Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth – Oh My!

I would guess that the average Episcopalian is cool with the Parable of the Talents all the way up to the final verse.  Sure, there are some who will embrace the imagery of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, just as there are some Socialist Episcopalians who will balk at the whole premise of this parable, but, by and large, most of us feel like we can understand what Jesus is up to until we hear those words of judgment.  It is there that we get fidgety.

Now, I’m not so sure we feel uncomfortable about the imagery that Jesus uses because we are afraid that we’ll end up there.  I think it is probably more likely that our discomfort comes when we think of those whom we think might find themselves there someday, and we instantly become uncomfortable.  Episcopalians tend to be pretty willing to let the whole hell thing go.  But I’m not so sure that’s helpful.

Let’s be clear, this particular set of images for what eternal damnation might look like are nearly exclusive to Matthew.  The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears seven times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.  Six of those occurrences are in Matthew.  We are clearly getting some of Matthew’s theology thrown in here, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the whole image away.  Instead, I think it is helpful to spend some time pondering what this image is intended to convey.  Three times it is combined with the outer darkness.  Twice it is used in conjunction with the furnace of fire.  The other use speaks of where the hypocrites are.  The image is meant to convey a place of isolation, like the Jewish concept of Gehenna or the burning place, where those who were judged to be worthless, wicked, and lazy will end up in the final judgment.

This is not what Dante created for us in his Inferno, but it is still very much a place in which no one would like to end up, and that is exactly why we need to talk about it.  Not to scare anyone into belief, but to be honest about the fact that our decisions have ramifications.  Until we are willing to talk honestly about sin and about how the broken relationships that sin creates have long-lasting, even eternal, impact, we are failing to help our people understand the fullness of the grace of God.  Rather, the image that many of our people have been given is that their faith doesn’t really matter, how they live their live is without impact, and that hell is only a place “they” use to force conversion.

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Another chance to bring up our poorly worded value statement. Huzzah!

Without judgment, there is no true grace.  While we need not be known as a church of judgment, we should be clear that all of humanity stands under the judgment of God and that, at least for us, the path to restored relationship is through live-changing faith in Jesus Christ, and this Sunday offers the preacher a chance to name that reality with hope, with grace, with good theology, and, we hope, with tact.

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Love Wins – a post about the word “the”

Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14.6a)

Several years ago now, Rob Bell wrote a book entitled, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  The book raised the ire of many an Evangelical leader because of Bell’s seemingly Universalist stance (In the midst of the brouhaha that lead up to the launch of his book, Bell denied that he was a universalist).  None other than leading Evangelical John Piper tweeted what was essentially the 21st century version of an anathema, excommunicating Bell for modern Evangelicalism and forcing him into the Oprah speaking circuit, effectively ruining him as a theologian (a post for another day, perhaps).  Many [former] Mainline Christians received Bell’s book with no more than a yawn, noting that this is really nothing we hadn’t heard before.

One can read the Bible cover to cover and reasonably conclude one one hand, that everyone is saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus or on the other, that God has elected only a select few to be saved and will send the rest of the reprobate to eternal damnation, or on any number of other hands, some gradation in between.  So, I don’t presume to speak the definitive word on this subject, mostly because anybody who argues that there is a final word on it is either a heretic, a liar, or insane.

I bring this matter up because Sunday’s Gospel lesson gives us the line I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post, with that pesky word “the” included three times.  Attempts have been made to soften the blow of Jesus’ claim by suggesting a translation that reads, “I am a way, a truth, and the life” or some such thing, but the Greek of John’s Gospel very clearly a definite article before each of the key words: way, truth, and life.  It is unambiguous that Jesus is making a very exclusive claim, which is clarified in the next sentence, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  It seems clear, at least in this oft cited portion of John’s Gospel (cf John 12.32), that Jesus is making a very narrow claim about the salvation of God.

Let me suggest another reading, however.  What if Jesus’ exclusive claim that he is the only way to the Father is actually very inclusive.  Radically inclusive, even.  What if love really wins?  It seems clear in the Scriptures and in our Creeds that there will be a final judgment “of both the living and the dead.”  A final judgment infers that there will be a time between now and the end.  What if, in that interim period, the overwhelming love of God continues to work on the souls of those who have departed this life?  What if, the gift of grace continues to be offered again and again and again?  Sure, there is a chance that some will reject it, flat out, no matter what, but more likely, in my opinion, is the possibility that love will prevail; that in the end all will come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  It won’t be forced or coerced, it’ll be nurtured and cajoled.  What if Jesus really is the only way to the Father and that ultimately everybody finds that way?  What if there is a hell, but in the end, it’s empty?

Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, and surely something in here has made me a heretic, but this is what comes to mind every time John 14.6 comes up.  Love can win, even with the word “the.”