The missing parts of the story

I had a curious exchange recently with a man who got me thinking about being a pastor.

Talking to this man, who professes faith in Jesus Christ, I realized that the story he tells himself about his own life includes neither Genesis 3 nor Revelation. If he wrote a private version of the Nicene Creed, it would not include the line about Jesus being crucified for our sake or coming to judge the living and the dead. The article on the Holy Spirit would not include mention of forgiveness of sins or the life of the world to come.

He is living now and for today and — so far as he can see it — the only point of Christianity is to help improve the material and social conditions of people living right now. The only sin he could see in the world was “institutional” or “systematic.” It was all out there and not in him.

I understand that Christianity can easily become so “other worldly” that it fails to live out the call to love our neighbor. It is pretty easy, however, for me to point out where and how the Bible instructs us on this point and corrects this mistake. Someone who acts as if Christianity is purely about getting a personal, eternal fire-insurance policy has missed some important parts of the Bible.

And it seems to me that the man I was talking to did so as well. Talk of his own sin, his need for a Savior, and his own eternal status before the Lord were dismissed as if the Bible never spoke a word about such things.

I struggled to draw his attention to this in a way that he could hear. I’m sure he left our encounter convinced that I was the one missing the point.

I am reflecting on the conversation, in part, because I know that man is not the only one in my community who thinks that way. I wonder how I am called to witness to our faith in his presence. As a pastor, how do I best feed this lamb of Christ?

There is a model in our Wesleyan heritage that says the correct response is to lay out in clear terms his mistakes. Like John Wesley himself, we might dust off our copy of “Almost Christian” and walk through point-by-point where he has gotten the whole thing wrong.

That is a model, and Wesley would chide me at my hesitation to embrace it. He would tell me to pick up my cross and bear it for the sake of this lost soul. He would remind me that if this fellow — clearly still in the slumbers of his fallen nature — would not hear the message, I would at least be clear of the guilt of refusing to deliver it. His blood would not be on my hands.

I can feel Wesley’s firm but loving stare as I write these things, but I must confess that I feel ill-equipped for such a response.

Nearly every person we encounter — and I don’t exclude myself here — is getting something wrong and failing to live the faith we profess in full. How as pastors do we respond? The answer, of course, depends on the particulars of the person and the situation before us. There are blanket principles but not blanket answers. Each person requires different things. This is also something Wesley would say.

Discerning when to lead with the rod and when to offer milk is a skill learned over many years. I am aware that I have much to learn in this area. I know myself well enough to know I am apt to err too much toward gentleness when firmness is often required. I pray that the Lord will give me grace to do this thing I have been called to do, to feed and care for his flock.



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?

Where our story begins

Christianity starts with the assertion that there is something deeply wrong with the world. It starts with the observation that the world is not as it should be and the conviction that what is wrong is not some minor flaw that can be easily removed by just a bit more human effort. Christianity tells the story of the world as the Bible does: It is a good creation that is fallen.

If you do not accept that story, then there is little in Christianity that makes sense. If you think the world is basically good and getting better all the time, then it does not need a savior and we do not need Jesus. If you think that the only problem in the world is that we have not yet tried hard enough or discovered the right tools, then you will not believe that the solution to every problem has already been given to us.

Christians tell the story this way. God created all that is and gave us dominion within his good creation. And God gave us the free choice to live in harmony with and obedience to his just, perfect, and loving commands. We rejected these gifts. We broke the world. We ushered in death and all the evils that follow in its train. And as the world shattered, we were shattered down to the very deepest depths of our heart and soul.

Salvation is nothing less than a restoration — a recreation — in the life of a person and the entire world of the joy, peace, harmony, and love that God first instilled in us. It is a gift and work of God, but one we must both accept and nurture within ourselves, for the old impulses die hard.

A preacher named John Wesley believed this and taught it to anyone who would receive it. As United Methodists — but I would argue as Christians — this is what we teach as well.