Sunday, May 15, 2011

Compel Them to Come In

I had the opportunity to preach again this morning; and once again lacking anything substantive to put on my blog, I figured I might as well post my sermon.

Introduction: The Great Commission

Martin Luther once compared humanity to a drunkard trying to ride a horse, first falling off on the left, and then falling off on the right. And this is quite true. Hardly has humanity managed to make a mistake in one direction before we overcorrect, and fall off the horse on the other.

A good example of this is the way that our society treats religion. Back in the 1600’s, religious beliefs were not merely things you argued about; you were also expected to fight for them, and quite likely, to die for them. During the disgraceful 30 Years War, Protestant Christians fought Catholic Christians across the length and breadth of Europe, slaughtering entire cities, and burning whole countrysides, simply because their inhabitants held a different view of ecclesiastical authority, or used different words to describe communion. Perhaps a third of the population of Europe was killed during this brutal period in Western history. It was largely in reaction to those horrors that our own founding fathers enshrined in our Constitution the twin principles of individual religious liberty, and the separation of church and state. We are, and we should be, quite grateful for these protections.

And yet, if it is possible to fall off the horse on one side, slaughtering those who don’t share the details of our faith, it’s just as possible to fall off the horse on the other, and conclude that religious beliefs don’t matter. That is largely the situation in which we find ourselves today.

If you’ve been a follower of Christ for any length of time, you’ve probably had the opportunity to talk to someone who isn’t a Christian, about the fact that you are. If your experience is at all similar to mine, at some point during those conversations you’ve heard the following sentiment expressed: “I’m glad that it works for you, but it’s not really for me.” In other words, their assumption is that religious beliefs aren’t actually true. Faith might be helpful, faith might work for some people, but faith isn’t the sort of thing about which you could say, “this is correct” or “this is false.” Faith, most people are convinced, is a private matter, and if I have a different perspective than you do, the polite response is to say something conventional like, “Well, it takes all sorts.”

Of course, we can see a certain value to thinking this way. We need not go back so far as the 30 Years War to understand the power and terror of religious beliefs. September 11 was less than ten years ago, and religious terrorism remains a persistent threat to people across the globe. When we see religious beliefs used as a justification for killing, it’s perhaps natural to conclude that we should keep any beliefs we might have about the fundamental nature of reality to ourselves. As a result, common-places like “it takes all sorts” and “I’m glad it works for you,” aren’t just something people say to get out of a potentially awkward conversation; they represent a perspective that’s ingrained in our culture, and is reinforced in countless ways by the books and magazines we read, the television shows we watch, and even the advertisements we endure.

This belief, that religious claims have no real truth content, is so ingrained into most people that they don’t even recognize it as a belief: they never think to question it, because they never think about it in the first place. Yet when you do think about it, this perspective really is quite odd, and stands out sharply against the background of human societies. It only makes sense if you’ve already elevated individual selves to an almost insane epistemological height. And we most certainly have done so. I doubt there has ever been a society in the history of the world so intensely individualistic as ours. We want not only to choose our own religion free from external constraints; we also want to make up whatever religion we please; and we would generally prefer that the resulting work of our hands be free from any criticism.

In his book Habits of the Heart Robert Bellah describes an interview with a young woman named Sheila Larson. Sheila describes her religious beliefs as “Sheilaism”, and says that they basically consist of “trying to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.” Although Sheila feels the individuality of her religious beliefs so intensely that she can’t call them by any other name than “Sheilaism”, these beliefs are not nearly so unique as she would have them. What Sheila fancies to be her own private religion, has actually become the unquestioned assumption of hundreds of millions of people. Who says that irony is dead?

But there is a flip side to this intense individualism. Since individuals can make up their own religions as they go, and since different individuals will certainly reach different conclusions, the obvious corollary is that everyone should keep those conclusions to themselves. From this perspective, religious beliefs should be a purely private matter, like underwear: it’s generally acknowledged that most people have them, and that they make life more comfortable, but we’d rather they not be on display. As G. K. Chesterton put it, “The old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it.” As soon as religion became a purely individual matter, it necessarily became a purely private one as well.

In the face of this almost universal “Sheilaism”, two aspects of Christianity stand out sharply. The first is that Christianity claims to be true: not just true for me and perhaps true for you. Christianity claims to be true, full-stop. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” Jesus said. “Nobody comes to the Father except through me.” “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” These are fundamental claims about the deep workings of reality. Before a statement can possibly be right, it has to start by being possibly wrong, and while these statements of Jesus are astonishing and outrageous on their face, they have a single glaring virtue: they might be false. And therefore they might be true.

Second, Christianity insists on delivering its message to other people, and in a loud enough voice that they have no option but to hear it. “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations.” “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” The truth of the Gospel is inseparable from its proclamation. Christianity at its heart is a missionary religion.

So this is the situation in which we find ourselves. We live in a society which believes religion should be individual and private; but we serve a Lord to whom every knee will eventually bow, and who has called us to proclaim the good news of His resurrection in a very public and conspicuous manner. I suppose the Gospel finds itself in conflict with some aspects of every culture: but these conflicts seem particularly sharp in our own. Consequently, it’s worth thinking some more about these missionary impulses – and more specifically, seeing what the Bible has to say about them.

The Master and His Feast

In today’s passage from Luke, Jesus begins by describing the Kingdom of God as a sumptuous banquet to which God has sent out invitations to all and sundry. This image of a feast and celebration is something we should keep firmly in our minds as we contemplate what it means to proclaim the Gospel. For it is indeed something we often forget: that the Christian proclamation is good news. That’s what the English word “Gospel” means, as well as the Greek word from which we get “evangelism”. And the content of Jesus’ message, and the story of His life, death and resurrection, is in fact very good news. Everywhere, Jesus describes the message of the Kingdom in images of almost outlandish pleasure and beauty. It’s a lavish wedding, a pearl of great price, a sumptuous banquet. The Gospel is health and healing, the best wine you ever tasted, water and light, bread and harvest, the fatted calf, the son who was lost and now is found.

There is, of course, one obvious way in which the Gospel is good news: the proclamation of the Gospel, and our acceptance of its message, brings the possibility of eternal salvation. If we are truly in Christ, we participate vicariously in his life, death and resurrection, and we experience in Him the hope of eternal life. One day, Christ will return to rescue the world, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away; and all will be new. An eternity with Christ, an eternity contemplating the glorious vision of God, basking in God’s undying love for us, and loving and praising God in return: that is certainly beatitude.

But we sometimes forget that the Gospel brings with it a present hope as well. Jesus’ message of salvation and redemption was not just for the age to come; it is also highly relevant to the age and to the world in which we now live. The Gospel changes people; indeed, it changes whole nations, and has changed the course of history. This present world, without the message of the Gospel, would be dramatically impoverished.

I think one of the reasons we sometimes forget this is because we are keenly aware that the arrival of this Gospel did not, in fact, always mean good news for those who heard it. For hundreds of years after Columbus, European Christians committed unspeakable atrocities in the name of Christianity against Native Americans. Christians have oppressed women, have carried out pogroms against Jews, and crusades against Muslims. These are dark blots indeed against the followers of Christ, and it is important that we remember how easily even Christians can be seduced into horrific evil. But our sorrow over these sins, and our repentance that they were done in something like our name, should not make us forget how hard, even during these horrible times, many true followers of Christ sacrificed all they had for the cause of peace and justice. Evil is a powerful force in this world, and Christians have not always resisted it with success. But through the power of the Gospel, they have indeed opposed it: and there is no doubt that the Gospel has made a powerful positive difference in the history of the world.

To take but one example: throughout human history, slavery was a nearly universal institution. It has existed in one form or another, across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, throughout all of recorded history – until Christian activists fought to abolish it. It’s now inconceivable for a country to tolerate slavery: and this is entirely the result of the light of Christ being shown on the practice. Although Christians sometimes regrettably and shamefully participated in slavery, the movement to abolish slavery began with followers of Christ and was all but unknown except in nations influenced by Christianity. This is not an accident. The Gospel is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of owning another human being. If it is really true that Christ died to save even the lowest slave, there is no justification for slavery of any sort. I suspect very strongly that were it not for the yeast of the Gospel of Christ leavening the world, institutionalized, industrial chattel slavery would still be a prominent feature of life today. Just imagine what our world would be like without the moral force of Christian abolitionists like William Wilberforce and William Lloyd Garrison, or Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman. Try to imagine the stench of a slave market in Bellevue Square Mall, or the sound of the lash on Boeing assembly lines. For the millions now living in freedom who would otherwise be enslaved, for those feasting on liberty at the table of the Kingdom, the proclamation of the Gospel certainly has been good news indeed.

Those Who Declined the Invitation

When we hear the Gospel, we are receiving an invitation to sit down with Jesus at this very feast. But Jesus’ parable makes it clear that we do not need to accept that invitation. Indeed, the whole story turns on the possibility of rejecting the divine offer. And this is another key aspect of the proclamation of the Gospel. It is not always successful. In the parable of the sower, only one of the four seeds eventually bears fruit; but our own efforts to evangelize our friends and neighbors may come to fruition even more sparingly.

This does lead to another question, however, that Jesus doesn’t address directly. We all understand, I suppose, that those who consciously and explicitly reject the Gospel message have nobody but themselves to blame if they’re not present at the heavenly feast. But what about those who have never heard? Or indeed, what about those who have heard, and have even given the Gospel a fair hearing, but simply can’t convince themselves that it’s true? Is it fair for God to send someone to Hell simply because of an honest intellectual mistake?

This question is as difficult as it is common, and it remains puzzling to me that nowhere in the Bible is it clearly addressed. So in offering my thoughts on the matter, you should understand that I’m trying to put together an answer to a question the New Testament never even raises, let alone answers: so take this next bit with whatever dosing of salt you feel is appropriate.

First, the New Testament is quite clear that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ. If the Bible is indeed the Word of God in any meaningful way, it’s simply not tenable that all religions are equally viable paths to God. If we are ever to stand before God with anything like equanimity, we will do so only through the blood of Jesus Christ.

Second, the New Testament doesn’t make any sense if it isn’t possible to reject the Gospel. There are simply too many passages that warn us against such a rejection, and which offer a very clear view into the fate of those who do. Those warnings come from all sources: Paul, Peter, James, and most insistently of all, from Jesus Himself. I wish I could be a Universalist and believe that in the end everyone will make it to heaven. But I can’t square that even with today’s text, let alone the rest of the Bible. God is a gentleman, and He will not override the choices we have spent our whole lives making.

Third, not all mistakes are honest mistakes. I don’t know how God will judge the person who wants to believe, wishes that he could believe, even struggles to believe – but simply can’t convince himself that it’s true. That’s for God to decide, not me. But I don’t think many of us are actually in that position. To put it bluntly, we’re far too gullible. Unless we’re faced with overwhelming evidence, humans tend to end up believing what they wish were true. In my experience, the vast majority of people who believe that the Gospel is not true also hope that it’s not true. They dislike the idea of an Authority who will one day assess their every word and deed. They want to call their lives their own. They really do hope that no outside Power will ever judge each of their choices nor weigh every slow, imperceptible turning of their soul. When someone in this position mistakenly concludes that the Gospel is not true, their mistake is not, perhaps, completely innocent.

Finally, many Christian thinkers have speculated that those who were not Christians in this life might be offered a “second chance” to acknowledge Christ as Lord when they finally stand before His throne on the Day of Judgment. C. S. Lewis was one of those, and he put it this way in Mere Christianity:

There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.

I very much hope that Lewis’ belief is true, though I must also be honest and say that I don’t know if it is or not.

Those Who Accepted the Invitation

But the rich friends who declined to attend the feast are only half the story. For the master’s house was eventually filled with the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. When Jesus first told this parable, sitting in the house of a Pharisee, it would have been difficult to miss His point: that the religious leaders of his day, the ones who should have embraced His message and been first into the Kingdom of God, had instead rejected it. In contrast, those who would have been expected to reject the Gospel, the poor and uneducated, the traitors and collaborators, the whores and drug addicts, had actually embraced it.

This strange dichotomy did not disappear after Jesus’ earthly ministry. Paul himself, in writing to the Corinthians, says,

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

And this remains true today. At the macro level, Christianity is no longer a phenomenon restricted to the rich, Western world. On the contrary, Europe and the United States seem to be growing more and more secular with each passing year: but the message of Christ is vibrant, thriving and growing quickly in the poor countries of Africa and South America.

But this is also true on a much smaller scale. I’ll tell you one story; there are thousands like it.

When I’m visiting my parents in Longview, I usually go with them to their church, Columbia Heights Assembly of God. Over the years, I’ve grown acquainted with a program Columbia Heights is running called Celebrate Recovery. As you might guess from the name, Celebrate Recovery is targeted at addicts, and in Longview, this invariably means methamphetamine. Every Friday night, in the church fellowship hall, nearly a hundred current and recovering meth-heads get together to talk about Jesus. I’ve met many of these folks, and trust me, this meeting isn’t a pretty sight. My Dad, who isn’t one to mince words, says it looks like the bar scene out of Star Wars. Last Halloween, everyone came in costume, and my Dad said he couldn’t tell the difference. The people who come to Celebrate Recovery have had precious little to celebrate in their lives. They’re addicts and prostitutes and alcoholics. Many of them have spent time in jail. Most of them have spent time on the street, homeless. They don’t have any teeth. They talk weird. They’re strange. They smell. They make me uncomfortable. I don’t like how they sing.

And they love Jesus. And Jesus loves them; and they know it. Columbia Heights is in a rich neighborhood: but it’s these poor broken and bloodied slobs from Celebrate Recovery who are the beating heart of that church. On Sunday morning, it’s easy to spot them. They’ve got their hands raised higher than anyone else, and they’re singing louder. They’re not ashamed to get their bodies into it, either, and if you happen to be sitting next to one, you may get bumped a little as they start dancing. They’ve been called in from the highways and byways, they’re the crippled the blind and the lame who don’t belong at the Feast of the Kingdom of God, but got invited anyway.

I don’t mean to say that the folks from Celebrate Recovery are perfect Christians. Hell, they know that. That’s why they’re there. They know they’re not perfect: but they know that they are loved.

Conclusion: The Great Authority

I think many of us find the whole idea of evangelism intimidating. It brings to mind images of street preachers, or folks turning up on your doorstep on Saturday morning, smiles plastered on their faces and a stack of tracts in their hand. To be sure, those things have their place, especially for those who are called to that sort of ministry.

But evangelism doesn’t have to be intimidating. To start with, remember that evangelism is the reason why you’re here this morning. The reason your butt’s in that pew is because Peter or Paul or James or John told somebody who told somebody who told somebody else about Jesus – and one of those somebodies told you. Evangelism isn’t something foreign to any of us: it’s something we’ve each experienced. It’s why we’re here. There’s no reason to be scared of it.

So if you want to start evangelizing, if you want to start taking seriously Christ’s command to proclaim the Gospel, do this. Start by thinking about the things that attracted you to Christ, and the things that have held you to Him over the years. Think about the satisfaction that comes from serving Him and His body. Think about the difference He’s made in your life: how you’re not the person you once were, or would have been, had He not been with you, step by step. Think about why you’re here this morning. And then look for opportunities to explain those reasons to the people around you. As Peter said, “Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

There’s no particular need to be pushy about it. To be sure, if you’re a natural salesman, feel free to be as assertive as you want: I’ve seen it work. But most of us aren’t like that. We already have conversations with friends and family and coworkers where it’s natural to ask questions about their own beliefs: so go ahead and ask, and listen to their answers. And when the timing is right, or when they ask, tell them what you yourself believe, and why. If someone is going through a hard time, offer to pray for them. Go out of your way to help people out. Talk about your church. Bring a thoughtful but explicitly Christian perspective into conversations about politics or business or family life. Talk about why you went down to D’Iberville to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Tell them why you think God is interested in social justice. Pique their curiosity. Surprise them. Give them an explanation for the hope that is within you.

When Jesus told his disciples – when he told us – to go forth into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation, He didn’t tell us it would be easy. As a matter of fact, He told us pretty bluntly that it would be difficult. But He also told us that He would be with us as we went, even to the end of the age. And that makes all the difference.

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