August 22, 2010

Répondez s’il vous plait”

Luke 13:10-17, 22-30

I do not preach universal salvation, what I say is that I cannot exclude the possibility that God would save all men at the Judgment. ~ Karl Barth

In the story of Sister Helen Prejean’s ministry with death-row inmates, there is a scene where she meets with the convicted killer Matthew Poncelet.  He has asked that she be his ‘spiritual advisor,’  although he is not particularly spiritual, nor is he an eager recipient of any advice.  There comes a point where she tells him “Matthew Poncelet, you are a child of God.”  He replied: “I’ve been called ‘child of a lot of things, but never a ‘child of God.’”

Some people are surprised to know that this assessment by Sister Helen is universally true: we are all children of God.  It is true in the sense that we are all of the same stuff as Adam and Eve. It is true in that we are all part of the family of Abraham and Sarah. It is true in the sense that our Lord Jesus Christ came to redeem all of us.  It is the truth proclaimed in the bumper sticker, “God Loves the Whole World: No Exceptions.”

Yet there are those who will gladly point to the second half of the reading from Luke’s gospel this morning and insist that this isn’t true.

24“Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”[1]

I admit that it is more than a little disconcerting to hear Jesus talk this way, speaking of a narrow door, implying that there will be those who cannot manage to enter.

As I read this part of the text, I want to flip back, page by page, since Jesus began this journey toward Jerusalem back at the end of chapter 9 and remind all of us of the things this same Jesus said earlier:

9 “So I tell you to ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you.”[2]

I want to throw these words at those who relish the idea that the door is closed to some and they believe they are on the welcome side, to them I want to remind them of the generosity of God, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”[3]

I would want to remember,

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.”[4]

And in this same text, Jesus goes on to present a positive picture of people from all the nations of the world joining Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the great banquet in God’s kingdom. Note the pivotal role played by historic Israel, as represented by the patriarchs in the scene. This vision is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. This description of people coming from the North and the South, the East and the West is a picture of people coming from the whole world.  This is a vision of all the peoples of the earth streaming toward Jerusalem and acknowledging and praising the God of Israel.  This is a image of “God’s faithfulness to his (sic) single plan, the plan through which he will deal with the problem of human sin and put the whole world right at last.”[5]

Will only a few persons be saved? The full and final answer to that question remains hidden with God.

I, for one, think that we waste our time condemning those whose faith is different than ours, or whose lack of faith at the present moment seems to exclude them from this Kingdom of God.  I tend to agree with Karl Barth, the famous German theologian of a previous generation who said, “I do not preach universal salvation, what I say is that I cannot exclude the possibility that God would save all men at the Judgment.”[6]

If, after all, we come to faith by grace, and if it is not works but faith that offers us salvation; and if this Jesus of Nazareth is who we believe him to be, can he not present himself to whomever, wherever, whenever, however he chooses through the power of the Holy Spirit?  And so I cannot believe that this same God would lock the door on some innocent one who because the chance of their birth placed them in some backwater, distant place, and was thus never presented the Gospel.

What I do know, is my own particular experience of this Jesus.  I have come to know him through the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  I have learned his ways in and through the traditions of the church.  I have sensed his touch and call through the words and compassion of others.  I cannot really say that this is but the one way, the only key, to unlock this door.  But what I have come to be certain of is that this is a dependable way, that this is a way to develop your relationship with God, for no relationship develops itself;  I simply want to extend the welcome to these promises of God, this mercy of the Christ.

What I do know is that I have been presented this good news.  I have been offered it.  The question then and the question now is will I, will we, respond[7] to the invitation.  Let us not be so worried about the response of others that we forget to give our own RSVP with our hearts, with our hands, with our time, with our talent.  For some strange reason, God gives us the ability to respond to God’s goodness, or not.  “Répondez s’il vous plait.”

To receive this, of course, you need not understand the logic of merit, or how to earning anything.  Capitalism will not help us here.  The understanding required is harder than that,  what you must understand to participate is the logic of love.  And I freely admit that to smart, educated, sophisticated people like us, this makes no sense.

Perhaps it may be easier to understand if we act this out.  This strange and mystical reality is part and parcel of what we do here around this table, here we are offered the door, we are able to participate in Christ; who became as we are, so that we may become as he is.[8] It is here that the Church’s union with Christ is nourished and strengthened.[9] This[10] is based on love, nothing more, nothing less.

It isn’t that hard to participate in a feast.  You are invited

[1] Luke  13:24 RSV

[2] Luke 11:9 (GW)

[3] Luke 12:32 RSV

[4] Luke 12:6 RSV

[5] N.T. Wright, Justification, Downers Grove: IVP, 2009, p. 200

[6] Karl Barth “Witness to An Ancient Truth”, Time Magazine, 20 April 1962.

[7] I suggest this over and against what some Calvinists suggest, saying we cannot respond to the grace of God. Without slipping into a pure Arminianism, I want to suggest that we can.  I try and state (below) why such a freedom might be necessary.  René Descartes, for example, identifies the faculty of will with freedom of choice, “the ability to do or not do something” (Meditation IV), and even goes so far as to declare that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained” (Passions of the Soul, I, art. 41). In taking this strong polar position on the nature of will, Descartes is reflecting a tradition running through certain late Scholastics (most prominently, Suarez) back to John Duns Scotus.

Murray [Murray, Michael (1993). “Coercion and the Hiddenness of God,” American Philosophical Quarterly 30, 27-38.; (2002). “Deus Absconditus,” in Howard-Snyder and Moser (2002), 62-82] argues that a good God would choose to make His existence and character less than certain for human beings, for the sake of their freedom. (He will do so, the argument goes, at least for a period of time in which human beings participate in their own character formation.) If it is a good for human beings that they freely choose to respond in love to God and to act in obedience to His will, then God must maintain an ‘epistemic distance’ from them lest they be overwhelmed by His goodness and respond out of necessity, rather than freedom.

[8] Athanasus, “God became man so that man might become god” (On the Incarnation 54:3, PG 25:192B)

[9] Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, writes Nevin, when the Holy Spirit actually gives us union with Christ. If we have union with Christ we possess all that is His. His active and passive righteousness count for us because “He is joined to us mystically.” John Williamson Nevin, The Mystical Presence Wipf and Stock, 2000, p. 192.

[10] The Mystical Union: “For a sacrament to truly be a sacrament there must be present both sign and reality existing in a real union.  And due to this union, Christ is truly and objectively offered to all, to be received by faith. (Jonathan G. Bonomo, Incarnation and Sacrament: The Eucharistic Controversy between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin, Wipf and Stock, 2010, p. 32.