An Easter Service That Missed the Mark

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.

3 thoughts on “An Easter Service That Missed the Mark

  1. That is an unfortunate tack to take, especially on a Sunday where there are probably lots of visitors. I’m sure he thought he was doing the right thing by informing people about the “reality” of their situation.

    If it helps, there are some cool things going on in AG scholarship these days, trying to recapture a more Jewish reading of the Scriptures. How long it will take for that to bleed into the rank and file (if ever) obviously remains to be seen. I’ve thought of doing some online grad work with AGTS.

    Regarding John 14:6, I think it’s important to keep in mind that Jesus is speaking to a room containing his disciples in first century Israel, and he’s encouraging them to continue to follow his path even though he will die and they will be persecuted and perhaps killed. This is the context around those words. Whether Jesus intends these words to be a timeless, transhistorical, metaphysical declaration is highly debatable, as if he’s thinking of Buddhists or something.

    If I’m talking to a team of my software developers, and I say, “We had to do a complete rollback last night. No one can put code into production without me looking at it, first,” I obviously don’t mean that no person throughout time and space can ever put code into production without me looking at it, nor do I mean this state of affairs will last forever. I’m talking to a specific group at a specific time in the context of a specific situation, and that’s the group and time and situation I mean.

    Jesus is responding to Thomas saying that he doesn’t know the way to follow Jesus, and in that context, Jesus tells them, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” Jesus’ disciples against a corrupt Temple system must follow -his- path, which will lead them down the same roads to the same destination (suffering and death), but also with the same outcome (vindication by God).

    Whether or how this applies to anyone else except Jesus’ followers at that time is a matter of theological transposition. We have to figure out what the ramifications of those words are for us, if any. But I’m skeptical of any interpretive scheme that doesn’t first take into account what it meant for the people in that room.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, agreed. The first line of hermeneutics always should be understanding the passage in its literary and cultural setting. These two passages alone don’t complete the “puzzle,” in fact, we don’t have all the pieces. Much of what we are missing when it comes to soteriology, eschatology and atonement is going to rely on taking scripture further by means of Christian ethics and taking the general trajectory of Jesus’ teaching and that of the disciples into account. A third approach is that of Christian tradition…but I tend to be careful with that as the church rather early on was compromised by the State.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I have added a post script that I think further explains why I found the pastor’s attack on inclusivity so offensive. My reaction goes beyond the implications of the Biblical text and is rooted more in the culture wars of today and the Religious Right and its social assumptions. I think the Right’s use of scripture is less a concern for being Biblically centered, than it is a concern for remaining in control, for regaining power in a society where they win some battles, but are losing the war.

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