“All this is the work of the kindness of our God, the dayspring who shall visit us in mercy to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”Benedictus
For us Christians this is the season of Lent. We marked ourselves with a sign of repentance on Ash Wednesday by drawing a cross of ashes or dirt on our foreheads. Then we entered into a 40-day retreat to study what it means to repent, what it means to be a Christian, and to prepare to renew our baptismal commitments at Easter and discern how we can be the person God has created us to become. We learn how to let go of our false selves and become our true selves.
For too many Christians the concept of what it means to be a Christian has been a single-minded focus on getting themselves to heaven and avoiding hell. I dare say that this focus is selfish and of little benefit to anyone other than the person who wants to be saved. It is a “too heavenly minded to be of much earthly good” sort of attitude. I believe this attitude is behind the oft heard question, “Are you saved?” This question implies that a person can say some magic words, get baptized, and — ta dah — be saved. It is a question that never asks what we are saved for.
There is a different understanding about salvation that has been credited to various saints and scholars so I no longer know who said it first. I usually credit a little story told to me about Therese of Avilla. I don’t even know if it is true, but I like it.
It is said that she saw a vision of angels. One group was carrying torches and the other group was carrying buckets of water. She asked them where they were going. The group with torches answered, “We are going to burn down the mansions of heaven.” The group with water answered, “And we are going to put out the fires of hell.” Then all the angels said, “Then we will see who really loves God.” Salvation is about love, not heaven and hell.
Another consideration I want to throw out is this: for thousands of years the people of God had no concept of an afterlife and yet they worshipped and loved God and did all they could to keep the commandments they received at Mt Sinai. And more recently, John Lennon tried to help us get our eyes back to the here and now with his song, Imagine. Can we cut ourselves free of worrying about heaven and hell? Can we be “saved” from that concern?
People in our society have conformed themselves to a doctrine of the carrot and the stick — that people will be good if there is a reward; that people will avoid doing evil out of fear of punishment. Because of this belief we a punitive society. We are also a competitive society, even when it comes to our heavenly rewards, imagining that some people will get a better reward than others after death. The parable about the workers in the vineyard all getting the same payment (Matthew 20: 1-16) tells a different story. God does not approach us with either a carrot or a stick. God does not play favorites.
What we need to get into our minds is the realization that the gift of eternal life is exactly that — a gift. God wills that all creation will share in the unity of God’s love. We are all invited into a relationship with God and can enter that relationship freely. What we are offered is a loving relationship with God, with one another, and with all of creation. This relationship is unending and begins the moment we accept the love God always offers to us, and love God back. It is not a reward for good behavior. It is unconditional. God has no favorites and loves us equally.
We are created as free beings. No one is forced into a relationship with God. Love is offered, not forced on us. We can say “no.” We can choose separation, we can choose hell. What I have come to appreciate about God, however, is that God does not stop offering love no matter how many times we say “no.” Even after death God will continue to offer love. If we choose to go into hell, destroying rather than creating loving relationships, God will go with us, continuing to offer love. God will not threaten or coerce us into accepting a relationship with God, but continues to seek us, always believing that one day we will say “yes.”
The realization that even those who are wicked, evil, and dangerous persons are loved by God is frustrating. There is a part of me that would rather see them punished in eternal fires of hell. But that is because I am not God and my love is small, limited, and I give up on people. As a human being, I can also be vindictive. God never gives up on anyone. God is not vindictive. Never. God is always love.
But… and this is a big but… once we enter into a relationship with God, we must enter into a relationship with all that God loves. In other words, we now must love others in the same way that God loves us. This is the principle commandment that Christ Jesus has shared with us and it matters. If we are to be the friends of Christ we have to be friends with all his other friends. If we are to be in relationship with God, we have to be in a relationship with all that God loves. We show that we have accepted the love of God by loving others. If we do not love others, we are showing that we have not accepted God’s invitation to be in a love relationship with God. You cannot just say “I love God” and have it be so, you need to live in that love and show that you love God by how you live. (1 John 4: 20). God cares deeply about how we treat one another.
Have you ever tried to pick up a feral cat, or even a feral kitten? They will scratch, bite, struggle, scream, and in every way they can, attempt to get away from you. You would never bring that feral animal into your home and let it attack your children. There are feral humans who have not learned what it means to be in a loving relationship. They are ruled by fear. While God loves them and would like to bring them into the family of God, until they change and accept that they are loved, and let go of their fear, and stop biting and scratching at others, they are not able to come into the family of God. Only when they learn to trust in the love God offers can they be freed of their fear. This can take a long time. God never gives up on them.
There are other beings that are predators. Until they are persuaded by the love of God to let go of their predatory ways, they cannot come into the family of God. When they give up their predatory ways — “Then the Lion shall lay down with the Lamb and the bear shall eat grass like the ox, and the child shall play on the hole of the asp and nothing shall hurt nor destroy in all My Holy Mountain.” (Isaiah 11: 6). Predatory human beings are dangerous to those that God loves, so God, even while loving them, cannot let them into the family of God. They must become safe to be around. They must give up exploiting and using others. They must stop preying on others. While they are kept out to protect the family of God, they are not unloved. As soon as they change they can come in to the family of God and be part of the Beloved Community.
It turns out that salvation is not a solitary endeavor. It is communal. We are saved as a family and salvation includes all of creation, not just humanity. It is about loving relationships. Salvation is being in the loving relationships that make up the Beloved Community of God. Hell is separation. Our job as Christians is to restore our broken relationships with God, with ourselves, with others, and with creation. We do this ministry right here and right now and bring salvation — the Beloved Community of God — to earth as it is in heaven. We do not do this ministry to earn heaven, but because we have fallen in love with God and now we want what God wants.
And so, we go about the business of creating communities of peace, justice, and love wherever we find ourselves on this good earth, because this is the work of salvation that we are privileged to share as the children of God. The concern over what happens after we die we can leave wholly in God’s hands, trusting that our loving relationship with God begins now and is unending. Then, letting go of all concerns about what happens after death, we can get on with the business of showing how much we love God by loving others as God loves us.
My beloved in Christ, let us love one another, for love comes from God.