So, Easter 2019 has come and gone, and it couldn’t have been more awkward or spiritually depressing. I was too disturbed emotionally to post an uplifting Easter message on my blog, so I shared one from another blog: Letters to the Next Generation which I had found inspiring. My wife and I take my 94 year old mother to her Assemblies of God church, the denomination I had been raised in, every Sunday. As I have “deconstructed” my belief system over the past half dozen years I have come to realize that my faith has become at odds with that tribe’s belief system and have been looking for a “graceful” way to transition to a more open, affirming church, but in the meantime…we are kind of stuck with things the way they are.
As usual, the worship portion of the service was vibrant and uplifting, as is befitting a Pentecostal service. Unfortunately, the sermon was anything but. The pastor is a good man and means well. He has all the pieces of the puzzle, as do many evangelicals, but doesn’t seem to realize how the pieces are supposed to fit. He follows the same tired pattern of fitting the pieces together that Bible School has taught him, ignoring the solutions that don’t fit the evangelical dispensational narrative and forcing pieces together that don’t quite fit.
He started with some humorous antidotes and pictures from his recent trip to the Holy Land, a sort of Mecca for evangelicals. He remarked on the serine beauty and foliage surrounding the purported tomb of Jesus and pointed out the emptiness of the tomb and the promise of life rather than death it and the surroundings denoted. So far so good… Then the sermon took a turn: he started comparing other religions to Christianity. He tried to spin things so that it appeared he was taking, not about Christianity as a religion, but a relationship, but in evangelicalism “relationship with Jesus” ALWAYS means “religion,” belief in certain orthodox doctrines. So his attempts at painting other religions as man’s attempts to reach God, and Christianity as true “relationship,” sounded hollow.
Then he expounded on a frequent hot button issue recently, and a big factor in the Religious Rights war on society: inclusivity. In describing salvation he likened other religions and those outside traditional Christianity to Little League players who receive “participation trophies.” In his mind’s eye there should only be winners and losers. Participation trophies are for losers. As in all evangelical churches I’ve come across, evangelicals are the winning team of course, while all else earn a place in hell, no matter how good their intentions or how sincere the effort. This obsession with declaring who the losers are permeates much of evangelical teaching and in my opinion weakens the atonement and declares the Cross a failure.
In building his argument he used the usual scripture: “no man comes to the Father but by me,” John 14:6, to be interpreted as exclusive rather than a declaration of what God has done through Christ for ALL. Oddly, he quoted Jesus’ words from the Cross: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34, as showing what great love God has for us, yet didn’t see the correlation between the two different verses. This is what I mean by evangelicals have all the pieces to the puzzle, but don’t know how to fit them together. How can Jesus’ request to the Father be sincere if God’s love is conditional? Did God then say, “sorry Son, I know you mean well, but only a few will be forgiven?” The request becomes entirely rhetorical and utterly meaningless in evangelical teaching. And, of course, it puts Jesus at odds with the Father, another problem altogether.
Without getting into the early church teaching on Universal Reconciliation, which was the default for almost 500 years, I will say that Jesus IS the means by which all will be saved, and it is ONLY through Him that the Father has accomplished that, and that ALL will eventually declare Him Lord, and every knee shall bow Philippians 2:10-11. This is not a forced obeisance, a powerful overlord demanding worship from the vanquished, as some evangelicals believe, but the accomplishment of the fruition of the Coming Age, when YHWH is declared Lord of all. The evangelical God is too petty, too vindictive and to tribal to be Lord of All.
So in conclusion, a missed opportunity, a service that did not provide hope and was more bad news than Good News. A sermon that predictably followed the usual confirmation biases and settled for “alternate facts,” having the pieces but not following the picture on the box cover. So close, yet so far.
Ps. I don’t think I have stressed strongly enough the implications the pastor was suggesting in his attack or critique of “inclusivity.” In the “culture war” that the Religious Right has been waging, a war that has its roots in the antebellum South, the resistance to inclusivity has strong racial and sexual overtones. Although the sermon weaponized the Bible against people who fell outside evangelical conventions, historically evangelical exclusivity has been used to exclude, not just those of other religions, but women, minorities, entire races (other than Whites), and people of non-binary sexual inclinations. It is a White, patriarchal dog-whistle that divides, rather than unites people.
While I am sure that the good pastor was not intentionally implying those exclusions: most White evangelicals are oblivious to their subconscious biases, it was there, nonetheless. The problem with the whole winner-loser approach of evangelicalism is that it totally misses the point of Jesus’ interactions with women, Samaritans, sinners, outsiders and the Romans themselves. Jesus was very inclusive…it disturbed the leadership of Second Temple Judaism deeply, and like the frustrations of evangelicals with inclusivity today, brought Jesus into direct conflict with the religious leadership of Jesus’ day.
A point I hear raised repeatedly by evangelicals I interact with online, is the belief that Jesus was religiously conservative. I firmly believe, had he been so, he would have fit in nicely with the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. He would have sided with one on some topics and the other on other topics. He would have simply been just another rabbi arguing the finer points of the Law of Moses. But he was not. His teaching was a shot across the bow of Second Temple Judaism, a call for religious conservatives to repent. I wish evangelicals could see the Pharisee within their ranks.