Tonight, I was with my wife at a local restaurant. As we were preparing to pay for our meal, there was a man already at the checkout; his wife was standing behind him a good 5 or 6 feet waiting patiently. He turned and looked my way with an unpleasant scowl on his face and I smiled and said hello. He was in a suit and tie and looked like he had just come from church. His wife was in a dress and light sweater. After paying, he turned back to me and asked if he could give me something. I said yes, and he handed me two small pamphlets.
One of the pamphlets I’d seen before; very common in “Baptist” circles entitled This Was Your Life. It is in cartoon form and opens with the burial scene, a guy being laid to rest in his nice suit but is then told by a booming voice to rise. The next scene is the man physically rising from the dead and questioning whether he is dead or not. At the bottom of each page is a scripture passage from the original 1611 King James Version of the Bible, the only authority in many Baptist churches.
So, why am I writing about this encounter?
When I was a child, the church taught me a script, I was taught this pamphlet inside and out. Here’s the jest of what I was taught:
1. I was a horrible sinner because of the sin of Adam and the fall of Adam and Eve while in the Garden.
2. The sin of Adam caused all of humanity to be born totally depraved.
3. Salvation only comes to those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and who are baptized as a sign of deliverance from sin – that we die to our old self, and we are resurrected with Jesus Christ and raised to new life as we are raised out of the water.
4. Once I was saved, I would always be saved, unless I willfully sinned against God and did not repent by turning away from that sin.
5. In the final days, if I was still seen by God as a follower of Jesus Christ, then I would be resurrected to new life and given a new body and live in heaven with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit for all eternity.
6. My decision to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior was one that I should not take lightly because my soul literally hangs in the balance.
We learned the “Roman Road” to Salvation.
Romans 3:23 – For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
Romans 5:8 – But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 6:23 – For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 8:1 - There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
Romans 10:9 - That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
Thank you, Paul, for Jesus-splaining Jesus’ own words.
As I think about what to write next, I must admit that my anger is getting in the way of me formulating my next thought. This man that I encountered tonight didn’t give that tract to the cashier, he didn’t hand it to Ouida or anyone else standing in the vicinity, he handed it to me. I believe he handed it to me because when he looked at me, he immediately knew I needed saving.
Not too long ago I had some folks show up at my door who were proselytizing and passing out literature about “being saved” and I told them I was an ordained minister. They didn’t care. They continued to hustle their product trying to get me to realize that their way was the only way to find the one, true, living God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
STOP! Just stop!
I don’t need to be saved. My friends don’t need to be saved. My congregation doesn’t need to be saved. No one needs to be SAVED!
If you want to believe that the Biblical text is the literal word of God, so be it. If you need to reject science, philosophy, biblical scholarship, psychology, and more, that’s okay too. But you do not have the right to perpetrate your version of God and/or scripture on the rest of the world.
When Jesus told his disciples to go into the world and proclaim the kingdom of God, Jesus was specifically talking about the present kingdom here on earth, the kingdom of community, of love, of compassion. Jesus said that the kingdom is within – it isn’t out there somewhere, distant, and far away, it is written on our hearts, and is seated in our minds.
God wanted us to enter into the fullness of life, to taste the highs and lows, the good, the bad, and the ugly. God wanted us to fail and to rise again. If God didn’t want us to experience life as it unfolds for all of us, then all God had to do was not create the serpent. We try to make the Genesis passage some horrible failing on our part, but God is the one who created all that they knew in the Garden, including the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life, and the Serpent. God could have created us as perfect humans to dwell in paradise for all eternity, but then why would we need God? What would be the point?
We act like what happened in the Garden of Eden was some surprise to God or that God didn’t expect us to be human. Yet, we describe God as all knowing, all powerful, and all present. God can’t be both informed and uninformed at the same time. It doesn’t work that way.
The God I serve wants me to worship and praise him of my own volition. God is not interested in coercing people into submission. He explicitly told the Israelite people to welcome the alien residents among them reminding them that they were once captive in the land of Egypt. God’s admonition was to get them to recognize how easy it is for the oppressed to become oppressors. God didn’t design us to be oppressed, but to walk in freedom.
There are two occasions in scripture where Jesus is asked what kinds of deeds must be done in order to have eternal life. Two times. When the rich man asks him this question, we get a lesson on the material things of this world that we must give up in order to place God at the center of our lives. When the lawyer asks Jesus this question, we get the story of the Good Samaritan. In each of these stories, Jesus refers back to the law and names specifically God’s law to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
When you are badgering people to receive your version of the gospel, or when you are smugly judging people and handing them pamphlets about going to hell for all eternity, you have absolutely missed the gospel message. This is not what Jesus professed at all.
In the two passages where Jesus is asked directly about what it takes to have eternal life, he had the perfect opportunity to lay out Paul’s “Roman Road” or Jesus could have given us his three main points: to accept him as our personal Lord and Savior, to be baptized, and to go and sin no more. Funny, Jesus didn’t say any of those things in relation to eternal life. None of them.
I don’t dispute Paul’s words that we have all screwed up. What I do dispute, though, is the general interpretation of those words to mean that those who do sin must follow a very narrow prescription in order to be loved by God. It is my contention that God wants us to screw up a lot. It is through our mistakes that we learn how not to behave. Sometimes we make mistakes that aren’t easily fixed. There are those among us who break the law by taking the life of others, or steal what does not belong to us, or fixate on all kinds of worldly things that become our idols. Without these challenges, though, how are we to ever know what it means to truly place God at the center of our lives. If we weren’t imperfect, we would never seek anything external to ourselves that even remotely mattered.
In truth, it is in our seeking that we find. If it were already apparent to us, what is the point of seeking?
Jesus often asked questions of his disciples. He wanted them to think through what he was trying to teach them. We are not outside the margins of needing to learn as well. Jesus’ teachings all led back to a few simple things – Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. Show mercy. Be compassionate and kind. Have faith – walk with intention and be engaged in action. These are simple things, but they are not easy. It was never meant to be easy. Too easy and we’d ignore it thinking it isn’t worth our time. Too challenging and we would get frustrated and fill the void with something else. When we are told in the Biblical text that God will never give us more than we can handle, it is being made clear that challenges will come but that we have been equipped to navigate turbulent waters. When we fall in the midst of a challenge, we cannot assume that we necessarily did something wrong or that our faith was weak, but rather, we should look at what we learned having come through it battered and bruised. More than anything, my scars teach me to be more compassionate toward others; to never treat others the way that I don’t want to be treated.
So, to the man at the restaurant who handed me the two pamphlets, thank you for being so concerned about my soul that you were willing to actually develop a relationship with me and discern how you might help me become the best version of myself that I can be. Oh wait, that isn’t what you did, is it? Instead, you assumed you knew me just by looking at me. But you don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me.
Jesus traveled all around the Sea of Galilee bringing a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of love. If nothing else, can we please stop trying to scare people into submission? God isn’t going to send you to hell. Hell is a mythical place established by the church as a way to control the masses. Besides, the more afraid people are of going to hell, the more money they’ll pay to the church in order to stay out of hell. It is one of the greatest Ponzi Schemes in history.
I have to consistently remind myself to not become the thing that I hate. I keep trying to hold space for those who think differently than me, for those who believe that God is a wrathful God who is going to pick and choose who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. I really do try. But there are times when it feels like too much. I just want to scream at the top of my lungs, “You’re wrong!” which means, “I’m right.” And that just feels icky.
So, here is where I’ll leave you. God loves you. I know that God loves you because I believe God created you. I believe through the creation of the whole of the universe, there is a divine spark in all living things. ALL!!! I believe that God wants us to live in community; something that we are hardwired to do. I believe that God desires us to be compassionate and kind human beings who love and show mercy to others. I believe that God desires for us the very best in life, but that we cannot have ALL of anything because that makes us selfish and self-centered. It is our selfish and self-centered nature that makes us human, it provides us with the necessary tools for survival, but they are also the traits we must overcome in order to live with others in peace.