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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/22/2011

The name Rob Bell probably doesn’t mean a lot to you; it doesn’t mean that much to me either but from what I know about him, I think he and I agree on some things.  He’s the pastor of Mars Hill Church which is just outside of Grand Rapids, a mega-church that has 8-10 thousand people in worship on any given weekend.  Like many mega-church pastors he writes books and his latest one is called Love Wins and it has created a bit of controversy in some circles.  I haven’t read it but there was a review of it in the latest issue of Christian Century and apparently he has the audacity to place his confidence in a God whose essence is love rather than judgment.  That in itself isn’t really all that controversial but he goes so far as to question whether anyone spends eternity in the torment and punishment of hell. 

Sounds outrageous doesn’t it, unless you’ve gone to a Bible study here and realize that we’ve talked about this very thing because talking about who’s in and who’s out in the afterlife can be confusing.   It’s hard to talk about a God of unconditional grace and forgiveness and then proceed to place limits on who is eligible for that grace and forgiveness; it’s hard to talk about a God of love and then have that God ready and willing to condemn large portions of humanity to the eternal fires of hell.  The two ideas contradict each other and can’t help but create what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, two thoughts or ideas that just don’t hold together very well. 

But again, in Bible studies and in Lay School classes we’ve talked about this, we’ve talked about the tension that is created when you start thinking about these things and also when you start considering all the voices of the Bible rather than just selecting certain voices.  In our discussions we don’t necessarily come up with any definitive answers only acknowledging that in some fashion you just have to live with the tension and also that we’ll leave final judgment of who’s in and who’s out up to God.     

Even if you don’t go to Bible study or take Lay School classes and haven’t been part of these discussions, if you pay attention at all you know that my faith is in and my preaching is about a God whose anger is for a moment, but whose steadfast love is forever and I think I have pretty good biblical basis for that because it is a refrain that is repeated time after time and also is a refrain that describes Jesus pretty well; I think I’m on pretty solid ground here.  So while I don’t know all the particulars of his theology,  I think I’m at least in some agreement with Rev. Bell on what he believes and also on the legitimacy of the questions he raises.  That agreement is not the case for everyone however.  He has drawn wrath from some who don’t like his failure to condemn to hell anyone who is not a Christian, wrath from some who seem to want to make God’s steadfast love for a moment and his anger forever.

I’m sure that those who criticize him would be quick to cite verse 6 of today’s gospel, the verse that’s on the front of the bulletin; “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  A literal reading of that verse does seem to rather definitively slam the door shut on everyone except Christians.  So one could conclude that maybe Jesus himself is the source of the condemnation of Rev. Bell…but I don’t think it’s Jesus’ fault.  I think it’s the way Jesus gets interpreted that is the problem here.

Following after what I said last week about the purpose of John’s gospel being to create faith through poetic images and symbolic language, I’m not sure that one ever wants to interpret John literally; it’s just not the nature of his writing, it’s not the nature of much of the Bible actually.  In this case, a literal interpretation of “No one comes to the Father except through me” creates a Bible bullet that effectively ends conversation with many groups of people and I’m pretty sure that interpretations that do that are always wrong especially when we talk about Jesus who was almost always about generating conversation, usually responding to questions with answers that were rather evasive and led to more thought and more questions.  On top of that, such a literal interpretation completely removes this verse from the context in which John puts it. 

This part of John is presented as a conversation between Jesus and his closest followers, followers who are struggling and trying to make sense of things.  It’s not an address by Jesus to outsiders trying to convince them to believe in him; it’s not a lesson in Christian doctrine.  Today’s verses are a small part of a much longer passage but even just staying with the part we heard today it is quite clearly intended as encouragement and assurance and invitation; “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” is how it starts. 

To take verse 6 out of that “do not let your hearts be troubled” context and make it an all encompassing claim against all other belief systems makes no sense.  It begins to make the verse a scare tactic and in John’s intention to create faith he doesn’t use scare tactics.  Fear doesn’t create faith; it may bring about obedience, but it doesn’t create faith.  How often does Jesus say, “Do not fear” or “Be not afraid”?

The language of Jesus is often about defusing fear.  Peter Marty, whose name you may recognize as the host of the Grace Matters radio program, wrote the review I read of Love Wins.  He mentions how Jesus characteristically uses words that speak in the language of promise, not threat.  He begins his parables with words like “The kingdom of heaven is like…a mustard seed, a pearl, a treasure hidden in a field.”  In John, as I mentioned last week, you get I am the Good Shepherd, I am the vine, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, things like that.  None of it is threatening.  It’s all invitation, thought provoking and faith provoking invitation.

What this really comes down to is the question of how we think about God, of how we think about Jesus.  In our humanity, it’s hard not to place limits on God or to place limits on how far Jesus’ redeeming love can reach.  Our tendency is to want definitive answers in part so that we can draw lines.  We want winners and losers and of course we’re always on the winning side.  But again, the certainty of that kind of thinking fosters an arrogance that ends conversation and when carried to extremes winds up with people hating and killing each other in the name of God.  Does that sound like God’s will?  Does that exemplify the humility that Jesus modeled?

One of the things that critics of people like Rob Bell fail to acknowledge is that even within what we as Christians accept as Holy Scripture, God is portrayed and experienced and imagined in a wide variety of ways.  The Bible itself doesn’t provide us with absolutes unless you take a verse like “No one comes to Father except through me” out of context and use it as an absolute.  What is quite consistent in the Bible is that God is seen as being in relationship and in dialogue rather than being a God who dictates absolutes.   Even the commandments are followed by large portions of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy which are basically interpretation or discussion or dialogue around those seemingly absolute statements.

With Jesus, he was the master of responses that avoided straight answers and instead encouraged his listeners to push further.  It was frustrating for them.  That comes out in today’s text too when Jesus says, “You know the way to the place where I am going,” and Thomas responds, “Lord, we do not know where you are going!”  It was frustrating for them and it is frustrating for us.  In some fashion we have to find a way to live in and not be overwhelmed by the divine tension that is inherent in our faith as well as the further tension created by people of other faiths and beliefs.

For many of us, the way that we do that is to settle on the invitation of Jesus.  We hear the invitation of texts like today’s and find comfort in its words without feeling the need to use Jesus’ words as a hammer that nails others who may have different beliefs.  We are assured by the promise of relationship centered on the steadfast love of God that we find revealed in Jesus, steadfast love that is forever.  We then act out of that steadfast love.  We proclaim with confidence what we know to be the truth about Jesus and in whatever ways we can, we model the love and the sacrifice that he lived.

Is there an element of fear about judgment that is part of our response?  Maybe.  Probably.  That’s part of the tension.  But in statements like I am the Good Shepherd, there’s no fear.  It’s all about the relationship and that’s what we come back to.  With “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me,” in the knowledge of that relationship, there is no fear or threat, only promise, promise and invitation.  Isn’t that all we really need to know?  Isn’t that the message we want to share with others?  Fear doesn’t create faith and it doesn’t create disciples; promise and invitation do and Jesus does show us the way.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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