We share with all Christians the understanding that all need the healing touch of God. But, differences in how we understand our faith affects how we perceive the world, and how we interact with others.
I particularly remember one couple I knew years ago, who were among my most trusted and supportive friends at the time. Great people.
One day they were speaking of their second home in the mountains, where they planned to retire. It was completely “off the grid” – no connections to utilities of any sort, not even a mailing address. They never let anyone know exactly where it was.
They were also fairly conservative in their faith, and this sounded a lot like a refuge from the Apocalypse. But, they were such reasonable, balanced people! I knew that couldn’t be the case. So, I teased the wife, saying “Then I suppose the gas masks, concertina wire and machine gun nests are all just for show”?
Looking a little shocked, she said (dead serious), “How’d you know?”
“How did I know what?” I asked in surprise.
“How did you know we had gas masks?”
Despite all that we share (and there is more that unites us than not) there are major differences between what we who are Progressive Christians believe, and what those holding what they see as a more correct (and literal) interpretation of Scripture believe.
A big one is that we believe God’s Creation was basically good; and still is. We believe this because of Genesis chapter 1, which says “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” And, we believe that if Creation isn’t still “very good,” then why did Jesus come to redeem it, and us? God values us.
We see Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as proof that God will sacrifice everything out of Love for us. We are part of God’s “Very Good” Creation. We are not a mistake. We are not fatally flawed. We know God loves us with a Love that is real, and tangible: present in our lives and in the world all around us.
But for some with a more literal (and often apocalyptic) view, the world is seen as fatally flawed because of human sin. And, God must eventually come and clean up this mess, throwing everything unworthy into the fire.
There is a scriptural basis for this view. There are many warnings of drastic consequences for sin in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: harsh, scary stuff! The Book of Revelation, for instance, has vivid descriptions of the torment and destruction that await those who are not true and steadfast believers.
Many who believe in interpreting the Bible literally also believe that the Holy Spirit enables us to snatch a few fortunate souls from the certainty of eternal torment that otherwise awaits everything and everyone else. To them, they are on a mission to save what can be saved from the corruption that afflicts the entire world through Original Sin. And frankly, this is a message that people desperate for help often need to hear: literalistic and evangelical ministers preach such a faith, a faith of transformative power. This is a message that is all too often lacking in the ministry of us who are preachers of a more nuanced and affirming message.
But, this view can also lead to a life filled with fear; as it did for my two friends and others I know and love. They see the world as a very dark, scary place. Life’s goodness is a fleeting illusion that will vanish without warning.
Nowadays, it is easy to find evidence of how such beliefs lead to self-righteousness, self-delusion, and the oppression of those who are perceived as “other.” Because, if we believe we have done what is necessary to be saved; and others have not done exactly what we have done, then they are obviously not saved. It is not much of a step from there to believe that those who reject our attempts to “save” them must be unworthy of God’s Love. And so, they must be unworthy of our compassion or help, as well.
Literalism teaches there is only one true path to God. It does not make room for other ways of finding the Love and Grace of God. Only one interpretation of the Bible is correct: theirs. So, when our own views differ even only slightly, we are judged as doomed to Hell. And, that we must be saved from our error, sin and corruption. There is no middle ground.
We agree with our Literalist siblings that we all need the cleansing, healing power of Jesus. We both believe God’s Love is freely available. But, we who are Progressives look at God’s Love as something we have already received. We only need to let it operate in and through us.
For them, God’s Grace is freely available, but we must take the necessary steps to claim it. (i.e., repent from our sins and ask for the Holy Spirit to fill and cleanse us.) When someone says you must say the “Sinner’s Prayer” or be “Born Again” to be a true Christian, this is where they’re coming from. As I see it, it is in this movement from a personal belief into how one treats and interacts with others as a result of that belief that Literalism becomes a problem.
What troubles me is that all ministry then has an ulterior motive. You don’t help your neighbor because God loves them. The purpose of your relationship with them is only to make them realize they cannot fix their life on their own. They must repent and be “saved.” This is Ministry with an agenda, often hidden. It is a means to an end; a manipulative lie.
Now, they see such ministry as an act of Love. Loving “The Other” for what they can become, for what God wants them to be. They believe God already loves us all. But, they believe that without Repentance, God’s love cannot become a reality in others’ lives.
We believe God loves us exactly as we already are. We minister out of God’s Love, not to make the other receive it. We see God’s Love as already within all of us, and active. What they see as the goal of their ministry is, for us, the source of why we minister.
I am convinced that ministering to anyone for the purpose of making them believe as I do is wrong. We don’t help others because they need to be “saved” from the fires of Hell. We help them because they need help. Just as Christ came and helped us because we needed help. We share God’s love with others without any demand or expectation of change because that’s how God loves us. No one needs to change or repent to benefit from God’s Love and healing power.
Another problem with some more “Fundamentalist” viewpoints is they separate us from each other. In its more extreme form, Fundamentalism teaches that Humanity is split between the few who are “saved” and the rest of us who are doomed to Hell.
In some ways, this is an attractive theology. After all, the answers are simple; black and white; good and bad; Sinners and Saved. There are no gray areas. You either believe exactly as I do, or you’re doomed to eternal torment. And clearly, since my faith is already perfect, I don’t need to prayerfully contemplate my motives or actions and their effect upon others. If something is wrong, it’s their problem, not mine!
Our God is not a God of simple answers. Otherwise, there’d be no need for a large and complicated body of Scripture. The Bible would end with the Ten Commandments. There’d be no need for Christ.
This morning’s Lectionary readings each reflect upon an aspect of this. Psalm 130:7 says “For with the Lord is steadfast Love, and with God is great power to redeem.…” Telling us that the Lord redeems out of eternal, omnipresent and unchanging Love; not our own efforts.
Ezekiel, which we did not read here today, teaches that God will restore the whole house of Israel; not just part of it. Our reading from the Book of Romans teaches that we are all part of the House of Israel, not just those who were born into it. We are all adopted into the family of God through the work of God’s only child. God’s salvation and grace are for everyone, and are already ours.
Psalm 130:3 says “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand?” On this the Bible is very clear: none of us are ever good enough to merit God’s Love, no matter how sincere or complete our repentance. It doesn’t matter whether we’ve said the Sinner’s Prayer or not. It doesn’t matter whether we’re “Born Again” or not. We all sin. We will all continue to sin. We all have flaws. We all fail. And, we are called to love others despite their flaws and failures; or our own.
God sees only the goodness that is an inescapable part of who we are: the goodness that God deliberately put there. We are Very Good. This is what God sees. This is all that God sees; and – as Psalm 130:8 says “It is God who will redeem all Israel from its iniquities” – all Israel, not just some. Not just those who are deserving. Not just those born into Judaism. Not just those who are “saved.”
So, in this Lenten season, let us work to see others as God sees them and us. No matter what their faith. No matter what their politics. No matter what their skin color, wealth, gender, or sexual orientation. All are just as loved by God as we are. All any of us need is a revelation of that Love; to be touched by this Love that is already within us. Our neighbors simply need to be loved by you and me.
So, let us love one another just as God has always loved each and every one of us. Love “The Other” even if they own a set of Gas Masks. Our love will set them free from fear.
There are no simple answers in this world. There is; simply, Love.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, April 2, 2017 (5th Sunday of Lent).
Psalm 130 (“Waiting for Divine Redemption”, NRSV)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (“The Valley of Bones”, NRSV)
Romans 8:6-11 (“Setting the Mind on the Spirit”, NRSV)
Genesis 1 (“The 6 Days of Creation”, NRSV)
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.