This morning, I was looking at the Bible lessons most ELCA Lutherans (like me) and members of many other "mainline" Christian denominations will be using during our Sunday worship in May.
On May 19, the second lesson we'll read at Saint Matthew is Revelation 22:12-21.
But in fact, the second lesson appointed by the lectionary and that the ELCA's worship resources say we Lutherans should use for our weekly worship is Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21. (For an explanation of what a lectionary is, go here. For more background, you might want to look here.)
But the lesson, as appointed by the lectionary 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.
And the chopping up seems to be done, as happens often with the lectionary, in service to an agenda other than the proclamation of God's truth.
Now, admittedly, the verses deleted are a bit disturbing and might well offend some people.
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.
The chopped up passage from Revelation describes the new Jerusalem in which believers in Christ will live with God for eternity. But, the lectionary version of it skips over passages like verse 15, which says:
Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.John is saying that outside this city with its multiple gates that are never locked shut, will be those who don't gain entrance, those condemned to an eternity of darkness apart from God. Those outside the gates are those who love their sins so much that they are unwilling to let go of them and cling to Jesus Christ.
For some post-moderns, with our convenient and self-glorifying beliefs that "all roads lead to the same place," whether the place 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.
One can't help suspect that the deletions of verses like this have something to do with the rising tide of 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.
Universalists hold that everyone's going to be saved from sin and death and that people don't need to believe in Jesus or that they only have to believe in their version of Jesus to be saved from sin and death. They tell us that Jesus may be known by other names by different people, even though Jesus Himself rejects such ideas, as we'll see presently.
Universalism is un-Christian and un-Lutheran. Yet it rears its head in many ways in mainline churches, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America of which I'm a part.
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.
Among 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. According to John 3:16, the most beloved and well-known passage of Scripture, God loves the whole world, but the ones who will be saved are those who believe in His Son, that is, trust in His Son Jesus by turning from sin and trusting that He alone can save and transform them. Hell will be filled with people God loves.
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)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. There is no other way.
[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)
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.
The exclusion from the lectionary of unpleasant passages that confirm that the Sovereign God of the universe will and has every right to accept eternally people's rejection of the salvation He gives in Jesus Christ, creates a false impression of God and risks turning people away from eternity. The false gospel of universalism it represents is not only gutless, avoiding unpleasant truths, it can also be deeply lacking in love and compassion, denying people truth from God they need to know.
It's ironic, even tragic, that two of the verses not included by the lectionary in this passage are Revelation 22:18-19:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.Why would the creators of this lectionary--and of our denominational body, the ELCA--make such a big deal of deleting, really, of going out of their way to delete, these verses from the passage?
Are they afraid that if you and I hear or read something unpleasant from the Bible, we won't feel "affirmed" and, instead, look for another church, a TV show, a web site, an organization, or a group of friends who will tell us, "Don't worry. God loves you. You can deny that He has any authority over your life and trust in your own goodness. You can do whatever you want."?
The world is filled with messages like that. Taken to heart, they lead away from God for eternity, away from the good plans God has for us and has revealed in Jesus Christ. At least that's what God says. Who are we to amend His Word?
Jesus says, "Repent and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). Maybe we ought to take Him at His word.