The lure of universalism

I was talking with a pastor colleague not long ago when he recounted a story about an unpopular funeral sermon. The gist of the story is that the funeral was for a man who was not a believer or member of a church and in the sermon he raised just a bit of doubt about than man’s eternal destiny.

As you might imagine, that did not go over well.

If you’ve been a pastor for any time at all, I expect you’ve met someone who is anxious about the salvation of someone they love. The question comes up as something like this: “My (cousin, brother, daughter, mother, etc.) does not believe in God or go to church. I’m afraid what will happen to them if they never come to faith. What do you think, pastor?”

Here is the answer I sense people want. “I’m sure they will be with you in heaven.”

There is great pressure for pastors — and other Christians — to go along with the comfortable universalism that pervades our culture. No one wants to tell a fried that Aunt Maude is bound for hell. Few church people want to contemplate a kingdom of God without the people they love.

And while I would never presume to declare the eternal destiny of any particular person — that is Jesus’ job not mine — I do find the pressure to adopt a de facto universalism serves to undermine most of the rest of my ministry. It reduces the point of what we do in the church to a kind of do-gooder society with covered dish meals. You can get a lot of praise and a fairly comfortable life leading a do-gooder society — and the covered dishes are often quite tasty — but it can be an uneasy life if you read the Bible much at all.

Do you ever sense this tension? How can pastors and lay members better resist the pressure toward universalism in the church?

With apologies to Wayne and Garth

I have been thinking about how to best pray for the United Methodist Church in this time of trouble an internal dissension.

In the days of the early Methodist movement, John Wesley often had to respond to those who wanted the Methodists to break off from the Church of England. Our movement began within the Church of England and Wesley intended to stay. The American revolution and Wesley’s death defeated his intentions, but during his life he never wavered from his argument that Methodists should remain in the Church of England and attend its worship and receive its sacraments even when the local parish priests were hostile to Methodists and Methodist doctrine.

In the minutes of the early Methodist conferences, Wesley replied to those who thought Methodists should become Dissenters from the Church of England, and thus separate from it. Some even said Methodists already were Dissenters in practice if not in name. Wesley would have none of such talk.

Although we call sinners to repentance in all places of God’s dominion: and although we frequently use extemporary prayer, and unite together in a religious society; yet we are not Dissenters in the only sense that our law acknowledges, namely, those who renounce the service of the Church. We do not, we dare not, separate from it. We are not Seceders, nor do we bear and resemblance to them. We set out upon quite opposite principles.

Here is how Wesley contrasted those who sought to break unity with the Church of England from Methodists, who sought to renew it.

The Seceders laid the very foundation of their work in judging and condemning others: We laid the foundation of our work in judging and condemning ourselves. They begin everywhere with showing their hearers how fallen the Church and Ministers are: We begin everywhere with showing our hearers how fallen they are themselves…. We will keep the good old way.

Our moment is much different from Wesley’s. This is not the 18th century. Our church is not the Church of England. The particulars of the two situations bear little resemblance, but I do wonder if some of the “good old way” is in order as we let bishops deliberate and commissions study and the General Conference act.

Even as I write this, I sense my own internal push back.

But “they” have done this terrible thing. But they will not stop until they get their way. But someone has to stop the evil being done by those people. If we do not stand firm, they will win.

I don’t deny any of those reactions as valid.

I just wonder, this morning, whether we have more room or more need for the “good old way” of judging and condemning ourselves. I am reminded of the communion liturgy I first encountered in hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which includes the following prayer of humble access:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into his likeness, and may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

I wonder how much time we spend in the midst of our church’s struggle reminding ourselves that we are not worthy, that God alone is worthy.

Dig or build

A comment writer asked on a previous post a variation of a question I have gotten from time to time over the years of this blog: “What would Wesley think about all of this?”

It got me to reflect for a few moments on Wesley’s approach to theological error and ethical failings in the church of his day. I’ve not done a systematic study. My impressions come from reading nearly all his collected works, but I did not originally read them with this question in mind, so what I write below may be off base. With that caution, here are my thoughts.

Wesley certainly did not turn a blind eye to theological errors and moral lapses in the church. He wrote and preached about them — often addressing himself to the very people who he deemed to be in the wrong. Despite how much we like to quote his “think and let think,” he had a rather specific list of teachings he opposed and behaviors he found incompatible with sanctification.

And yet, he did not make it his life’s work to dig up or root out these things. Rather than spend his energy trying to force lax bishops into doing their job or remove from pulpits heretical preachers, he poured his energy into preaching sound doctrine and encouraging practices that led to sanctification. He poured his work into building up what was good rather than in rooting out what was bad.

Indeed, this is the source of Wesley’s life-long conviction not to separate from the Church of England. He wanted to reform the church by supporting and encouraging a revival of biblical faith. I’m sure he would have been happy to see many preachers and not a few bishops leave their positions in the church, but that was not where he spent his energy. He spent it building up any who would hear the message he preached.

In this moment of looming schism within the United Methodist Church, I find myself reflecting on his example and wondering what is the best way to tend to the souls who have been placed in my care, especially the ones who do not yet attend the church where I preach every Sunday.