheek rather than responding to persecution with violence and revenge.

The second component in being a disciple was to devote themselves to “Fellowship.” Now, that’s a word that has been so watered down in today’s church as to be virtually indistinguishable from hanging around for coffee hour after church or showing up at a pot luck supper three or four times a year! What it meant for those earliest Christians was much more like what it means for the Community of Celebration! All things held in common, not a poor person among them, accepting all comers – even the outcasts and the marginalized. The word is “koinonia” in Greek and it means, according to New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, that:

“in Christ, Christians not only belong to one another but actually become mutually identified, truly rejoicing with the happy and genuinely weeping with the sad…Koinonia is part of the truth about the body of Christ. All are bound together in a mutual bond that makes our much-prized individualism look shallow and petty. This fundamental meaning of koinonia best explains its other uses, particularly that of “generosity” or “almsgiving”…Christians give to one another because they belong to one another.”

The third component of discipleship is “the breaking of the bread.” Originally that meant sharing meals with one another and with the poor but, after the sun had set on the Sabbath Day, it also meant sharing the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist with one another as Jesus had done at the Last Supper and as we are doing here tonight. It was to do as St. Paul had instructed in First Corinthians “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” (I Corinthians 11:26)

And finally, the fourth component – they were to pray, to become people of prayer. The Old Testament patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets were people of prayer. Jesus was a man of prayer. The Apostles were becoming people of prayer, especially after they had received the Gift of the Holy Spirit on that Pentecost morning. How can we serve God and follow God’s will without communicating on a daily basis, two-way communication (offering our praise and thanks, confession, intercession and petition…and also sitting in silence and contemplation listening for that “still, small Voice” of the Master? I don’t see how we can.

So…three thousand baptized in a single day? Very cool. It has taken us 15 years to baptize that many in my diocese! But unless every one of those newly-baptized are also “discipled,” turned into real disciples of Christ, we might as well not have wasted the water!

“Brothers, what are we to do?” the congregation asked. “Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Yes, but if that Holy Spirit has been truly received, four things will be required: devotion to the Apostles’ teaching, true fellowship, the breaking of bread…and the prayers.

We are doing all four of those things in this service.

Thanks be to God!