Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Will There Be Some Left Outside the 'New Jerusalem'?

This coming Sunday, as I wind up my sermon series on Revelation, the text will be Revelation 22:12-21.

Actually, the second lesson appointed by the lectionary used by we Lutherans for our weekly worship is Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21. (For an explanation of what in blazes a lectionary is, go here. For more background, you might want to look here.)

This Sunday's appointed reading chops up what, to me anyway, is John's careful, cohesive closing of his letter to the seven first-century churches of "Asia," the first-century world's name for an area we know as western Turkey. In the final ten verses of Revelation, John refers to a series of images and themes that have appeared throughout his letter. He's wrapping things up and the lectionary muddles John's ending.

Why the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) decided to dump certain verses of this unit can only be guessed.

But it is clear that the verses deleted are a bit disturbing and might well offend modern ears. That's OK, though. Often, the Good News of the Bible can only be heard once we get disturbed by the Bible. The Bible's primary message--that of new, eternal life for all those who repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and God-in-human-flesh--has always been offensive, even to those who come to believe in Jesus.

Besides, one of the deletions made by the lectionary in this Sunday's passage from Revelation can create incorrect impressions about this last book of the Bible, even of the entire Bible.

Verse 15 says:
Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.  
In continuing to describe the new Jerusalem mentioned in last Sunday's lesson, John says that outside this city with its multiple gates that are never locked shut, will be those who don't gain entrance.

For some post-moderns, with their assertions that "all roads lead to the same place," whether the place they refer to is satori, nothingness, some universal mind, or to some version of deity fashioned by human imagination, the idea that anyone would be outside of the eternal city John describes is deeply offensive.

There are also some Christians who subscribe to universalism, the notion that what people believe about the God revealed in Jesus Christ, whether they repent of sin or not, whether they even believe in God or an afterlife or not, doesn't matter. They hold that everyone's going to be saved from sin and death. One of my seminary professors, the late Walter Bouman insisted even as he was dying of colon cancer, that he fully expected to see perpetrators of the Holocaust like Adolf Hitler in eternity.

One of the scandalous messages of Christianity is that if someone like Hitler did genuinely repent and truly trust in Christ as God and Savior, he would be saved because of the grace made available to all through Jesus. But the assertion made by Bouman, an undeniably brilliant man, that Hitler would be in the eternal city simply because God loves all people, doesn't square with the witness of Revelation or the rest of Scripture.

Consider a few passages:
[After being ordered by religious authorities to stop sharing the message of new life through Jesus Christ, the apostles Peter and John said:] "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”(Acts 4:12)

[Jesus said:] "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16)

[Jesus also said:] "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

[And Jesus said:] “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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-18)
Salvation--life in the eternal city with God--comes to those who entrust themselves, including their past sins and their eternal futures, into the hands of Jesus Christ.

Lutherans have boiled the witness of Scripture about how God saves humanity from sin and death down to three principles: "Grace alone. Faith alone. Word alone."

As Jesus Himself indicates in the last passage cited above, there will be those who are outside the new Jerusalem, not because there are limits to God's love, but because there are no limits to God's willingness to respect the decisions made by the only of His creatures made in the image of God.

The mission of Christ's Church and of individual Christians is to be God's loving witness to in the world, to spare no effort in inviting others to repent and believe in the Good News of Jesus so that they too can be part of the everlasting city.

[More on the deleted passages later, I hope.]

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