Sunday Sermon – Unconditional Love

“If you don’t love me, there will be consequences!”  said the husband to the wife.  And how would any wife respond to this?  I suspect this approach would not result in an appropriate mutual expression of love or become the foundation for a lasting, loving relationship.  And yet, isn’t this an integral part of the message being proclaimed by evangelicals the world over?  If you love me you will go to heaven, if you don’t, you will be condemned to eternal torment in hell.  For some background on my views on the whole heaven and hell issue, read my last ‘Thought Provoking Thursday’ piece.  Today, I wish to look at a slightly different aspect that goes to the heart of a message that has troubled me for a long time.

As you will gather from my previous posts, I do not believe heaven and hell are literal places, but rather concepts that describe our lives and experiences.  I also believe that the impact of what Jesus said and did has significance in our immediate time space continuum. The transition effected by physical death allows us to be free from much of what ails us on earth, but we all continue to be able to experience ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in similar ways to our experiences on earth.  I believe the key to what Jesus did was to demonstrate a love that opens a door for experiencing the full effects of the life intended for every human being both here on earth and beyond.  I believe the balance of what we know, mostly from the writings in the bible, shows this love to be unconditional.  And if you believe that, then my opening statement has no place in describing how God expresses his love.  And yet, again, this is a fundamental piece of the prevailing evangelical viewpoint.

So, how does this viewpoint measure up with one of the most well known quotes in the new testament.  I don’t believe a sports event goes by in the US without seeing a placard bearing the words ‘John 3:16’.  The reference to this verse is probably much better known than the content itself.  Unfortunately, many of the most well-known english translations of this passage were fashioned by those who firmly believed in the ‘love me or else’ school of God’s love.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.”  Hard to argue with this, and it does seem to suggest that not believing in Jesus means being destroyed.  How’s that for consequences?

I have looked into this and other words like this in the new testament and it would seem that translations can often put a very different spin on what might actually be quite compatible with the overarching message of unconditional love.  The word perish here is problematic until you realize that it is the same word in the greek used in the story of the ‘lost sheep’.  This is the one where the shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheep who are safe and pursues the one that is ‘lost’ until he is found.  Yes, the same word is translated as ‘lost’, not perished or destroyed.  In this context, the John 3:16 passage takes on a different meaning.

It is at least possible that what Jesus is offering here is an invitation to the full experience of life in the kingdom of God for now and beyond simply because we accept and embrace what he did for us.  But contrary to popular evangelical thought, the ‘lost’ are simply those to whom this fullness of life is lost for the moment.  And, even more surprisingly, it is God who pursues us with his unconditional love just as the shepherd does in the story until his plan to bring everyone into this life is complete.  The good shepherd does not rest until the last sheep is restored.  Is it not significant that following on from John 3:16, in the next sentence, Jesus states that he came ‘not to condemn the world, but to save the world’.  When this word ‘world’ is used in other places in the new testament, it clearly means ‘the whole world’.  Perhaps there is hope for us all after all!

Thought Provoking Thursday – To Hell With It!

Gehenna!  This is the word used by Jesus commonly translated in our english bibles to the word ‘hell’.  In fact, it is a real place, the valley of Hinnom, or historically, a place where criminals were dumped after execution, where children’s bodies were left after sacrificing to Molech.  It is also recorded by some historians as the rubbish heap of Jerusalem, where fires were always burning and stray wild animals would gnash their teeth and roam menacingly, scavenging off the dead bodies and garbage!  So I guess this is where we will end up if we are stupid enough not to heed the warnings and resist the temptation to raise a hand at the next evangelical altar call!

Forgive me for a little tongue in cheek irreverence here, but really, what do we imagine is being talked about by Jesus here, and what has this done to the message of ‘good news’ purportedly spoken about by Christians all over the world.  Frankly, I have always struggled with the idea of a God who would resign a beloved human being to an eternal torment and agony just because they were not impressed by the message at an evangelical rally.  I remain equally bemused by a ‘heaven’ strewn with harp playing winged cherubs where all we do is sing worship songs all day.  If they are as musically mediocre as much of what passes for creative worship in today’s churches, I am not sure I can stand it!

The thing is, I think we have perverted the heart of the message of Jesus, who, the bible says, came to save the whole world and whose modus operandi was based on love and acceptance, not fear and rejection.  Do I believe in the concepts of heaven and hell?  Absolutely.  But, as with so much of the bible, it all comes down to how you interpret what you read.  Simply substituting the word Gehenna for the concept of ‘hell’, is potentially missing the point of what Jesus was alluding to.  Many believe he was actually referring to the judgement that would befall the city of Jerusalem and the Jews that became a reality in the devastation of AD70.  I think it extends beyond this historical meaning, and takes on a metaphorical significance alongside a similar interpretation of the concept of ‘heaven’.

I don’t believe that either heaven or hell are actual places, but much more significantly, they represent our standing with God and depict a state of being.  Jesus, after all, actually encouraged his disciples to pray for heaven to be brought down to earth, implying the well-being, justice, love and peace could be a ‘state of existence’ here on earth.  Likewise, many of us have tasted what it might be to live in a ‘hell on earth’ when things fall apart, relationships crash and our world caves in.  Those who do not subscribe to a faith in Jesus would not ascribe either of these alternatives as having anything to do with a relationship with God.  But Jesus certainly came to draw people into a whole new way of living that involves denying self for the sake of loving others that few would deny brings its own unique rewards.

My biggest problem with the way that ‘hell’ has been interpreted amongst those who profess faith in Jesus is the underlying message of fear and exclusion.  Even amongst those who do not openly preach a fire and brimstone message, the implication that not responding to the evangelical message means eternal suffering and torment is far removed from the way Jesus is seen to deal with those around him.  What he offers, most strenuously, is reconciliation, love, peace and joy from the positive impact of knowing a loving, caring God.  This God who did not just send his message but became his message in a move that brought ‘heaven’ down to earth and gave us all hope for a better world and a better future from which no one is ultimately excluded.  Let’s face it, the scripture tells us he overcame death.  I can only assume that means this no longer limits anyone from enjoying what he came to give to all mankind and that life continues beyond the realm of this world.  That life can be graced by heaven or plagued by hell before or after the temporal divide.  I realize this is controversial, but I believe that my relationship with God is a journey embraced through love and acceptance and not limited to a one off decision made before we die.

Topical Tuesday – Its Not Politics!

Well, things were very busy over the weekend, hence no Sunday Sermon, it should be back this week.  For now, I have been struggling with the whole political debate, if I can even call it that.  I listened to someone recently who advocated taking an interest in politics because the meaning of the word originally focused on how we organize our living together in community.  Unfortunately, what passes for ‘politics’ these days could better be qualified by the word bad – ‘bad politics’.  No wonder so many people don’t want to talk about what is happening.  You know the situation at the Christmas dinner table and someone makes a loaded comment about the state of the country, the nationality of the President, the evils of big corporations etc etc.  This either elicits silence or a somewhat heated opinion and sighs from those who want nothing to do with it.

The problem I always face is being branded with a certain political persuasion because I happen to believe, for instance, that guns should be restricted, or we should make sure the poor and disadvantaged are taken care of.  On the other hand, I believe in the free market and I think the government should not interfere with my rights to buy raw milk.  I guess that makes me a liberal, libertarian capitalist.  The problem for a follower of Jesus like myself is that I am guided by principles that often transcend political boundaries and yet, it seems, most people are determined to put me in a box so they can define what I believe.  In a similar way, I have had to move away from using the moniker ‘Christian’ for the same reasons.  If you profess to be a ‘Christian’ in the bible belt here in the US it is automatically assumed that you will hold certain political views that frankly, I find difficult to reconcile with the teachings of Jesus.

So, where does that leave me?  As I have wrestled with this issue over the last few weeks, it seems clear that the established political camps have imposed their thinking on the population at large and caused a fault line to exist that dictates allegiance along party lines.  The irony of this scenario is highlighted by the political leanings of those who regard certain issues as more important than others.  So, the bible belt Christian, who has been largely hijacked by the Republican party with the lure of anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage as the moral issues of the day stands distinct from the African American Christian communities, who largely vote democrat on the basis of civil rights and a much higher proportion of the poor in their communities.

At the root of this divide, it seems, is the issue behind most of the failings of our current political scene, and this is not limited to the US.  Self interest.  It seems to me, that good politics is characterized by an overriding interest in the good of the whole community.  Where this no longer operates satisfactorily is when the needs of a thriving community are subsumed by the interest of the individual.  I remember the elder George Bush being elected back in the late eighties on the back of his famous promise ‘Read my lips.  No new taxes.’  To me, this summed up the appeal to self-interest over the needs of the community as a whole.  When it seems that politicians themselves are more interested in their own success and rise to power.  When the desires of the financial contributors trump (forgive the pun) the interests of the electorate and the electorate are, themselves, more concerned with protecting their own individual rights, then good politics is doomed to fail.

How would it look if, when we prepare to vote, our perspective would be guided by the needs of the community, by social justice, harmony, tolerance and kindness.  Whether Republican, Democrat, Conservative, Labor or whatever political hue, what if we were to vote for the candidate who best demonstrated a desire to promote these qualities in the communities they serve.  I realize this sounds idealistic and impossible to imagine.  However, the recent popularity of surprise political personalities, whatever your views on their personal beliefs would seem to highlight a dissatisfaction with the current political scene.  We stand at a crossroads, where forces of hatred and exclusion are vying for the vacuum that is emerging in our current disillusionment.  I sincerely hope and pray that those who value the rights and needs of others and their whole community will be willing to relegate self-interest as they consider for whom they vote.  This is, after all, is our opportunity to determine a better place for our descendants to inhabit.  We can bury our heads in the sand in disgust at bad politics, or we can help determine our own legacy and look past the labels and vote for what is best for us all.

Thought Provoking Thursday – Our Reaction to Belgium

Sometimes I will read an article and think – I couldn’t possibly put it better and besides, many professional writers do a much better job than I could do.  I had intended to write a piece about the sad events at Zaventem Airport or more accurately, our reaction to those events and then I came across this article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian and decided to let his article do the talking.  I hope you find it as thought provoking as I did…The Scariest Thing about Brussels Is Our Reaction To It

Topical Tuesday – The Kids Are Alright!

So I came across a news article the other day that gave me room for hopeful optimism for the future of mankind!  Oh, you are thinking, a cure for cancer, an announcement promising world peace, or Mr Martin is going to publish the next Game of Thrones book before the end of the next decade?  Sorry to disappoint, but the article I read concerned a study carried out amongst 2,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 21, or Generation K as the article claimed to call them (after Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame).  Whilst it seems that each generation gradually learns to write off the younger end of the population as almost completely incomprehensible, it seems that not everything is as it seems.

“When I came to recently from surgery,” says Sarah, “the first words I’ve been told I uttered were not ‘mum’, or ‘nurse’, but ‘iPhone, iPhone’.”  This quote from one of the participants in the above mentioned study sums up for me what is perceived to be most important to the youngsters of today.  Those of us who are a little older and have lived in a world with no mobile phones can be forgiven, I think, for some nostalgic yearnings for a lost past.  These times of selfie-sticks and seemingly narcissistic reliance on Facebook likes and twitter opinions have caused me pause for thought on many occasions.  I have spent a year abandoning any involvement with social media only to relent and accept that for many younger than I, this has become the favored means of keeping in touch.  Heck, even my own father, in his eighties, keeps an eye on our goings on through Facebook!

We could be forgiven for imagining that these trends herald a shallow world with little regard for what is happening outside the constant barrage of texts and tweets emanating from the Apple or Android communicator of choice.  However, I was both surprised and encouraged by the findings of the study.  Apparently, our young generation, like Katniss, perceive the world as a constant struggle and a majority believe that life is considerably harder than it was for their parents and grandparents.  79% of those in the study were anxious about getting a job and 72% worry about debt and not only student loans.   They are growing up amongst a much greater perceived existential threat.  Terrorism is a reality for those who have little remembrance of life before 9/11.

In the midst of these concerns is a deep distrust for the establishment, including political institutions and especially corporations.  A mere 6% of this young group trust big corporations as opposed to 60% of adults.  When asked what comes to mind when they think of global corporations they volunteer words such as exploitative, selfish, arrogant, greedy, cheating and untrustworthy.  Only one in ten of this Generation K trust the government to do the right thing.

What really surprised me about this study was the strong leaning towards those who were perceived to offer authenticity and who seem to be serious about tackling these issues of inequality.  When asked to proffer the name of a politician they trusted, Bernie Sanders was the sole name mentioned, and this was even true amongst the predominantly UK based respondents.  The perception, real or imagined, is that he seeks to take on special interests in government and business and has a strong commitment to social justice.  Whatever your views on Mr Sanders, it would seem that the ‘selfie generation’ is perhaps not so selfish after all.  There is a yearning for connection with others that is typified by the somewhat obsessive attachment to all things cell phone.  There is a much loneliness expressed in the study’s findings, anxiety for the future, distrust towards those of us in older generations, though their politician of choice is, ironically, the oldest candidate in the US presidential race!  This is not so much about age as it is about those who are honestly addressing their fears and concerns about the future.

I, for one, took a step back and allowed some of my pre-conceptions to be modified by these findings.  Admittedly, there is an element of self-interest in their concern for their own futures.  However, there is equally a strong desire to see an end to injustice, and support for authenticity that we might all benefit from adopting.  Perhaps the future is in good hands after all.  Perhaps, in the end, the Kids are indeed ‘Alright’!