Tuesday, December 14, 2010

God and Elizabeth Edwards

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3:16-17

Before she died, Elizabeth Edwards posted a final goodbye on Facebook. In the opening lines she wrote,

"You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope."

There was an immediate buzz. Not about what she had said, but about what she had not said. She had not said anything about God, or Jesus.

And in the criticism that followed, there was not much of what Elizabeth Edwards would have called “saving graces.” Nothing brings out the unchristian nature of Christians like their zeal in pointing out the unchristian beliefs of another Christian.

Her funeral was at the Edenton United Methodist Church on Saturday morning, and it was on C-Span Saturday night. In his sermon, the pastor went to great lengths to assure the congregation that Elizabeth had really been a confessing Christian with perfectly orthodox beliefs.

He said that when John Edwards had called him and told him that Elizabeth wanted him to preside at her funeral, he readily agreed. And he immediately arranged to visit with her at the Edwards home. First he visited with the family and then he spent time with Elizabeth alone. And when they were alone he asked her two questions. After reminding her of the faith she had professed when she joined the church, he asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” And she answered, “Yes sir, I do.” Then he asked, “Do you want to have forgiveness for your sins and be made right with God?” And he said that she answered, “even more strongly,” “Yes sir, I do.”

(Before I go any further, you can go back and read what I wrote about the zeal of Christians in pointing out the failings of other Christians. Guilty as charged. Luther said we should “love God and sin boldly.” I will sin boldly, and you can judge the rest.)

The pastor seemed to be a very caring and devout man. At the close of the service he implored the media people to give the family their privacy, and he spoke with concern for Elizabeth and John and their children. To his credit, he emphasized John 3:17 as much as the more famous verse it follows. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

But I was troubled that he would share what might reasonably be understood as a pastoral confidence. I would never ask those questions of a person who was dying, but I understand why he did. If you believe that the gates of heaven are open only to those who profess their faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior, then you cannot let someone die without asking that question.

For that pastor and for many other Christians, it all comes down to what you believe. In fact, it really comes down to what you say you believe.

And I confess that makes no sense to me.

Elizabeth Edwards’s Facebook affirmation is outside of the general understanding of Christian orthodoxy, but maybe there is a place for Christians to speak in more humanistic terms, and in any case, I am confident that God’s understanding is much broader than our orthodoxy. As the old hymn says,

For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

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