Wednesday, September 7, 2011

God's Universalist leanings


Hello, it's time to fire up the blog after a lazy summer. I thought I'd start with something gentle and hopefully edifying.

Last Sunday I had the monthly privilege of taking the Communion Service according to the Book of Common Prayer, that founding pillar of Anglicanism that deserves an ongoing audience (but that's another post).  The point being that the BCP has its own lectionary, which this week dealt us the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, or Publican as the 17th Century text insists. (And incidentally, I have at last learned that this is in fact the old English for a tax-gatherer, rather than a mistranslation which renders the sinister taxmen as jolly innkeepers).


9And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
 10Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
 11The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
 12I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
 13And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

To me this is a key passage, one that unlocks Luke's Gospel and the entire message of Jesus. Understanding this parable and certain other parts of Luke reveals one of the essential threads of the Gospel, as Jesus understands it.

The simplicity of the tax collector's approach to God offends our sense that we can contribute more to the conversation with our creator.  The Pharisee, on the other hand, shocks our complacency. I've often remarked to my long-suffering listeners at Kea that Evangelical Christians are the Pharisees of our time.  This is not just gratuitous abuse, but an attempt to understand exactly what the Pharisees represent in the Gospels.  We have become used to thinking of them as pantomime villains, but in context they were the most upright members of their religious society. The vocation of the Pharisee was to study the Bible and to interpret it by living a godly lifestyle.  But the tax collector of the story subverts all of that in one sentence.

To say "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" is the only thing needed to achieve fellowship with God.  This is not to deny the doctrines of the atonement or the incarnation - quite the opposite, since they explain that God has done everything necessary, and we just need to approach him humbly.  The publican, who, in opposition to the Pharisee, represents complete indifference and disdain towards God's law, finds that his record doesn't count against him in the Temple, where he comes into God's presence.

"Can a tax collector be justified?" might have been a similar debate to today's "could a terrorist go to heaven?"  According to Jesus, the appalling answer to both questions is "yes".  This morning I read this engaging piece on Christianity and universalism, which redefines universalism from the rigid "all shall be saved" to a more subtle understanding of the Gospel as being equally applicable to every member of the human race.

The question of whether everyone will be saved is, I think, a mystery rather than a certainty.  As with many things, you can make a good case for or against it from the Bible, with against perhaps winning by a head. What anyone who reads the Bible could not deny, though, is that God's heart, his wish (if we can say such a thing of God), is that everyone should be saved, and therefore everyone could be.  As we read from the Prayer Book on Sunday:

So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

2 comments:

Nancy Wallace said...

Thanks for the link to Peter Rollins thought-provoking comments about universalism. To your question 'could a terrorist go to heaven?' I would also have to say yes -potentially in the mercy of God that must be a possibility. This really hit home to me 10 years ago when I was presiding at a BCP Holy Communion on the first Sunday after 9/11 and came to the words about Jesus making "..a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world;..." I found tears rolling down my cheeks as I realized that the sins of the whole world included the atrocities of 9/11.

Suem said...

I love to think that, because theoretically everyone could be saved, that somehow...somehow...God will save everyone. It would represent the ultimate triumph of grace, love, mercy and sacrifice over evil.