Saturday, October 14, 2017

Year A, Proper 23, Matthew 22.1-14 Dad cared.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
So, did that lesson make you feel a bit uncomfortable.
It’s hard to say “The Gospel of the Lord” immediately after reading “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
That there is a judgment,
That there is a heaven and a hell,
That some are saved, and some are not,
These are things that we are increasingly uncomfortable with.
Many of us would prefer that it simply is not so.

During my seminary years, one of the theological authors I read a lot of was John Cobb, who wrote a book in 1975 titled “Christ in a Pluralistic Age”. 
One of the basic premises of that book was the notion that Christ transcended human culture and religions in a way that he was present in all religions.  It was a theological argument that basically maintained that there are many pathways up the same mountain, but regardless which pathway we chose, in the end we would all end up together at the summit.
This understanding runs counter to any notion that “many are called, but few are chosen.”
One of the critics of John Cobb’s work, was to label it arm chair evangelism.
That is, instead of having to do the hard work of going out into the world, of sharing the Gospel with all people, and yes, seeking to convert them to Christianity, we could just sit back in our arm chairs and declare that Christ was present in all human religions, and in so doing, with one little stroke of the pen we have accomplished what centuries of missionary work could not, namely, saving the world’s many souls.
The problem is that every once in a while, as we gather for worship, we hear words like this from Jesus.
Words that speak of some being saved, and others not.
Words that warn of utter destruction for those that reject the invitation to the wedding banquet.
And words which assert in no uncertain terms, that salvation is not a universal condition, but reserved for the few who have been redeemed.
Such a notion seems antiquated.
And many of us are hesitant to go there.
What happens in the afterlife?
What about heaven and hell?
Historically there have been two major understandings within the Christian Church regarding heaven and hell, between being saved or condemned.
We are part of the Western Church, that part of the Church that originally was united under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, which we know today as the Roman Catholic Church.
Even following the Reformation and the establishment of the protestant churches, we in the Western Church continue to be largely influenced by Roman Catholic teachings, especially with respect to heaven and hell.
And in short, those teachings include the belief that following the judgment, God will punish the unbelievers by casting them out of his presence into a place of eternal suffering, ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.
The problem with this Western understanding of heaven and hell, and the judgment is that you are left with a God who is first and foremost one who judges and condemns, who has created an eternal torture chamber for the unredeemed, and who is capable of condemning the vast bulk of humanity, billions of people whom he created, to eternal damnation.
That’s not a picture of a loving and merciful God.
And it is little consolation that God spares a few.
God remains this incredibly wrathful God whose primary act is one of vengeance for the non-believer and unfaithful.
Personally I have been drawn in recent years to the other understanding in the Christian Church, namely that of the Eastern Church, what we know today as the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church followed the leadership of the other eleven Patriarchs of the Church, not the Roman Bishop, and has recognized the Patriarch of Constantinople as the first among equals, and the leader of the Church, not Rome.
The Eastern Orthodox Church prides itself on having maintained the traditional teachings of the Church throughout the ages, and on a number of issues specifically rejects what they perceive to be the innovations of the Western Church, which by the way, they consider the “Western Heresy”.
What the Eastern Orthodox believes regarding the afterlife, is that all people will be in the presence of God in the afterlife, in part because there is no place where God is not.
Furthermore, God does not condemn anyone to eternal punishment, for to do so would be counter to his loving nature.
But, and this is a big but, those who are not redeemed will experience being in the presence of the righteous and holy God as punishment, intolerable, or to put it differently, it will be a hellish existence.
But it is not that God condemns them to such a fate, it is simply a matter that for those who love what is evil and hate what is good, being in the presence of the all Good and Righteous One will not be enjoyable, to say the least.
God’s only desire is that all might be saved.
But that some are not is the result of their own attitudes and the condition of their souls, not because of God’s judgment raining down on them.
The ‘Christian life’ then, is to prepare ourselves to be able to enjoy being in the presence of the Holy One, and not be destroyed by it.
But whether one finds the Roman Catholic teaching, or the Orthodox teaching, to be most attractive, BOTH are clear that not all will experience eternal salvation.
Many are called, but few are chosen.
Still, many of us in the modern world are hesitant to embrace this teaching of the Church.
For many of us, to be saved by grace means everyone is saved.  Period.
There’s one small problem.
That’s not what the Bible teaches.
And if we believe the Bible at all we can’t get around texts like the Gospel lesson for today.  Jesus doesn’t mince words here.  He is blunt.
I’m thinking a lot about my Dad these days.
One of the major concerns that occupied him throughout the final years of his life was that all of his children and grandchildren might be saved.
For Dad that meant that we must be baptized, confirmed, receive communion regularly, hear the Word of God preached, and repent of our sins and hear the word of forgiveness.
He was a very traditional and orthodox Lutheran in this regard.
We are saved by grace, yes, but this saving grace come to us through these means, namely the sacraments of baptism and communion, the preaching of the Word, and the forgiveness of sins.
To neglect these things, is to put our salvation in peril.
Now there is some motivation for getting up for Church Sunday morning. 
What Dad would maintain is that this stuff MATTERS.
It not only matters for this life, but for the life to come.
Dad often struck us as being too legalistic and not very gracious in his understanding.  It often sounded like ‘you must do this and that, to be saved’.  And when he expressed his concern about our eternal salvation, it often didn’t come across well.
But now, following his death, I will at least say this:
“Dad cared.”
Dad cared because he believed that what we do, and what we believed in this life had a direct effect on how we would experience the next life.
And so he did what many of us feel uncomfortable doing, which is to raise the question of salvation with those he loved. 
That was his mission.  Unwelcome as it often was, that was his mission that we might all be together in heaven. 
We sometimes wonder what our mission is as a congregation, and if we have a future.
Like so many congregations in our country, we are experiencing declining numbers and an uncertain future.
As we wrestle with the issues that raises, it is easy to starting thinking that our mission is to get more members. 
Our mission is NOT to get more members so that the congregation might survive.
Our mission IS to share the Gospel with others so that they might survive.
One of the most disturbing thoughts of all is that my failure, our failure, the Church as a whole's failure to reach the unChurched will impact their eternal salvation.
One of my seminary professors shared that his grandmother died with a profound sense of holy grief at the failure of the missionary movement to save the world. 
Perhaps that’s putting far too much a burden on us.
Faith is not something that we can give to others; it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
One of the things we should pray for is that the Holy Spirit might work through us, to create faith in those who are called to salvation.
Because it matters.  It matters.
If it doesn’t matter, why are we here?  I mean, in all due respect life in the Church is not that great and fun.
If it doesn’t matter why invest so much effort and money into sustaining this or any other congregation?
But if it does matter, then what more can we do?
What resources to we have to share the Gospel?
And is there anything at all in life that is more important than this?
A personal prayer I’ll share with you comes from a song by Steve Green:
"Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful!
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe
And the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful"


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