A REASON FOR HOPE FOR ALL- A POSSIBILITY

There is a significant amount of conversation these days about Hopeful Christian Universalism, meaning that the Bible gives us reason to believe and hope that through Christ all people will be restored and saved and enter the Kingdom. Most Christians are fine with thinking this is NOT the case and would rather trust the research and theology that has come to us mostly since the Reformation of the 1500’s.

Let’s consider the idea of judgment for a moment. I recently read a blog written by a friend from Long Island on this point: (This following is a paragraph from the blog.)

The message is clear. No matter who you are, rich or poor, known or unknown, cleric or laymen, artist or Pope, we all have the wonderful opportunity to look up and consider God in His marvelous creation. But if we do this, we must all also consider that we will all face Him in his judgment – and that is the part that many people want to forget. It is one thing to look at creation and think that God may have had a part in it, but it is quite another to think that we all are accountable to this same God.

Christians of the Evangelical sort make much of judgment, particularly final judgment which, depending on what verses we read, can be based on faith or faith and good works done in the body or how we used the talents God gave to us. This judgment, especially for unbelievers, is dark and filled with images of hellish eternal torment rendered unto us by the loving God who in Jesus told us to love our enemies.

I want to consider a passage that is most appropriate for this Holy Week. I believe it’s an alternate view. It is a Palm Sunday scene that takes place after Jesus had raised Lazarus to life. He is now in Jerusalem and at one point reflects on his imminent death. I will pick up the scripture from there: John 12:27 ff.

 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiahremains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

Now, here’s how I understand what is happening in this conversation. Jesus is speaking about his death on the cross and concluding that his death will bring about the judgment of the world. His death will bring the world into a crisis by which the love of God expressed by Jesus on the cross IS the judgment of the world that Jesus is taking into himself. Evil, sin and Satan will be defeated on the cross. Read Colossians 2:13-15 [NRSV]:

13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, Godmade you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

See, this is the work of Jesus on the cross. To forgive us all, erasing all the legal punishments against us, and disarming Satan. Some will say it’s only true for those who believe. But in verse 32 of John 12, Jesus says that he is going to draw, pull, or drag ( Greek) all people to himself.

Now we can still say that this drawing does not save, only attracts more people. But left over from my Calvin days is the idea that such drawing is a work of irresistible grace on God’s part that will ensure that all people will come to Christ. It may be in this life and it may be that it happens after this life. I picture Jesus from his throne opening his arms of love to enfold the entire world for which he died. He didn’t die just for believers. Read I John 2:2: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world.

Having written this I need to say that there are scriptures that signify a severe punishment for unbelievers (in whatever way such people are determined) but there is much in scripture that leads us to conclude that God will restore his whole creation back to himself, even through penalty after death that lasts for a season or eon. See Colossians 1:20. But many Christians don’t want to study those passages or dwell on them lest they be led astray, they think. But we want to consider the whole counsel of Scripture. The early church Fathers did. Read what they thought of hopeful universalism before the 6th century. (Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Clement, St. Jerome and others anyone can look up.)

My point is to say that God loves his whole world and wants the salvation of all to take place; and restoration of all creation is possible through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. I believe Jesus even puts an exclamation point on that possibility by forgiving the men who crucified him. So judgment may have taken place on what we call GOOD FRIDAY, only to be affirmed by the SUNDAY RESURRECTION.

I am hopeful that the God of love revealed in Christ will do more than we think or imagine in restoring all people to him. Paul writes that God is not counting the sins of anyone in the world against them (2Cor. 5:19). To me, that’s the Good News we can proclaim in Christ. That’s the kind of love that changes peoples’ hearts.

Grace does matter.

By the way, a wonderful book to read in the above vein is THE EVANGELICAL UNIVERSALIST by Gregory MacDonald.

REMARKABLE HOW LITTLE I MISS GOING TO CHURCH

The other morning after a four-inch snow I decided to help my neighbor with my trusty snowblower. Coincidentally another neighbor showed up and we worked together to clear our neighbor’s sidewalks and driveway. We got done, high-fived each other and I said, ‘There, we’ve had church for today.” Mark 12:33 says that loving a neighbor is better than going to church. Yep, that’s a paraphrase but it’s right there. 

During this Covid time, I have reflected on the meaning of the church. From my own professional and personal experience I have come to think that church is very much a part of the Constantinian Captivity. After the church was made legal and even mandatory it lost its central message of ‘loving one another’ and instead came up with religious inoculation whereby if you get a little of it you won’t be subject to the whole infection of God. Now, that might seem a bit extreme but it’s been proven time and time again that when push comes to shove ‘the church’ would rather be safe and secure than dying for the neighbor in trouble, which is the true definition of love.

Let me give you an example. Once upon a time, as a pastor, I had a finance person ask me, ‘What are you going to do to put more bodies in the pews?’ Not what I was going to do to spread the gospel or help a neighbor but rather how was I planning to get more people in church so that… we could more easily finance the budget. 

The church today has become weighed down by its own bureaucracy and self-security.  

I am reading Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers From Prison”. At one point he writes to a friend, ‘It’s remarkable how little I miss going to church. I wonder why.’ Many of us have not been inside a church for a long time during this pandemic and some of us are just not missing the experience.

I am wondering if the church is not intimate and outward-focused enough. I suspect that smaller and more intimate groups would be better suited to fulfill the commands Jesus gave to us in the Sermon on the Mount and the two greatest commandments by which he tells us to love God and neighbor. Remember, Jesus only had 12 disciples through which God changed the world.

From the conflict I observe these days in churches, I am convinced that small intimate groups are the only way to reconcile people and resolve such conflicts. The political vitriol we see has split some churches into factions that have become unmanageable.

Now, onto a confession of my own. I have been a professionally paid pastor most all my life. My personal security has been taken care of by the larger institution and so I feel some sense of guilt of speaking this way about the church. But I’ll get over it. However, I am seriously thinking that a small group of disciples can more effectively be the fellowship of change and reconciliation that God wants in this world.  And some larger churches can make this work by means of smaller fellowships that carry out the mission of Christ in the world and with one another.

Bonhoeffer went so far as to say that the time will come and should be upon us when the church sells its property to give the money to those in need. He says the pastor won’t be paid or at least very little and probably will have to find secular employment. A tall order that I am sure we can get around if we use the right Bible verses.

A smaller, more intimate group of people can better reach the marginalized people in the community. Much prayer, study, and accountability are better attainable in such a setting.

I don’t know what will happen once churches are fully open but I hope in the meantime we all do some deeper reflection on what it means to be disciples today.

THE SUNSHINE OF YOUR LOVE

The band ‘Cream’ sang this in 1967, the year I graduated high school. Forget the lyrics for now. It’s the title I love. I am still a big fan of Eric Clapton.

Anyway, the title reminds me of some words of Jesus. We’ll get to those words but first I need to recall a couple scenes from the T.V. series FRASIER. My wife and I are watching it for the 4th time. Get a life, george. The scenes involve Frasier and his brother, Niles. In different scenes the brothers hold a door open for some woman who neglects to say, ‘thank you.’ It becomes a theme in the show about ungrateful people who don’t offer the thanks that is expected. 

I’ve done that. I stop my car so someone can cross the street apart from the crosswalk area. A little wave of acknowledgment? Nope. So then I decided to not expect any gratitude. That worked for a while and now I’m back to anticipating something that is probably not going to come.

So I’m thinking the other day about Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:45 we read the words that ‘God makes his sun to shine on the evil and good’ and Jesus tells us to do the same thing for others, no matter their character.

God is showering the sunshine of his love on everyone without thinking about getting thanks in return. Oh, does God love our praise? Certainly. But his love takes no notice of those who don’t respond except to keep loving them and letting his sun shine on them. Some folks call that common grace. Let’s call it love, pure unconditional love, a love that does not keep score. And I for one am glad because if God kept score of my ‘bads’, God would be already in the ‘billions to nothing’ category.

Our God is loving. God is love, says the Bible. That’s his essence, his nature. He loves to love. That’s why you and I are here on this earth. To love. Like our Father in heaven, says Jesus.

Thanks be to God for those who want to live in that love, soaking up all that grace and seeing the difference in their lives if they do. Now that I am writing this, I’m gonna see what it’s like in real life.

God be with you.

THIRD GRADER CRIES IN FRONT OF CLASS

I was in third grade, a very self-conscious kid, too conscientious for my own good. I remember the day clearly. I didn’t have my homework done. I remind you that this was in third grade. I walked to the front of the class and stood at the desk of Miss Carroll, my teacher. I cried when I told her I didn’t do my homework. That wasn’t the worst of it. Miss Carroll then presented me to the class and said that she wished all her students were as conscientious as me. I could have fallen through the floor if I could.

As a person and particularly a pastor I have too much cared what others think or even what I think my behavior and responsibility should be in this world. Certainly I have thought myself in line with God’s will but I have been probably more in line with my homegrown super ego.

I have recently come into conflict with others over some of my theological ideas.

My conscience used to want to explore different theologies but I have wanted to be line with the will of people more than God. This applies to my ideas about social activism and liberal politics too. These things are on my heart and must be explored and given voice in my life.

And so I am encouraging you who read this to explore life beyond your conscience. After all our conscience can be informed by the wrong ideas. The people of Germany in the 1930s certainly had their consciences formed by wrong propaganda.

See I believe myself to be a child of God in all the best ways and so I am going to listen to the little boy inside of me, the little boy who every day is open to the Father’s direction and will.

And even when I am wrong I will be happily wrong because I belong to God and God won’t stop loving me no matter what. God’s love is the top priority of my consciousness.

So go ahead, take a chance. Stretch a little and even rebel at what those little voices are telling you. There’s only one voice that matters. That’s the voice of Jesus. See Hebrews 1:2.

Yeah, I still cry on occasion but I’m not going to shed any more tears for those little voices in my head that make me more sensitive and conscientious than I need to be.

Jesus said in John 8, “If you obey my teaching, you are really my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

That’s all I need, I hope and pray. To be free.

God’s Big Tent

WHO will enter the Kingdom of God? Who can be saved — another way of expressing the question. I believe to some extent most of us are ‘hopeful evangelical universalists’. We believe in the God of love who sought to find his lost people, his lost creation. God covered the earth in a large tent, something like a tabernacle in the wilderness. God’s presence is that tabernacle, and according to the Bible, that presence has been poured out on everyone (see Acts 2).

Everyone who came into creation came spiritually and organically through Christ. All have been made in the image of God and God has particular love for every one of his children (see John 3). If that is true then let’s consider the following scenarios of children within God’s eternal care.

A child who tragically dies in infancy. My mom lost a child who had died even before she was born. Will these children be damned forever or brought lovingly into God’s Kingdom? The Bible doesn’t tell us but I believe they are with the Lord because I believe in a loving God. Now some Calvinists believe that it is possible these children will be damned because they are not part of what Calvinists term ‘the elect’, those favored by God for salvation. The term ‘age of accountability’ doesn’t enter the equation since there is none given in the Bible, only inferred by religious interpretation.

What about a mentally impaired person who knows not the right response to an offer of salvation from a well-intentioned evangelist? Maybe he or she can mimic the correct answer but certainly not from understanding. Again we are hopeful that God will welcome these people into salvation.

Next we consider a person who has grown up in India under Hinduism teachings. We say we don’t know. Very conservative people say they are not the elect by reason of God’s choice. See, these are theories and theologies and I believe they are wrong. Even if Romans 1 speaks about natural revelation, God is a free God, free to love; free to bring whomever God wants into the Big Tent. People who don’t even know they are God’s children will have such a revelation at some point.

Now we observe an eighteen-year-old woman who was severely abused by her father and at this point in her life cannot believe in a ‘loving heavenly father’ and will not accept God’s son. Never having been brought into a loving relationship with the Savior she dies in unbelief. Does God stop loving her and count her unworthy of his eternal grace? We hope not.

And all the good Samaritans of this world? These are people who have done such good that aligns with God’s will but haven’t confessed Christ. I have hope for them as well as the victims of wrongs like slavery, abuse, children who through neglect were allowed to die of hunger or disease, Jews and Russians who were cruelly executed. I read the other day about an execution in our ‘sane’ country where, in the opinion of some, any chance for salvation was killed in the execution of a criminal. Even Jesus wasn’t willing for that to happen.

If we are God’s children we are hopeful for everyone, even our enemies. I mean it’s even possible for Trump supporters to be saved. We’ve no reason to wish eternal torment on anyone if we are sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.

God’s tent is big, as big as the universe. Oh, it may be that some will deliberately walk or run from that tent, like the prodigal did, but even in that scenario the door is left open. If you read the end of the book of Revelation you will see that the door to the Kingdom is left open.

The big tent of God, the presence of God in Christ whose birth we celebrate, is the assurance of our hope. The Bible says in John 1:14 that ‘God came and tented among us.’ He walked and talked with us and thus the whole world, extending the invitation farther and farther and even into eternity.

God is hopeful too. He wants all his creation to be restored and he wants to reconcile the whole world to himself. God wants all to be saved. And since God is not a robot or mechanical manager he has the freedom to relate to all people, even after death. That’s God’s freedom and desire.

I don’t want my tent to be any smaller that my Father’s tent-house-mansion and Kingdom. Like God I desire all to be saved. And that’s scriptural. So I am what some would term ‘a hopeful Christian universalist’.

And that’s Good News for the world, as the angels proclaimed.

PARADIGM SHIFT

Distinguishing Between Straight-Up Advice and Paradigm Shift | Jane Friedman

Some of you may remember this picture. Depending on how you look at it, do you see a young woman, or an old woman? It’s a change in perspective. Same picture, different perspective. That’s what happens in faith. Same God, same Bible, same Lord, but…a different way of encountering the message depending on how we have grown up and what’s been emphasized.

If you have grown up with stern authoritarian figures you may be a controlling person yourself and you may take notice in the Bible of God’s sovereignty and control and gravitate towards passages that emphasize such. But if you tended to be loved and affirmed then you might have a tendency to see the dynamics of a loving God as you focus on certain scriptures. This is a generalization but it’s how many people approach the Bible.

I grew up in a loving family though not affectionately so. I was a first born child among three. I grew up as a controlling person, fun but anxious to please and control. Maybe I controlled situations through humor. But enough psychoanalyzing me. Anyway I eventually became a Calvinist. Yep, a strict view of the God who is sovereign and controlling of every molecule, and a God who won’t tolerate sin. Yes, God gave his Son to die for sin and that initiative by God called for strict obedience and lots of expectations of others.

Eventually stories like the Prodigal Son caught my eye and I discovered I had been like the older son, doing and believing everything rightly. I yearned for the love that the prodigal received and looked for that loving God in the scriptures. And I found that God. Ah, the paradigm shift. Then I started to read books by Brennan Manning and Larry Crabb and others who saw the love. And so I began to absorb all the relevant scriptures about love. Those were the ones that began to stand out to me.

And now I look at people differently, at God and at the Bible differently. And I am now, wait for it, reading about Christian Universalism which is Christ centered, honoring of Biblical authority and focused on the love of God. I have discovered that just maybe there is a way of hope for God’s creation whereby the love of God changes everything. There is a DNA built into the creation that needs to be connected to its source- the God of love. God is love. The eternity is filled with love. Sin is its absence. The absence of God. I don’t want to be absent of God.

One more thing. We have all grown up using different Bibles and thus different translations. And even though I have been to seminary and a pastor for a million years it was only recently that I happened on translations and scholarship that allowed me to see that there are words which when translated a certain way convey a different meaning than I had ever encountered. I like these translations because they fit into the new way I see God’s love. Yep, I am biased towards love and against punishment. Words like hell, gehenna, hades, sheol, and ‘eternal’ have all been written and translated from greek and latin in ways that influence how we believe.

But more of that another time. So let’s get to loving. God knows we need more of these days.

CRYSTAL CLEAR

So here’s the thing. There are so many things in Bible interpretation that are ambiguous: Atonement, baptism, prayer, as well as the meaning of faith and works.

Even the Reformers couldn’t agree and they split over the issue of communion (The Lord’s Supper). Even Paul said he had to ‘work hard’ so as not to be disqualified from salvation. (1Cor. 9:27)

And the issue of eternal punishment is not clear. Is it annihilation or fires or worms or darkness or is there a possibility that somehow God will bring all his creation back to himself?

I know that many Christians believe that non-believers or disobedient people may be tortured in everlasting torment. But that is mostly from presumptions we make having been brought up in a certain way. Listen, Christian people are not even certain what happens to the people who have never heard of Christ. They say things like ‘well they are not the elect’ or ‘God will do the right thing’. And what about the Jews and little children who are not of accountable age? And what does accountable means? I believe we are manipulating God into a box where we have taken away God’s freedom.

Is the eternal destiny of humanity so clear that some people can be so certain as to who is in and who is out? Doesn’t God judge the intention of the heart? It seems so in the Sermon on the Mount.  And do all our discernments about judgment make us judges ourselves?

And what about those men who crucified our Lord? Were they really forgiven? It all makes me dizzy. And then I know people who say that our little minds can’t understand how God works.

Well, I do. Amidst all the ambiguities of this faith one thing is Crystal Clear: God’s love for us. There is no doubt that God’s love is huge, beyond huge. When my mother use to tell her granddaughter that she loved her, her granddaughter would respond, “I love you more”. That’s what God says to us time and time again and especially from the cross. “I love you more.” And not for one moment do I think the love of God stops when our hearts stop beating. I’ve said before that everything I see now is through the lens of the Christ crucified for us.

We westerners (and you can check this out) have the propensity towards retribution and payback. Our idea of justice is that God will pay bad people back.  It’s probably why I like Westerns so much. But God’s idea of justice is….well, look upon the cross. There we see God’s idea of justice for humanity. We see Jesus loving, suffering, forgiving and dying for love. Death cannot prevent that kind of love from getting through to God’s creation. Never mind Jesus preaching to the imprisoned souls, whatever that means. Just think that God’s love fills eternity, all of it, forever and ever. If God’s love can continue in the ‘saved’ person’s life then why can’t it do remedial work in the other’s lives? Who knows? There might be remedial work to be done in the ‘saved’ lives. And it will be out of God’s love, not vindication or retribution. Yeah, that’s what I believe.

SHOCKING GOOD NEWS

For the longest time, my Christian faith has been in the God who loves the world but, as God, has to decide on who gets into heaven and who is damned forever. It just made sense that in a JUST world the good and bad, the faithful and unfaithful end up in different eternal places. For the longest time I was a Calvinist believing that even before creation God had decided who was in and who was out.

But no more. In the last few years I have discovered that God so loves that God wants to restore his whole creation back to himself. It happened this way: first I read passages like Colossians 1:15-20

15 He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (ESV translation)

Notice first of all that Christ holds the creation together and then watch this; through Christ God is reconciling all things, all things to himself, making peace with all creation through the sacrifice of Christ. That’s some powerful everlasting and far reaching love. That’s the relentless love of God, God who will not rest until all his beloved creation is restored.

Then I read in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to love our enemies and I began to think, ‘why would Jesus tell us to love OUR enemies when God sends HIS enemies to hell?’ It didn’t make sense.

Then I came across 2Corinthians 5:19

19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (NIV)

hrough Christ who fought and forgave sin, God is bringing this whole creation back to himself. Reconciling, loving, and forgiving- just like in the story of the Prodigal Son.

Now I realize that this truth, this idea may make some people uncomfortable because of the way we were brought up. But in these next blog posts I want to share with you why this truth is so freeing, so God honoring, so Christ centered, and so Biblically accurate that it is almost impossible to ignore. And it was the truth of the Christian faith for the first 500 years and now is become once again so prevalent within the Christian community.

I will be suggesting many scriptures to read on this subject that is called Evangelical Universalism or Christian Universalism meaning that Christ is the atonement for our sins, not just we who believe but for the sins of the whole world. There is a need to interpret scripture and read the ones in supposed contradiction to the Universalistic ones. There is also the need to understand just what God’s judgment is all about. We will be surprised by what Jesus says and what Paul, who was a Universalist himself, writes about what God is up to.

I welcome your thoughts on this subject, your opposing viewpoints, your questions and your prayers as we open ourselves to what I perceive as the truest meaning of Grace.

BLESSED ARE THE POOR????

There are parallel versions of the first Beatitude, words that Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples.  The first appears in Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The second version is found in Luke 6:20. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (NIV)

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven are synonymous. Scholars say that Matthew, as a good Jew, would not want to use the holy name “God”. So here we have blessings for the ‘poor in spirit’ and the ‘poor’. There is really nothing blessed in being poor and living in the consequences of that poverty. So there is something else going on here. ‘Poor in spirit’ means spiritual poverty. Both mean scarcity of that which makes life flourish. So let’s consider another way of looking at these.

Some people like to think that the Beatitudes are Jesus’ challenge for people to climb some kind of spiritual ladder towards maturity; get to a place of spiritual poverty they suggest, or be grateful you don’t have a lot of material things. A friend who accompanied me on a trip to Haiti told the people that they were truly blessed because they didn’t have the distractions of material things that Americans have. Those words did not play well to the Haitian audience.

Late author and teacher Dallas Willard suggested that Jesus was probably wandering through the crowds saying to this one and that one, “You are fortunate (blessed) because the kingdom has come for you just as much as anyone else. Blessed are you spiritual nobodies. Christ has come for you too.”  Jesus does away with any sense of hierarchy or reward or even law. He is simply saying that no matter who you are or what your circumstances are at this moment; rejoice because you are loved by God. His presence, his kingdom is here for you. There is no exclusion in the kingdom of God. Whether we are poor of goods or poor of spirit we belong to God. 

We may be sick or healthy, gay or straight, republican or democrat. None of that matters. The kingdom of God is for all to enter. We might be bad or good. The kingdom is here for us. Certainly Jesus will have challenges for his disciples but these are not them. The whole world is blessed. Thanks be to God because there are people who think their circumstances in life exclude them. And in Luke you will see some circumstances of the proud and rich and arrogant that may well keep them guessing as to their place. But in kingdom reality all are welcomed, all are in for what God’s kingdom offers. That is the unconditional love of God. Even while we were enemies of God Christ died for us. Who could possibly be left out?