Lighters, Russian Roulette, and 5 Minutes – “Talking about and Inviting”
Okay. Part 3. The last Sunday in hell.
In some ways, I’m kind of sad we’re ending our time in hell today. I feel like we’re just getting started, and that we’re only beginning to scratch the depth of spirituality, worldviews, church, salvation, our understanding of God and our place in this world…. But alas, Ashley’s sister is getting married next weekend, so I will not be here. And even though I’m officiating at the wedding, I’m thinking a wedding sermon on hell might be a little bit inappropriate.
The feedback I’ve received this month has been just awesome. Some of it is funny. Randy, the pastor at Steinbach Mennonite, told me this week, “I hear it’s been hell at Grace Mennonite for the past 3 weeks!” Love it.
One of you said, “See you in hell on Sunday!” Hahaha. That one even caught me off guard.
This morning, one of you told me that last week’s sermon caused you to not to sleep for an entire night. I asked if in a good way, and you said yes, because you were deep in thought. Phew. If you were having nightmares of fire and damnation, I’d feel a little bad.
Some of it is deep. I received an email telling me, saying thanks for talking about this. “The openness at Grace is a big reason why I am here, the other is that it values outreach and being followers of Jesus so highly. I have often felt I would not be accepted for my views in most churches and maybe rightfully so, but I am not out to change anyone else’s beliefs, only to grow in my own journey and share with those who are interested. I’m thankful for a safe place to worship and serve and continue my journey.”
And I’ll say thank you to everyone for this place named Grace. It existed for many years before we got here… None of us walk alone.
One of you said, “You seem to be putting into words what many of us have been thinking for years.” Thanks. It’s a joy. And thanks for a budget to buy good books. Everything that I have said has been said somewhere else in history, and I’m glad that we give each other the space to explore some of more hard topics in faith.
One of you had a question about the story I told last week about what might happen to an evil dictator after he dies. It’s a story, so it can interpreted multiple ways, but it does give the impression that the evil dictator had a second chance at repentance and heaven after death .
In hindsight, I realize that this is quite a break from mainstream theology. Maybe it’s heretical, maybe it’s not, but for sure it’s unorthodox.
So I’ll spend a few minutes exploring that idea, because I think it sets us up well for the rest of the sermon.
First of all, questions of the afterlife are all speculation at best, right? Because none of us really know how it’s going to shake down. I fiercely believe that when we die, our story isn’t over. At funerals I can say with great confidence that this isn’t our final goodbye. But also, none of us can claim to know the exact details.
Second of all, the traditional understanding of sin, confession, forgiveness and salvation can lead to some pretty hard questions. For example, all of us are okay with letting people into heaven without confessing Jesus as Lord. All of us would say children and people with cognitive disabilities don’t have to say the name “Jesus” to enter heaven. So salvation is possible without ever have to say or even know the word “Jesus.”
Thirdly, Jesus tells different things to different people. He tells some to sell their possessions and give to the poor. He tells others to sin no more. He tells others to be look after the least of these. And others he tells that their sins are forgiven. There isn’t a really good, tight knit formula here.
And finally, here are two images. One is Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who was shot by the Taliban and is working towards reconciliation with her enemy AND the education of girls in Southwest Asia. And here is a picture of a bullet used by the US army in Iraq, inscribed with Bible verses. There were 9 types of bullets with different Bible verses inscribed in them, most of them about how Jesus is the light of the world. They were put there by the weapons company for over 30 years, as the company’s founder was a devout Christian. Okay, so now this question of belief vs. deeds gets awfully complicated, doesn’t it? One goes to heaven and one goes to hell? Is there punishment for one and not the other?
So, I like to think that when it comes to questions of the afterlife, that God’s grace is big. Really big. Like, bigger than all the world’s sins. Bigger than what I can comprehend. And that he’ll make it all right and sort it all out the way it needs to be sorted out. And if that means a lot of unanswered questions or surprises in heaven or a lot of trust in God, I’m okay with that.
But that brings up a whole different set of questions, that one of you texted me so perfectly during Q and Eh last week. “Is there a point in sharing God’s word with others or “evangelizing” here on Earth then?”
Great question. Story time!
Several years ago, I attended a Franklin Graham festival. They used to be called crusades, and thankfully they changed that to festival, but imagine your classic tent meeting.
Franklin Graham, who is the son of Billy Graham and is the head of Samaritan’s Purse and all those shoe boxes at Christmas, started his speech off by holding up a lighter to his hand and saying, “If you think this is hot, hell is going to be a lot hotter. There are murderers in the audience here tonight. It’s true. There are liars here. People who tell lies. We’re all sinners here. And sinners go to hell. But Jesus offers us a way out.”
Is this how we are supposed to talk about faith with people who aren’t Christians? We convince them that they are sinners and that God is going to send them to hell, so that we can tell them about Jesus so Jesus can save them from hell?
What is Jesus saving us from? This story makes it sound a bit like kind Jesus is saving us from angry God. Does Jesus save us from God? I thought they were the same person…
Because the assumption has always been that we are supposed to tell people about Jesus so that they don’t go to hell. I’ve heard someone describe it like one big game of Russian Roulette: “If my Christianity is wrong, then we’ll both end up it in the same place. But if it’s right, then you’re going to be sorry. I’ll take my chances with Jesus.” So now following Jesus is like gambling? Where we play the odds? With our souls?
Or, if this doesn’t work, you can always throw a bumper sticker on your car. I saw this one at the doctor’s office a few weeks ago.
“Try Jesus. If you don’t like him, the devil will always take you back.”
Here’s another one of my favourite stories. Phil Campbell-Enns, the associate pastor before me, started this great tradition of taking our youth and learning about other religions. We’d study some of their key doctrines, and then we’d wrap it up with a visit to their place of worship. We visited mosques, synagogues, and a Buddhist temple. It was awesome.
So when I was a youth pastor in the city, we did this too! It was great, except for that one kid who converted to Islam… Just kidding. Much to the relief of some people at church, none of our kids switched religions.
One time we were at the mosque with the imam, the equivalent of our pastor, and one of my kids asked the question, “What happens in the afterlife to people who aren’t Muslim?” He responded gently. “Well, the traditional belief in Islam is that non-Muslims will end up in hell, which is quite similar to the Christian belief that non-Christians will end up in hell too.”
And then, in either a moment of sheer brilliance or sheer stupidity, I said “Well, shoot. I guess we’re all going to hell then, aren’t we?” Brilliant or stupid, I do not know.
But for most of us, the question isn’t even about other faiths. The questions I think most of us face is something like this: “But what about my neighbour who cuts my grass when I’m on vacation? He’s a nice dude. Not doing a lot of evil. He may think Christians are silly for believing in an invisible sky god, but he just goes to work at the bank, coaches minor hockey in the evening and goes to the cabin in the summer. What do we invite him to?”
Ah. Yes. Great question.
What do we invite people to?
I’ve thought about this question a lot this week. A lot. And read a lot. And I’ve come up with this.
Jesus is Lord.
I know, pretty original, eh?
Jesus is Lord.
But I think this is it.
In the Roman Empire, the context of Jesus and the first Christians, the emperors called themselves Caesar and they had popular slogans.
“there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved than that of Caesar
and they demanded that everybody, everywhere acknowledge
Caesar is Lord.
And so they marched all over the known world, conquering lands, demanding that people acknowledge Caesar is Lord, extracting taxes from the people they crushed which they used to build a bigger army to conquer more people to tax them to fund an even bigger army…” (Rob Bell, What is the Bible, part 29).
And then along came the first disciples. No. Caesar isn’t Lord. Jesus is.
Our allegiance isn’t to you and your system of violence and oppression. Our allegiance is to Jesus.
Jesus is Lord.
The beautiful thing about “Jesus is Lord” is that that statement is big. Really big . And timeless. And relevant. Because many things demand our allegiance. And our time. And our money.
Our country. Our favourite political leaders. Our retirement plans. Our security. Our favourite sports teams.
All o these are our current realities. But now filter them through the phrase, Jesus is Lord.
The phrase “Jesus is Lord” is great that it can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people.
For some of us, it leads us to be more generous with our time and money.
For others, it means we get help for our deepest, darkest secrets.
For some, it means that we learn to claim our identity as beloved children of God.
For others, it means we look at others in new ways, and offer love and grace that is rooted in Jesus.
For some, it means inviting people over for dinner.
For others, it means inviting them to live with you.
Because Jesus is Lord changes everything.
One of my friends who works for a Mennonite conference, has a supper club with his neighbours, where he is the only Christian. He shared with me that when people asked where he works, he tells them the church. And they say, “Church? People still go to church? Why?” Now obviously, my friend isn’t in Steinbach. And he told me that his answer is this, “I serve a master. His name is Jesus.”
That sounds pretty ludicrous, isn’t it? And somewhat offensive. What about political parties or your family or your friends or your job or your country or your retirement plan or your boss or yourself? Because we all have masters… Jesus is my master, and that changes everything.
So, my answer to what we invite people to consider, is Jesus. Nice Sunday school answer, eh? We invite people to see that Jesus is Lord. And trusting that following Jesus leads to love.
So that, I hope, answers the “What do we invite people to.”
But the how… ah, the how. Assuming you don’t have a bumper sticker about Jesus, or that you’re little “Hell is Hotter than this” lighter trick ruins Christmas every year, how do we invite people to consider Jesus as Lord?
I, think, that for me, most of the time my invitation doesn’t sound like this, “You should decide if Jesus is Lord.”
I think, my invitation sounds more like this: “Do you want to come with me? My belief that Jesus is Lord leads me to live a certain way. Come! Come do life with us! Let’s walk together.”
Because then, the invitation isn’t some abstract assent to certain beliefs or doctrines. It’s an invitation to do life together. A life that we believe leads to love. A life of love that we believe changes the world.
It’s an invitation to come and try to follow Jesus. An invitation to live in the Kingdom of God now. A kingdom of peace, forgiveness, restorative justice, hospitality, weakness, welcoming everyone, and ultimately, love (Baker 170-176).
It’s a little more subtle and gentle and humble than threatening hell. It may lead to people making a concrete decision to declare Jesus is Lord. But it might not. But the same can be said about the bumper sticker and the lighter trick, with the difference being that inviting people to do life together and love the world will probably make them less mad and angry.
And I also like the invitation to come and follow Jesus together because it keeps a lot of the onus on us. Because it means we need to live lives that are worthy of invitation. It means that we are engaged in life giving beliefs and practices and prayers, and we invite people to join us. It means we invite people on to a float plane every summer, or we invite college students to take a weekend and pray in silence, or we invite people to read really great books with us, or we invite them to pray for us as we work through forgiving someone, or we invite them to understand our identity as beloved children of God, or we invite them to explore faith at a safe little church called Grace.
For some of us, declaring Jesus is Lord is a starting point. For others of us, it’s something we discover along the way.
So, for me, talking about faith is Jesus as Lord. Inviting people to faith is “Let’s walk together.”
Two more stories, and then we’re done with hell for a bit.
First one. Jesus rises from the dead, and is hanging out with Peter and John. He asks Peter 3 times if Peter loves him, and Peter says yes, so Jesus says,
Feed my sheep. Follow me.
And then Peter looks at John, and asks, Lord, what about him?
And Jesus answers, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21) I can do what I want with him. Your job is to follow me.
I can’t speak with confidence about the fate of others. But what I can speak with confidence on is Jesus being my master.
Second story, Mitch Albom wrote a book, Have A Little Faith, exploring the faith and life of 2 men. It’s a great little book, and the epilogue has always stood out to me as to why we do what we do. We pick up a conversation between Mitch and his Rabbi, whom they called Reb.
One last memory.
This was not long before the Reb passed away. He was talking about heaven and suddenly, for some reason, I had a notion.
What if you only get five minutes with God?
“Five minutes?” he said.
Five minutes, I said. God is a busy God. Here’s your slice of heaven. Five minutes alone with the Lord and then, poof, on you go to whatever happens next.
“And in those five minutes?” he asked, intrigued.
In those five minutes, you can ask anything you want.
He pushed back into the chair, as if consulting the air around him.
“First, I would say, ‘Do me a favour, God in heaven, if you can, a member of my family who needs help, please show them the way on earth. Guide them a little.”
Okay. That’s a minute.
“The next three minutes, I’d say, ‘Lord, give these to someone who is suffering and requires your love and counsel.”
You’d give up three minutes?
“If someone truly needs it, yes.”
Okay, I said. That still leaves you a minute.
“All right. In that final minute, I would say, ‘Look, Lord, I’ve done X amount of good stuff on earth. I have tried to follow your teachings and to pass them on. I have loved my family. I’ve been part of a community. And I have been, I think, fairly good to people.
“ ‘So, Heavenly Father, for all of this, what is my reward?’ “
And what do you think God will say?
“He’ll say, ‘Reward? What reward? That’s what you were supposed to do!’ “
Jesus is Lord. Let’s do life together. Because I believe that following Jesus leads to a love that changes our hearts and changes the world.
** Dear internet reader. Please read the disclaimers both before and after Part 1. Thanks!