Let me take you on a journey to soggy old England. It’s 1622, you’re making the most out of your existence and in amongst the daily grind of poverty, plague and pestilence, you’ve heard that the Church…the institution to which you look for hope of a life better than your current one…is changing the rules about heaven’s entrance requirements. You’re a miserable sinner of course – you’ve received that message loud and clear over the years – but now, thanks to a overzealous priest in Germany who’s caused a spot of holy havoc with a hammer, some nails and a few complaints against parish council, your ticket to paradise has a reduced list of terms and conditions.
Previously, whilst right belief and good works might work in your favour at the pearly gates, you could guarantee your entrance through buying the odd indulgence here, participating in a Church-sponsored crusade there. But now, since Luther got lairy and Anne Boleyn caught Henry’s eye, the Church is saying that it’s faith that gets you into heaven. If you have faith in Christ as the son of God, whatever else you do in life, your name will be on the list and St Peter will let you into the party. For many, it’s a liberating, world-changing and grace-filled outlook…
But just when you think the Church is going soft, along comes Calvin, French theologian and midwife to the Presbyterian Church. In his early days Calvin trained as a lawyer and so goes through the new divine contract with a fine-tooth comb.
“If it’s faith that gets you into heaven,” Calvin suggests. “Well faith isn’t something you can choose – it’s a gift that God gives you – so God must give that gift to some people and withhold it from others.” A short hop, skip and a jump later, and Calvin (re)gives the world the doctrine of double predestination. This belief – a bedrock of Presbyterianism for centuries – states that there are two lots of people in life – the elect who go to heaven, ‘the saved’, and the reprobate who are on the road to hell, ‘the damned’. Before you or I or anyone was born, the theory goes, there was some sort of divine lottery or a salvation Sorting Hat which determined which group you belonged to and nothing you did in your life could change that. No indulgence bought or crusade fought; no good work or theological degree would make any difference to your final destination…or, as Calvin put it:
“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”
Now, I don’t know about you but when this Englishman first heard about this outlook a few hundred years, he was appalled. I can distinctly remember my rising unease as this outlook was explained to me on the eve of my second baptism. You see, having grown up in the middle-of-the-road United Reformed Church, a mixture of teenage apathy and family bereavements led me out of it, only for me to return to church a few years later but this time to a younger, livelier, sexier denomination. There, worship was like a rock concert, people seemed on fire for God and the pastor wore jeans. I don’t why this was significant but it just was! ‘These guys must be true Christians’, I thought to myself, ‘not like the stuffy, dull, white-haired brigade at my old church’.
And then, the night before I was buried and raised with Christ for a second time, my heart sank at the hearing of this double predestination thing that my bright, shiny, new Church believed.
“But what about babies or people who haven’t heard about Jesus or good people of different faiths?” I asked.
“If you’ve not been predestined, you can’t have faith and only those who have faith are saved,” came the reply.
“But didn’t Christ die for all?” I persisted.
“He did but we’ve got to respond to his sacrifice.” I was told.
“But how can we respond if faith is a gift that we can’t choose to have?” I continued.
“Phil, you’re looking at it all wrong,” the pastor’s son explained to me. “Imagine that there’s a house on fire and everyone inside is going to die. Well, God’s like the fireman who comes to save some of us from the fire. See?” He asked with the smile of one who was certain that he’d been chosen for salvation.
“I see.” I replied. “Except, in that picture, isn’t God the one who designed the house, invited the inhabitants to move in and then set the house on fire?” Needless to say, I didn’t last long at that church! Instead, I went a-wondering in the ecumenical wilderness for a while. I did a bit of church-hopping – the local Quaker meeting one week, the Catholic Cathedral the next – and at university I elected to do the modules that looked at this question of salvation. And, after all this existential angst, you can imagine my delight when I came upon this morning’s parable and some of the surrounding thought around it.
“Don’t think you’ve got it all sorted,” Jesus tells his audience, “for when the Son of Man comes in glory, all the nations will gather before him and will be separated. The King will then welcome those who fed the hungry, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner and the rest, for they whatever they did for those in need, they did for me. But those who withheld such help to their neighbours will be sent to the other place and will receive eternal punishment.”
‘Thank goodness’, I thought when I read and re-read this passage. ‘It’s not about buying the right things or believing the right things but doing the right things that will get us into heaven, get us closer to God’! This way of thinking put the focus on actually loving our neighbour; it solved the predestination problem; it opened up space for inter religious dialogue. If I wasn’t already a fan of this way of thinking, the fact that C S Lewis – the English writer and theologian whose stories I love – was, confirmed my conversion. In fact Lewis weaved this line of thinking into the wonderful Chronicles of Narnia in the character of Emeth who, though he follows a false god, is later welcomed by Aslan because, as the Great Lion says, “All the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.” Emeth was saved by his good works. So could my non-Christians friends. Thus I thanked God because I had found the Matthew 25 Christians, the nice Christians, the true Christians…if you like.
And we do like – to divide people into these two groups, that is. The right and the wrong; the elect and the reprobate; the true Christians and anyone else who doesn’t think, act, behave just like me!
Tragically, of course, ‘twas ever thus. Just five minutes after the Church came into being, there were divisions about whether gentiles were allowed in the club and it’s been that way ever since. Protestant and Catholic; Presbyterian and Grace Presbyterian; Anglicans who welcome homosexuals and Anglicans who don’t…and we just keep dividing and dividing and dividing, finding security in the smaller and smaller group who mirror our own thinking about God and make us feel safe and superior. After all, our lamps have enough oil in them, don’t they?! Along with rain, rugby and male voice choirs, it’s certainly one thing we excel at in Wales. Have you heard the one about the Welshman marooned on a desert island (possibly with his 8 parables!)? Well, when the boat came to rescue him, they discovered that he had built two churches on the island. “Why are there two churches when you were alone on the island?” The captain asked him. “Well,” the Welshman replied incredulously, “That’s the church I go to, and that’s the church I don’t!”
The fact is that if we go on seeking out the true Christians, the perfect Church or the right path to salvation, we’re going to be searching an awfully long time, missing out on the treasures God’s got in store for us while we’re at it. This is what I think Jesus is telling his gang in today’s parable, the finale to all the others.
“Have you still not got it?” He asks us with a sigh…or perhaps a laugh. “Have you not been listening? It’s about grace. That’s all this has ever been about. Creation, Israel, me…my stories about lost sons, lost sheep, lost coins being found…it’s all been about God’s reckless, radical grace.” And then, knowing what we’re like – fully aware that we’d even try to tie up grace, turn it into a neat little formula and save it for the ‘true Christians’ – Jesus throws it up into the air again, adds some sheep, goats, fire and flair into proceedings and passes it back to us with a mischievous smile.
Being reminded that we’re supposed to live out our faith in acts of love and generosity is no bad thing of course but if we use such a reminder to work out our own salvation, we once again make it all about us. We paint ourselves as the ones who must feed the hungry, visit the sick or welcome the stranger – as if we’re never the ones being fed, visited or welcomed! – whilst also turning salvation into a checklist, seeing each need as another step on the stairway to heaven…two shifts in a soup kitchen, four prisoners visited, three nudists clothed…and we’re in! Thanks God but we’ve got it covered!
Nah! Instead of looking up at that stairway, Jesus here reminds us to look around us; to get stuck in with the here and now; to glimpse his face in the hungry and the hurting; the last and the least; the Presbyterian, the Grace Presbyterian, the Methodist, the Muslim and even the man or woman in the mirror! That’s the good news of the gospel. Grace is a gift and God is to be found not in doctrine and division, not in searching for true Christians or theorizing about heaven and hell, but within the messiness and magnificence of our daily living…for God is not over us or against us but with us – Emmanuel.
So after all this, what about election, eternity and double predestination? ‘Stop looking up and start looking around you’, Jesus says. But if you must have some double predestination with your breakfast, my vote goes with Karl Barth’s more grace-soaked understanding of it – that as God is with us, we’re all damned with Christ on the cross and we’ve all been chosen to be saved with Christ too.
‘But what does ‘saved’ even mean?’ you might well persist. ‘Where do the saved, the sheep, end up?’
‘Stop looking up and start looking around you’, Jesus says again with exasperation…and love.
And if we still can’t help ourselves but wonder, well…as it’s the school holidays and we’re reading Jesus’ final parable, we could certainly do worse than to refer to another story – to go back to Emeth, Aslan and Narnia – the very last lines of whose Chronicles read;
“The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.” And as [Aslan] spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion…And for us this is the end…But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” Amen.