How do I get to heaven?

Earlier this week, I asked how we as United Methodists would answer the question: How do I get to heaven?

Here are a few of my thoughts on the answer.

I begin by saying we make a mistake if we confuse the process of salvation with the goal. What do I mean by that? I mean that we often answer these types of questions by laying out some form of the order (or way) of salvation. Repent of your sin. Confess Jesus Christ. Get to a good church. Etc. But these are the steps in a process. They are the outward forms, not the inner grace.

As one who has been greatly influenced by the Wesleyan movement, I would say the answer to the question about getting to heaven is some variation on one of John Wesley’s favorite verses, Hebrews 12:14b. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. I’m not tied to this specific half-verse, of course. The witness to holiness in the Bible certainly spans from Genesis to Revelation. The points is this. God is holy. If we wish to dwell with him in eternity, we are called to be holy as well.

I see the answers — obviously not in this form if talking with a real human being — as going in this order.

How do I get to heaven? That’s easy. Be holy as God is holy.

What does it mean to be holy? Well, let me show you some places where God spells that out for us. Let me talk to you about the law and the prophets. Let’s see what Jesus said about those. Let me show you some people who have exemplified what he taught.

How can I do all that? I’ve tried, and I fail. Well, let me talk to you about Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the power of the Holy Spirit.

That seems pretty hard to do. Well, good news, we have a whole bunch of other people trying to do the same thing. We’re called a church. You should come along with us.

Of course, it is rarely this straight forward in real life. I just think staring off with “put your faith in Jesus” misses the point. It leads people into viewing Christianity as a kind of fire insurance program.

Do you ever see those signs or billboards on the side of the highway? They do it this way. “Avoid Hell. Believe in Jesus.” In church, I think our message is at times a more sophisticated version of these highway signs. But we are jumping the gun. We are offering the process before the solution. The process is not bad. It just isn’t the actual answer. It can confuse people into thinking that because they uttered some words in sincerity or got dunked in a creek that they are glory bound. When the real issue at the end of it all is going to be whether we are, in fact, holy.

Maybe I’m wrong. This is the way I’d answer my own question, though. I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter.

 

How would we answer his question?

A man walks into a United Methodist Church. He finds his way to the pastor’s office. By some providence of God, the pastor is there working on next Sunday’s sermon.

The man says he has only one question to ask: “What must I do to get to heaven?”

Based on United Methodist doctrine, what answer should the man expect from United Methodists?

(The question, by the way, is what John Wesley wrote he most wanted to know the answer to.)

What it means to save souls

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Romans 14:12)

John Wesley famously told his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

If we are not listening carefully to him, we might fall into the trap of thinking he is aiming at mere conversion. This might sound like an appeal for a kind of altar-rail salvation that takes a much too narrow view of the meaning of salvation but packages well in American culture.

Conversion is important, crucial even. But it is just a step in the process of salvation. It is salvation begun but not salvation completed. Salvation is not complete until the second coming when the book of life is opened and read.

If that is true, then the work of the pastor is not conversion but fruit. Each one of us will stand one day before the Lord who will judge us. And so the work of the pastor is to help people get ready to have their lives laid bear before the judgement seat of God.

Saving faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary for this work. It is the power to destroy sin and remove guilt and shame, but it is not everything. We can’t be saved without coming to faith in Christ, but coming to faith is the beginning rather than the end of the journey.

A Methodist Easter message?

What is this thing that we are instructed to go tell the world about?

Jesus, who was dead, is alive.

Why is that such a big deal? Why does that matter? Why do so many Christians run around insisting that it is the most important thing that ever happened or ever will happen?

A dead guy came back to life.

It happens all the time on TV and in the movies.

What’s the big deal?

I’m sure different churches answer this question in different ways. Here’s my best short response based on my understanding of what it means to be a Methodist — United or otherwise.

My answer starts by observing that not everyone hears this news with the same ears. There are at least three different stances that a person adopts as they come to hear the news of Easter.

The first, I’ll call the careless. I don’t mean here careless as in not paying attention to what they are doing — although in certain cases that might apply. I mean careless as in “I could not care less” about Jesus and what all we church people have to say about him.

This may be a defiant rejection of Christ. It may be the voice of someone who just can’t be bothered. It may be the voice of one who, although they would never be quite so blunt as I put it above, thinks they have Christianity all sorted out quite nicely and don’t need any Jesus talk mucking things up. God is in his heaven, and I’ve got it all under control down here.

To the careless, Easter’s word is “Wake up!” Or perhaps, look again. That bothersome itinerant preacher, who you thought had been shut up, is on the loose. More than that, his resurrection testifies that he is who he said he is: the Son of God.

Much of the apostolic preaching recorded in Acts has this message. The resurrection proves that Jesus is the one who will judge the world. If he is the judge, perhaps it is time to look again at what he said when he was here with us.

The second group, we might call the convicted. These are the people who have paid attention to the teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and the Torah. They are aware that there is something out of alignment in their own souls when it comes to God. Whether this is experienced as the guilt and shame of the more colorful sins or as the bondage and fear of our more subtle alienations from God, the convicted come to the tomb of Easter bearing the grief of Golgotha in their hearts. Their outward modes of grieving might be quite different, but the pain is still real. They know something is wrong in them and with them.

To the convicted, the word of Easter is “Come home!” The father is waiting on the hill watching the road for your return. Come home, and rejoice. Life is stronger than death. Love is more powerful than hate. You who were dead, be alive once more. Receive the grace and mercy poured out for you on the cross and sealed forever by an empty tomb.

The final group, at the risk of offending, we might call the Christians. These are the ones who have known the love of God poured out into their hearts. They can say with gladness that Jesus Christ has forgiven them, even them. But they come to Easter still looking for a sign to sustain them in the journey. The road is long and the trials are many.

To the Christian, the word of Easter is “Hold on to your hope!” The work Christ first worked in you, he will complete. He has gone ahead, but he will meet us again. So, hold tight to the hope of Christ. The women came that morning, perhaps, all out of hope, convinced by hard reality and stone cold power that the promises of God are too fragile to survive this bitter world. They came clinging to or perhaps even devoid of hope, but that morning hope found them. It will find and sustain you as well, if we do not let go.

I don’t think these messages conflict with each other, and we probably all need to hear all three at every point in our lives. But they do hit different accents.

Methodism has always been a way of being Christian that is keenly aware of the journey of faith. We believe that Christ calls us into ever deeper communion with him. We believe that there is no such thing as standing still with God. We either go forward or we fall back. And so, from the days of Wesley, Methodism has always been careful to fit its words and practices to the different needs of the people who receive them.

I’m not saying this is unique to Methodism. We Methodists have always insisted that our only goal was to be faithful to the faith once delivered to the church. We have never aimed at being new. All I am trying to do is figure out how to be the best Methodist I can be. God called me to this odd body of believers and has called me to ministry within it. I hope to honor that call as best I can.

This Easter, I pray I am serving Christ’s purpose in raising up a people called Methodist by seeking to preach in such ways.

Skipping level 1

John Wesley had three categories he used to organize his thinking about how to best preach the gospel. We see these three nicely in his sermon “Scriptural Christianity.” Here he is describing his vision for how the first converts to Christianity engaged their neighbors and relations with the gospel.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

Did you notice the three groups?

  1. Those who don’t care about the wrath of God or imagine they are in need of a savior.
  2. Those who long earnestly for a word of grace in the midst of their sense of condemnation.
  3. Those who need to be encouraged and admonished to continue on toward full holiness.

Do you know why they threw rocks at Wesley and closed so many church doors to him? In large part it was because he preached that the vast majority of good Church of England members were in the first group. He told them that just because they showed up to church and sacrament every Sunday, it did not mean they were right with God. Indeed, he preached that so-called Christians who do not have any real experience of Christ were the hardest people to convert to real Christianity.

It feels as if we in the church today are overrun with people at whom Wesley would advise us to thunder “Awake!” But there is tremendous social and theological pressure to act as if all is well. There is pressure to treat everyone as if all they need is a gentle and inspiring version of the message designed for groups 2 and 3.

I feel that pressure.

I can hear the questions that it raises.

Why be so judgmental? Who are you to warn others? Aren’t you just a hypocrite?

Do you hear those questions? I suspect Wesley did. I wonder if it ever caused him to shrink back before climbing in the pulpit or mounting the market cross.

What we do that no one else does

On Sunday, I preached at a Sunday night Lenten service about the need for spiritual accountability. The point was that, left to ourselves, we talk ourselves into – or let the devil talk us into – all kinds of bad ideas. The pastor at the host church reached out to me afterward and said he wants to talk about ways we might build on that message. I had a couple of lay members also express some interest in the kind of Wesleyan spiritual accountability groups that I mentioned in the preaching. So, that was a good evening, but one that I need to build upon if it is to bear any fruit. I’m great at beginnings; I’m not so strong on follow through.

The sermon idea arose out of a conviction I’ve been feeling recently that my ministry has provided a fair amount of care to others but not much in the way of growth. I think part of this conviction arises after three funerals in the last month at the two churches I serve. When you put a person in the ground, it gives you pause to reflect on whether you’ve done what you should have done as their pastor, which, of course, gets to issues of pastoral identity.

I’ve been on such a long journey when it comes to pastoral identity, not long in time, perhaps — I’ve been preaching close to 8 years now – but long in theological distance. If you had told me in 2007 that the role of the pastor is to get people ready to meet their maker, I would have wondered where the tent meeting revival was that you’d wandered away from. I am a spiritual child of American university towns and mainline Protestantism. In my world, churches existed to comfort and soothe and perhaps provide an organizing point for good works. The primary message was that God loves you because you are loveable and God loves everyone else even if they are not loveable. I’d never heard in a church I attended any preacher suggest that his or her job was – as John Wesley would put it – to save souls.

And yet, I am persuaded more and more that saving souls is precisely the only thing that the church does – or facilitates – that no other institution can do or cares to do. We have lots of community building groups and political action groups and counseling groups. Many of them do what the church tries to do in these areas much more effectively than the church does. What we do that we alone do is teach, lead, and encourage people on to salvation.

So, on Sunday, I tried to preach a message that would both convict and encourage the Christians who are serious enough about their faith to come out on Sunday night for a second worship service. It was a small fraction of the membership of the six congregations that are hosting these Lenten services. But like the handful of those who expressed interest in accountability groups, I find myself drawn to the thought that these are the ones who most need my attention because they are the ones most earnestly seeking something deeper and more than what passes for Christianity in our culture today.

When I get back from Spring Break, I’m going to follow up with that pastor and with the few individuals who responded to the sermon. Or, at least, that is my goal.