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Monday, September 30, 2013

Whitey Davis: An Appreciation

Most of the people who read this don’t know Whitey Davis, and won’t know him this side of Heaven.  He died on Sunday, September 28.  It has been at least five years since I last spoke with Whitey.  I last worked with him in 1997.  He was the pastor of Oak Forest Baptist Church where I was the youth minister from 1993-1997. 
            I am thankful for something very specific as I remember him.  Whitey gave me chances.  When I became a senior pastor, I had already baptized someone.  I had already preached sermons and participated in church leadership meetings.  I was not doing those things for the first time.  I did not receive my first flight instruction while the plane was in midair.  Whitey gave me chances.  He trusted me and I’ll always be thankful.
            It is more than just gratitude though.  I vowed back then to follow his example.  I knew the day would come when I was an experienced pastor with young, eager seminarians around me, and was determined to give them the chances I was given.  I have never wavered on that.
            Maybe that’s why God brought me to a college town.  This principle applies to many situations, not just the pastorate.  We have talented teenagers and people in their early 20’s all around us in Chapel Hill.  We need to trust them, accept the mistakes they make, and help them grow as leaders and as Christ followers.  If you are reading this on the blog and you live somewhere else and there are fewer young adults, you might have to look a little harder, but there are potential protégés around you too. 
            Think of Barnabas taking John Mark under his wing after Paul rejected the young disciple (Acts 15:36-40).  Or Paul; though he would not tolerate John Mark’s failure (Acts 13:13), did in fact mentor Timothy (Acts 16:1-4).  Mentorship never looks the same twice; Paul was a different teacher than Barnabas.  I am very different than Whitey.  But I hope I am as dedicated to the Gospel as he was.  And I know I am the type of leader I am because of the opportunities he gave me.

            I thank God for Whitey Davis.  I thank God I was fortunate enough to be a youth pastor with him as my supervisor.  I am thankful I could call him friend.  As his daughter put it with simple eloquence, he is now with Jesus.  There is sadness and joy, the appropriate emotions that come when we say farewell to a man of God.  

Are We Going to Hell?

“Are We Going to Hell?” (Jude 20-23)

          It was about 14 years ago.  A 22 year old man, the son of one our deacons, was living with his girlfriend.  I was an unmarried, pastor fresh out of seminary, and this couple was not much younger than me.  They came to church often and made no attempt to hide their living arrangement.  Why should they?  Cohabitation was celebrated on shows like Friends and Seinfeld.  There was nothing wrong with a man and woman living together except sex outside of marriage is a complete violation of God’s way for humans, and they knew that.  Instead of enjoying the blessings God gives and waiting, they jumped the gun thinking they knew better than God.
They decided they needed to talk the pastor, so they came in.  Sitting in my office, she asked in giggle, “Are we going to Hell?” 
The issue is not an unmarried couple shacking up.  That is an example, but the issue itself is deeper.  It is a matter of sin.  They knew their choice was against God’s vision for humanity, but they did what they wanted.
Are we going to Hell?  Giggle – he can’t seriously say, “Yes.”  Nervous giggle – in our choice to live together before marriage, we know that we actively choose to reject God. 
What is Hell? 
Last week we looked briefly at universalism, the notion that all people are eventually saved and with God for eternity.  Many Christian universalists believe in Hell.  They believe the fires of Hell exist to purify those who have reject God’s grace. 
In the New Testament all people are confronted with a choice.  We have to choose to follow Jesus.  We have to decide to worship God.  We can opt to reject God’s ways but this means we separate ourselves from God.  If we die separated from God, the separation is forever.  That is what we call Hell.
In Matthew 10, Jesus is teaching his disciples.  He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10:28).
In a parable in Matthew 24, Jesus compares people to slaves.   God is the master, one who is absent.  The absence refers to the time between Jesus’ crucifixion and his second coming at the end of time.  The slave who is “at work” when the master unexpectedly returns will receive the master’s blessing.  From context we know that “at work” means announcing the Kingdom of God as we love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.
However, not all slaves do this work in the master’s absence.  Some violate the master’s commands.  Sin – every sin you can think of – is how the master’s way is rejected.  When we sin, we reject God.  Jesus says the master will come and will “cut the [wicked slaves] to pieces and put [them] with the hypocrites where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (24:45-51).
In the next parable, at the beginning of Matthew 25, people are represented as bridesmaids and Jesus is the bridegroom.  The bridesmaids are to wait outside in the dark.  Thus, they need their lamps lit.  The oil for the lamps is the symbol for faith in Jesus.  The foolish bridesmaids have no oil.  The master comes and those who have oil, those who have put their faith in Christ, are invited into the wedding banquet.  The foolish ones then try to enter, but the master says, “I do not know you.”
Thus from Jesus we can say the following:
-         Hell is worse than having one’s body killed (Matthew 10:28)
-         Judgment is like being cut to pieces and put among Hypocrites where teeth are gnashed (Matthew 24:51).
-         Hell is like seeing into the Heavenly banquet, but having Jesus reject you, by saying I don’t know you (Matthew 25:12).
Additionally, in other parables, Jesus indicates the following:
-         Hell is outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth Matthew 25:30).
-         Hell is eternal fire (Matthew 25:41; also implied in Luke 16:24).
-         Hell is eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46).

We could cite many other Bible verses, but I will for the sake of time just read the following, Jude 5-7.  Jude is the short letter right before Revelation.  It is only divided by verses, not chapters.  Jude 5-7 says:
Don’t forget what happened to those people that the Lord rescued from Egypt. Some of them did not have faith, and he later destroyed them. You also know about the angels[a] who didn’t do their work and left their proper places. God chained them with everlasting chains and is now keeping them in dark pits until the great Day of Judgment. We should also be warned by what happened to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah[b] and the nearby towns. Their people became immoral and did all sorts of sexual sins. Then God made an example of them and punished them with eternal fire.

          Two schools of thought take many of the verses related to Hell or judgment and punishment, verse found in Matthew, Luke, Jude, Revelation, and throughout the New Testament, in very different directions.  The most common reading among scholars is that the Bible teaches that the punishment for sin is everlasting torment, a punishment God imposes out of holy hatred of sin.  The great American theologian of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards, has written extensively on how awful Hell is and how much each one of us deserves it.  His sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and his essay “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” are examples of his writing on this topic.     
          An alternative view, one held by a minority of scholars, is the annihilationist view.  The most prominent among recent theologians to lean in this direction is English evangelical scholar John Stott.  A leader in global movements to spread the Gospel, Stott shocked many of his evangelical colleagues when he expressed that he could not tolerate the idea of eternal conscious suffering.  He found annihilation more appealing.  Annihilation is simply the idea that we suffer in Hell for a time, and then we are forever wiped out of existence.  There is no suffering because we are no more. 
          Proponents of both views refer to the same scriptures, but debate how the passages are to be understood.  For example, in Matthew 25:41 Jesus says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  Traditionalists triumphantly say, see, Jesus says eternal fire.  Eternal punishment.
          No!  The annihilationist responds.  Fire burns something and then it burns up.  What is eternal is the effect.  It is eternal punishment because once it has happened, there is no undoing it or going beyond it.  And they go back and forth
The debate is worth following, but I have a confession.  I do not know which is accurate.  I feel comfortable rejecting universalism based on my reading of the New Testament.  I don’t know whether proponents of eternal conscious torment or those arguing for annihilation are right.  I am sure, from my own reading of scripture, that there are eternal negative consequences for dying in sin. 
          It matters.  This conversation is important for every one of us.  In “the Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” Jonathan Edwards writes
But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty. To have infinite excellency and beauty, is the same thing as to have infinite loveliness. He is a being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory; and therefore he is infinitely honourable. He is infinitely exalted above the greatest potentates of the earth, and highest angels in heaven; and therefore he is infinitely more honourable than they. His authority over us is infinite; and the ground of his right to our obedience is infinitely strong; for he is infinitely worthy to be obeyed himself, and we have an absolute, universal, and infinite dependence upon him.
So that sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving of infinite punishment.[i]

          He is obviously a traditionalist, but what I appreciate most about Edwards is the recognition of how grave sin is.  And this takes me back to the encounter I had at the beginning of my journey as a pastor. 
“Are we going to Hell?”  The young woman asked me through an uncertain giggle.  We giggle at sin.  We laugh out loud.  We pay to see it. 
Of the top grossing films in 2012, none were rated G.  Six were rated PG.  Thirteen were rated PG-13.  And six were rated R.[ii]  The G rating, of course, is for all audiences and is typically the rating for harmless children’s movies.  What they call “adult” content is added for PG movies, and then more is added for PG-13.  You can be sure in a PG-13 movie you’ll hear some foul language and see some content that suggests either sex or violence.  And it escalates with R-rated movies and those rates NC-17.  Why is it called “adult” content, instead of morally damaging content?  Why is alcohol an “adult” beverage instead of an addictive drug that kills brain cells? 
I do not suggest that drinking a beer or seeing an R-rated movie is cause for going to Hell.  However, the New Testament condemns drunkenness. We snicker and ignore someone who questions it, especially a preacher.  Do we snicker at the New Testament? 
The New Testament demands sexual purity in word and in behavior.  We laugh at dirty jokes.
We don’t take sin seriously enough.  We love God’s grace and forgiveness and we should. Jesus went to the cross for the sins of the world.  Sin is so awful that the one who never sinned was betrayed, abandoned, humiliated in a mockery of a trial, and then beaten and crucified.  In the process, he experienced abandonment.  That’s how harsh sin is.  That’s what Jesus went through.  We treat it is as a joke. 
As Paul writes in Romans 6, “Sin pays off with death.”  To die having never repented and never called on Jesus as Lord and never received forgiveness in His name is to die in sin.  It is to die apart from God – forever.  There is no recovery once we enter forever. 
On the other hand, to repent is to turn from sin.  It is to call on Jesus as Lord and to receive His forgiveness and receive life in His name.  When we do that, He is in our lives permanently.  From that point forward, everything we do, we do in the Holy Spirit’s presence. 
          A crude joke is told.  Would I laugh if Jesus were present?  He is in Holy Spirit form. 
Would Jesus be aligned with my heart attitude if he knew my heart’s attitude?  He knows.  He lives in my heart. 
Whether my sin is murder or the nastiest language I can muster or silent affirmation of sins around me, it is sin that God abhors sin and punishes.  Sin always results in pain and loss and alienation from God.
          I have not settled the debate – Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment or Hell as a place of punishment that is followed by annihilation.  But, I know what Hell is. Hell is living with all the pain sin brings forever, with no hope of rescue from God.
          Today, we have that hope of rescue.  Today, we can turn from our sins and receive Jesus.  If you do that, it does not mean going forward you must strive to avoid sin.  Sin avoidance always fails.  We won’t stop sinning because we try hard to stop sinning.  We aren’t that strong.  We need help and we have it.  Receiving Jesus means He takes up residence in us and we live in grace, joy, and love.  We sin less and our lives are oriented away from sin when we spend our lives seeking Him.
          My prayer is that a talk about Hell will lead to us seeking rescue from sin by turning to Jesus.  We constantly seek Jesus and seek to love hurting people and introduce to Him to those who don’t know Him.  As to Hell, we do well to read Jude read verse 20-23.
20 Dear friends, keep building on the foundation of your most holy faith, as the Holy Spirit helps you to pray. 21 And keep in step with God’s love, as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to show how kind he is by giving you eternal life. 22 Be helpful to[g] all who may have doubts. 23 Rescue any who need to be saved, as you would rescue someone from a fire. Then with fear in your own hearts, have mercy on everyone who needs it. But hate even the clothes of those who have been made dirty by their filthy deeds.

            Hate sin, love people, and share the Gospel.  Heaven or Hell is riding on it.

Called to Prayer

On Fridays, I receive an email from the Voice of the Martyrs (  These prayer updates tell the story of persecuted Christians in the world today.  The email is a helpful reminder to me that (1) my brothers and sisters in Christ have been killed for the name of Jesus.  It does not happen where I live, in the United States, but in many parts of the world it does.  Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and many other places, Christians are displaced or forced to suffer because of their loyalty to Jesus. 

The updates call to my heart these brothers and sisters in Christ.  The updates also call me back to prayer.  I am terrible about routines and habits.  I wake up at different times each day.  I go to bed at different times.  Doing things by habit typically drive me to boredom.  So, the habit or routine of daily prayer is something at which I often fail.  The email from VOM calls me back to prayer.

This past week, the call came in a way both dramatic and quiet.  First, there was the VOM prayer update about 100 Christians who died when a suicide bomber infiltrated their church service in Pakistan.  Then came the post from my good friend Randy, chronicling deaths of Christians worldwide; deaths that have not moved the hearts of American Christians as a group to any kind of action ( 

I realized on Friday, I needed to sit with this event in Pakistan longer than my usual times of prayer.  I also realize I had in recent weeks neglected my prayers altogether.  Thus, I was called out of my slumber to pray for Pakistan. 

Literally, I was called out of my slumber.

I had just finished reading Call of the Wild (Jack London).  In it, the dog, Buck, feels deep within himself a memory.  Beyond his own personal experiences, he remembers the call of his ancestors, not domesticated dogs, but fierce, wild hunters that dominate the wilderness of Alaska.  It is a creeping memory that comes slowly but builds until finally he yields, shedding domestication and becoming leader of a pack of wolves. 

What does this have to do with prayer or Pakistan or me?

I feel God has roused me.  And this is the greatness of God.  Nothing that happened in Pakistan has a thing to do with me.  It is an unspeakable tragedy where the deaths far outnumber similar senseless acts in our own country.  Take the Virginia Tech shootings and the Boston Marathon Bombing and the Newtown, CT school shootings and add up all the deaths and the number is less than those who died in Pakistan.  Yet, it gets minimal coverage in our news, as if those fatalities matter less because they are not us.  But they are “us” if instead of Americans we think of “we/us” as the body of Christ. 

The greatness of God is that God was present in Pakistan and at Virginia Tech and those other places.  God was there with the victims.  This doesn’t lessen the sorrow or horror of it.  But, God carries us through.  And 1000’s of miles away, God taps the shoulder of a pastor who has not prayed enough lately and says, ‘Get involved here.’  ‘How do I do that, Lord?’  ‘You know how.’

The Pakistan church attack; Randy’s email; Buck in Call of the Wild; and finally, these past two mornings, God has awakened me before 4AM.  I will be tired today.  Yesterday, the crash came just as the worship service started.  I had to go through it dependent upon God for energy.  God provided.  There will be a crash today and God will walk me through that. 

I am not over spiritualizing here.  I know last night I woke up with a coughing attack at 3:15AM.  I don’t know why I could not fall back asleep.  This morning my daughter came in at 3:30AM.  I don’t know why I could not fall back asleep.  She was sound asleep by 3:40AM and has been since (it is now 5:10).  But I am piecing it all together and I know God is drawing me to Himself.  No, God did not kill 100 Christians in Pakistan to get Rob to prayer more.  But, God moves in all things. 

I looked at the scripture that accompanied the email from VOM – Isaiah 64:1-3.  This morning, I prayed that scripture as lectio divina.  I focused on the phrase “the mountains shook at your presence.”  I thought about Buck’s primal call the wild wolf pack.  It occurred to me that women and men have a holy call to prayer.  This came in the quiet dark, the house asleep, children silent and still in their beds.  In the dim light, in the stillness, I felt called to prayer, something deep within me.  I turned over and over in my mind the phrase “the mountains shook.”

I pray that in Syria and Egypt and Pakistan and Iran and Iraq and North Korea and Russia the world will shake.  It won’t happen in the United States.  Life is too easy here.  There is too much available to us here.  We have too much to realize how God dependent we really are.  Too many times, in my sleepless nights, I went on or I played Facebook games instead of realizing my frustrated exhaustion was a call to prayer.  No, this night, I prayed God would shake the mountains among a hurting people, persecuted Christians.  I pray that noise of their outcry, their holy mourning, their furious grief, their vice-grip faith, would reach up.  And the power of God would “rend the heavens” reaching down.  And the wealthy of the world would be shocked at the movement of God among them.

I thought about Isaiah and Isaiah’s words became my own.  I raised them and continue to raise them.

Oh, that You would rend the heavens!
That You would come down!
That the mountains might shake at Your presence—
2 As fire burns brushwood,
As fire causes water to boil—
To make Your name known to Your adversaries,
That the nations may tremble at Your presence!
3 When You did awesome things for which we did not look,
You came down,
The mountains shook at Your presence.

May my heart for Christians, Pakistani and Afghan and Korean and Syrian, break.  May it break and broken, may I reach to God for healing (not for me, but for a broken world).  May I remain broken even as I stand looking to the time where death and crying and pain are no more (Revelation 21:4).   May both (brokenness and life) be mine and be me as I am in Christ.  In Pakistan, may the heavens rend and the church rise. 


Friday, September 27, 2013

The Church - Black and White

Diedre Riggs posted the following excellent piece on her blog -

Below is what I wrote in the comment section.  Please, read her piece before reading my response.  

In some of my experiences I have found that conversations related to race have been effective when race was not the presenting issue, but comes up in the context of a conversation already in process. Coming out of seminary, I knew my work was too white. So I determined I would only pastor a church that was ethnically and racially diverse. Fortunately most churches in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington DC, fit that bill. I was a called to a very small church with a congregation that was roughly %40 non-white and also had a Spanish speaking congregation. Obviously that means the congregations was 60% white, maybe even 70%. I have not pastored in a context in which I was an ethnic minority. But I have been in diverse contexts.
In those settings, the conversations were initially about Bible, forgiveness, grace, mission, ministry, resurrection, Jesus - all the topics that a church would discuss in sermons or Bible studies. Those are (or should be) consistent topics across the board in Christian churches. Because that church was diverse, I was having those conversations with people of Chinese backgrounds, or African American, or Sudanese, or Mexican or Bolivian or Salvadorian. The starting point was not race or diversity, but Bible or Jesus. Then, entering through one of those doors, race & ethnicity would arise as a secondary topic. We had already established shared faith in Jesus, so we trusted each other.
To this idea of a topic (other than race) as the doorway to a conversation on race, I add a crucial piece: listening. It is essential that we listen to each other, and ultimately essential that the members of the majority culture (us whites) listen with great respect and without defensiveness. I have noted in the comment thread to this post how much listening I must do, over and over. In that little church where I pastored, I could not convince the Hispanic kids that they were as American as I am. When they said, 'American,' they meant white. They bought into the idea that European-American culture is normative. That mindset must be confronted by minorities, but also by us whites. As long as we think America is us, there is a whole lot of America we are just missing and we are spiritually impoverished for it. Even worse! As we stay huddled in suburban white enclaves, there is a whole lot of Jesus we are missing. That is not just sad. It is sinful on the part of the system and on the part of anyone who accepts what the system serves.
(1) Enter the race conversation through a doorway other than race.
(2) Listen. Whites, listen twice as much.
A third principle that has become significant in my life more and more is relational safety. We have made it a core value at the church I pastor now. Let the church be a safe place. This means someone might utter a racially insensitive remark. When that happens, the individual may be confronted, but the injured party makes a commitment up front to confront in love and to offer grace. Church is a safe place to mess up. Church is a safe place to confront. Church is a place where friendships are strengthened by instances of real forgiveness. This idea of safety is so hard to achieve. In that diverse church I mentioned, I had far more real conversations about race in my 7th, 8th, and 9th years than in my first. When you're preaching someone's funeral, it is not a black man's funeral. It is a dead man's funeral. When you baptize, it is not a black man you're immersing. He is a born again child of God and in that moment, when he is in your arms and under the water, trusting God with his life, walls come crashing down.
Obviously, some disclaimers are needed her. D.D. is talking about creating diversity. What I have mentioned came about where diversity was already in play. In New York City, in DC, LA, and places like that, this is far more doable than in homogeneous communities. In those places, the conversation about race can also happen, and should. But that would require another post or maybe an essay or a book.

One thing I do think. Even there, even in small towns where all racial groups might "stick to their own kind" (whatever that means), I think the starting point should not be race. I think if we (the worldwide community of Christ-followers) can make the Jesus-way and the Jesus-life the starting point, we'll find more satisfying results. We begin in Jesus, and in Him, the much needed race conversation arises. Then we achieve diversity, but not diversity for diversity's sake. The diversity we have is blessed because in him there is no Jew nor Greek, no black nor white, no Korean nor Mexican. All are one in Christ

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Maybe They Don't Trust God

 "Why doesn't their family go to church?"  My six-year-old son asked.  He was thinking of his friend from school.  I did not, and do not, want to say critical things about people.  I am pastor.  Church is dead center in our family's life.  Since we adopted Henry just shy of his 2nd birthday, he has practically lived at church.  Church is extremely important. 

I am a pastor who believes what he preaches.  I may not be the greatest, and I commit my share of sins.  Repentance is something I must make a regular practice.  However, one of my sins is not ‘going through the motions.’  Church is important for our family and I think it should be for every family because church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13).  If someone is not part of a Christian community, they’re cut off from the body.

I don’t conceive of church as institution or church as an extracurricular activity.  Church is the body of Christ.  Church is Sunday morning.  Church is the members playing a golf outing to raise money for missions.  Church is friends from a Sunday school class going out to eat after Sunday worship.  Church is the members of a Bible study group huddled in prayer in the emergency room waiting area because one of their members had a heart attack.  Church is the sewing group making bags we will donate to our friends we visit at the orphanage in Africa.  Church is the Ethiopians who care for those orphans daily welcoming their American brothers and sisters when they come to visit.  Church is all of this and if you are a Christ-follower, you don’t pick and choose.  He calls, you obey, and you have far more joy and gladness than you would from your own choices. 

You don’t skip weekly Sunday worship, but then go on the mission trip to Ethiopia because going to Africa is cool but Sunday worship is boring.  You give yourself to all of it because you’re part of the body of Christ.  You are a needed part.  We all are (read 1 Corinthians 12).

When someone does not have church community as part of their lives, they’re missing something.  I say that without apology.  My friends who don’t participate in church might disagree.  They may be quite content sleeping in, playing golf, going to the beach, or doing whatever they do on weekends; whatever they do that edges out any space for joining together with the family of God.  They have decided life is better without God; at least, without the Christian practice of worshiping and fellowshipping with God. 

I know that some claim to follow Jesus while not having any need for church. Such religious practice as individual churchless Christianity is completely foreign to the Bible.  The stories of the Bible happen with the context of organized, religious activity (synagogue, temple, house churches).  People say, “I love Jesus, but I hate organized religion.”  Jesus says in response, “You do not know me and could not know me because you are not seeking me in the place I established my presence before I ascended to the Father.”

I know.  I know.  Crusades.  Spanish Inquisition.  Fred Phelps and Terry Jones.  I know Christians have done awful things in history.  I can hear the unchurched person reciting the list and point to it as his reason for having no interest in church.  All I can say is Jesus works through humans and humans, even those filled with the Holy Spirit are still under the curse of the Fall.  Even Christ-followers sin.  We just need to read the book of Acts or any of Paul’s letters for examples. 

That is why grace is so crucial.  The pastor must lead out of humility, acknowledging his or her own brokenness.  The pastor should not make the pulpit a personal confessional every week.  But humble leadership that honestly sees a desperate need for God is the only path that works for the pastor and for the church.  Christianity only works when we trust God with everything.

That is why I was so filled with joy at the turn the conversation took.  “Why don’t they go to church?”  He asked on Sunday morning as we drove out of our driveway.  We talked and I sputtered through my answer about how people believe different things.  Then with the wisdom God give children he said, “Maybe they don’t trust God.”  That’s it.  That’s hitting the nail on the head. 

We cannot be disciples of Jesus until we trust God completely.  And Christians, you have friends who don’t participate in the faith.  They’ll say, “Well, I have not found the right church.”  They’ll say, “I have such a busy life.  Sundays are my only family time.”  They’ll say, “Oh, the church is full of hypocrites.”  They’ll say 100 other things.  But it boils down to trusting God.  If you want your unchurched friends to meet Jesus and learn what life is like when it is lived in Him, and with His Holy Spirit in us, then in your own life, trust Him with everything.  It’s somewhere to start.

Those Who Will Not Dance - Christian Universalism

Those Who Will Not Dance (Matthew 11:1-19)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, September 22, 2013

Philippians 2:9-11
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

In Colossians 1:15-20, the word is about Jesus.  We read … 
15 He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[h] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[i] him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

And then in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.[a] 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end,[b]when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God[c] has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is plain that this does not include the one who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

            From these verses, can we safely acknowledge that the New Testament affirms universal salvation, or at least the letters of Paul affirm universalism?  Of course Universalism refers to the doctrine that in the end, the very end, all people are saved.  Hell is empty because everyone, everyone, gets saved.  Everyone goes to Heaven.

            “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend … and every tongue confess that [He] is Lord.”  Every single one.
            “Through Him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.”
            “As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

            The thread of universalism weaves through Christianity going back to the earliest times.  There have been theological heavyweights who believed that all are saved.  The most notable in the history of Christianity is Origin, born in 185 AD in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.  Th0ugh he was not branded a heretic, succeeding generations rejected him as a trustworthy theologian because of his opinion that in the end all are saved.[i]
            Origin believed in Hell, but he believed the fires of Hell serve to purify, not torture, punish, or destroy.  This view is a fringe view, far from the most widely-held view that Hell is eternal, conscious torment inflicted by God as punishment for sin.  However, even though it is a minority position, many held it including Gregory of Nyssa.[ii]  One of the most renowned of 20th century theologians, Karl Barth, has universalist overtones throughout his work.  And more recently, there is the provocative book Love Wins by Rob Bell.  Bell poses questions more than he offers answers.  His questions could lead the reader, with Bible open, to at least consider the possibility of universal salvation.
            Some lesser known theologians, at least not as familiar to me, attempt to assert the case more forcefully.  I offer here a few of the arguments for universalism.  Already we have considered some scripture passage, all from the Apostle Paul, that indeed are suggestive. 
            To this, universalists add the argument for the character of God.  God is love.  This is seen in God’s actions throughout the Bible and is explicitly stated in First John, chapter 4, the second part of verse 16.  The nature of God is love and universalists argue that God will not violate God’s own nature.  To condemn people to Hell, an eternity of suffering, even when the punishment is deserved, goes against God’s nature of love.  God will not go against God’s nature.  I heard one pastor say it this way.
I love my children.  No matter what they did, no matter how they misbehaved, I would not sentence them to eternity in Hell.  God’s love is more perfect than mine and each person is a child of God.  God would not send his children to Hell for eternity.[iii]

            Universalists carry this sense of God’s love to their reading of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, found in Luke 15.  God is the shepherd who goes out to find the lost sheep.  Jesus clearly says there that the shepherd does not stop seeking until the lost is found.  The implication?  God is the good shepherd.  He will not abandon us to Hell, but will seek until each and every lost person is found. 
            The proponent of universalism would undoubtedly take the point further and add much in detail.  But I think we can see from what I have shared here a foundation for this doctrine.  The scriptures I mentioned from Paul’s writings declare Jesus has died for all and the case makes sense.  It is a logical argument.  So is the argument for the nature of God – that God is love and love cannot abandon people to Hell and still be called love.  Love seeks desperately for the beloved.  If God is the one seeking, well, God gets what God is after. 
            Bell asks a poignant question.  Does God get what God wants?[iv]  Listen to 2nd Peter 3:9.  At this point the letter is addressing scoffers who reject the notion that Jesus will come back and set the world right.  In response to any who reject Christianity because Jesus has not returned since the resurrection and ascension, it says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.”  Not wanting any to perish … does God get what God wants?  God is, after all, God.  If God does not want anyone to die, will anyone die, eternally?
            Karl Barth came up short of saying that all would be saved.  Barth writes,
We died; the totality of all sinful [people], those living, those long dead, and those still to be born, Christians who necessarily know and proclaim it, but also Jews and heathen, whether they hear and receive the news or whether they tried and still try to escape it.  His death was the death of all: quite independently of their attitude or response to this event.[v]

Though this and many comments by him carry the potential for universalism, Barth would not commit to it.  In fact, late in life he confided to a friend that he had a dream about Hell as a vast, cold, utterly lonely desert.  The dream haunted him and he told the friend of it.  He said he knows about that place, Hell, and for that reason, he must preach Christ.[vi]
            Bell too comes up short of commitment to universalism.  He asks, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?”  Bell’s response to his own question is “those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” [vii]
            I understand Bell’s quote, opaque as it is.  There is much about the afterlife and God’s plans we do not know and cannot know.  We do not know whether there literally is a book of life with names written or the idea of “book” is a metaphor that represents God’s mind.  Of course it is a metaphor, but we don’t know God’s method of record keeping.  There are many tensions in questions the Bible does not answer or does not answer completely or does not answer the way we wished it would.  I appreciate that.  I appreciate the logic of saying God is love and thus, God will not violate God’s own nature, and thus, God will not allow anyone to spend eternity suffering in Hell.  I see how that makes sense.
            However, in my own reading of scripture, I cannot accept universalism.  I am not offering here a standard traditionalist response that involves a listed of scriptures used to defend the idea of Hell.  You can find that argument on the internet or read authors like Larry Dixon or J.I. Packer, just to name a few of 100’s.  My response comes from my own sense of the New Testament.  I believe God is love.  God as the giver of perfect love and as the expression of perfect love implores us to choose to worship Him.  God does not force us.  We choose.  God is broken when we choose not to love and worship God.  But God knows some will make that choice.  When they do, God honors that choice.
            Consider Matthew chapter 11.  Jesus is addressing a crowd that had followed John the Baptist.  Now, John is wallowing in Herod’s jail cell, and the crowd has moved.  From one Messianic voice to the next, from John to Jesus, the crowd follows the wind.  Jesus confronts this fickle crowd with the truth. He says,
“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
            who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!
16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
            we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

            When Jesus plays his music, there will always be those who do not dance.  There will always be people, made in the image of God, lost sheep, who ignore the shepherd’s voice.  The passage we read from 2nd Peter 3:9 says God wants all to come to repentance.  It does not say God will force all to come to repentance. Repentance is not something that can be forced.  It must be chosen.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus teaches, with urgency, that all people must repent of sin and turn to Him and there are consequences if they do not.  When he approaches Jerusalem prior to being crucified, he weeps saying, “You did not recognizes the time of your visitation from God.”
            Some did see him and chose to follow him.  Many others did not.  They cheered him when he rode into town, but they also cheered and jeered when he was on the cross.  Of those who rejected Jesus, a few came to faith after the resurrection.  His half-brother James is the most notable example.  Most others did not turn to Him in faith.  They chose to reject the salvation God offered.  It has been the same throughout history.  People choose to reject what God offers.
            God, I believe and I think the Bible shows, will honor that choice.  God will honor our decision to reject God and we can spend eternity without God.  That is Hell. 
            I will say more about that next week.  Today, I want to finish by saying, thankfully, that this one thing is most assuredly true.  God is love.  God is here for each and every one of us.  If we choose to turn away from our sins and turn to Him, God will receive us.  God will adopt us.  In Christ we become sons and daughters of God, beginning now, today, and living in His Kingdom for eternity.  For a time, we live in a fallen and broken world.  But God is going to redeem it.  The Kingdom we begin living in when we choose Jesus will become fully known at His Second Coming. 
            Jesus is playing His music.  You have the freedom to ignore it.  But life is on the dance floor.  So come to Him, the Lord of the Dance, come to Him for life. 

[i] Jonathan Hill (2003), The History of Christian Thought, p. 39-60.
[ii] Ibid, p.57.
[iii] Jim Dant ended his speech with this assertion of universal salvation.  What I wrote here is a paraphrase of his words that I am writing from memory.  He shared this at the workshop he led at the national meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Charlotte, NC, 2010.
[iv] Rob Bell (2011) Love Wins.  Chapter 4 is titled, “Does God get what God wants?”
[v] Larry Dixon (2003), The Other Side of the Good News, p.45.  Dixon is quoting Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol 4, part 1, p.295.
[vi] Ibid, p.49.
[vii] Love Wins, p.115.