Thursday, October 28, 2010

Leaving a Real Tip

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
II Corinthians 5:16-20

A friend who works in restaurant gave me a small pamphlet found when the table was cleared after some customers had finished their lunches. There are flowers on the cover and the message, “Take a Tip . . .” Inside it says,

“Let me give you a real tip! I’ve found something that money can’t buy and I want to share it with you.”

Then it goes on to say, “I’ve usually been content with my life. But one day I was brought face-to-face with a serious matter. It was a simple statement from the Bible: ‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.’” (John 3:36, King James Version)

And it explains the basic choice. You can receive Christ and eternal life, or you can go to hell. The clear implication is that Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Agnostics, Atheists, and (one assumes) more than a few nominal “Christians,” are all going to hell. Then the pamphlet invites you to read the Gospel of John and attend their church.

One hardly knows where to begin!

But I’ll start with a footnote. Biblically speaking, heaven and hell are not literal “places;” they are a way to speak about our closeness or distance from God and from God’s intention for us and for humanity. So in my mind, at least, the whole premise of the message is flawed. As the New Interpreter's Study Bible explains, "Eternal life" is not about a future life in heaven; it is a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God. In Jesus, we are invited to accept this gift of Eternal Life now and forever.

And if I believed literally in hell and the devil, then I would believe that these people who left the "tip" were working for Satan, maybe even paid by Satan, to undermine the basic Gospel message of God’s love and grace. There are more than a few problematic verses in the Bible, and it is Satan’s task to keep us focused on judgment, rather than grace. Why not focus instead on John 3:17, “God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Or, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Why is it so easy for some people to believe that judgment trumps grace?

If we go to the text, we find at least two interesting points. First, this is one of the places where the King James Version gives us a faulty translation. In the more accurate New Revised Standard Version, John 3:36 reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” Believing leads to life, but it is disobedience, not a lack of belief, that leads to wrath. When we disobey, we distance ourselves, and the "Life" is not in us.

Second, the words in verse thirty-six are not from Jesus, they are from John the Baptist. This is John’s final witness to the authority of Jesus. John and Jesus share a message about the Kingdom of God, and the disobedience to which John refers is the denial of that Kingdom. The issue is not personal faith, but public actions. The “Take a Tip” interpretation is all about individual belief, but the Kingdom of God is about social justice.

And this makes sense in terms of the biblical understanding of “belief.” We think of believing as giving intellectual assent. As such, it is divorced from what we do. But the biblical meaning of belief is really, to give one’s heart. To say, “I believe in Jesus,” means, “I give my heart to Jesus.” We cannot give our hearts without also giving over our behavior.

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