The $64,000 Question and the Confounding Text

Last week, Dr. Jay’s sermon homed in on one of those $64,000 questions: do non-believers go to heaven? He asked about Gandhi, a man of undeniable good works, is he condemned to hell for failing to believe in Jesus? He told the story of two teenaged girls, friends who died together in a car accident, one a practicing Christian, the other not. A minister extolled the believer and suggested that the non-believing girl would not be going to heaven.

His audience at First Church audibly gasped when it learned of the minister’s unkind words to the girl who had not gone to church. And I dare say that his audience wholeheartedly accepted his message that Jesus’s message was inclusive, not exclusive. Jesus did not set out to create in-groups and out-groups. He did not bring the good news to only those who think and worship like us, however one defines “us.”

In support of this message, our scripture readings included John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8. The passage from John begins, “For God so loved the world . .” and from that it is clear that the love of Jesus extends to the whole world. It does not discriminate, and it does not confine or limit itself. The passage from Ephesians stated that we are saved “by grace . . . it is the gift of God.”

I believed every word of Dr. Jay’s message. As someone who chooses an open and affirming church, who chooses a denomination that extends the sacrament of communion unconditionally, these words rang true. Of course, Gandhi is saved. Of course, a teenaged girl who lived a good life is not condemned to eternal damnation for a deficiency of church attendance or of faith.

But still. As right as the message felt, as true as it seemed, deep down, there were still nagging questions. Does it really not matter whether we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or maybe the questions arose just because I had opened the Bible and followed along with the Scripture reading. Starting with the famous text from John 3:16, it does say, “For God so loved the world,” but the very words that follow say, “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Wait–God loves the world but “whoever believes in him shall . . . have eternal life.”

The text goes in opposite directions, does it not? This is not a matter of finding disparate passages from the Bible and finding contradiction; the tension exists within the same sentence. God’s love is inclusive, but eternal life is conditioned on belief. Ephesians 2:8, the text also chosen by Dr. Jay, seems to point in opposite directions too. The full text reads, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Again, there is God’s expansive grace and yet salvation seems to be premised on faith.

Beyond these textual ambiguities lies the broader question: was Jesus indifferent on whether people subscribed to his teachings? Surely not. (The Children’s Bulletin the week of Dr. Jay’s sermon called on kids ages 3-6 to trace the words “Believe in Jesus.”) The notion of being saved because of belief, because of faith, occurs repeatedly in the gospels. Indeed, this notion is central. As part of Pastor Marisa’s sermon this week, we heard the story of Lazarus. At John 11:25-26, Jesus tells Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

Given this repeated message, that people who believe in Jesus will have eternal life, it is hardly surprising the minister in Dr. Jay’s story might have concluded that salvation is conditional. Open to all but dependent on faith.

I can only conclude that there is ambiguity in the Bible on this basic issue. Biblical scholars and our pastors and those who have studied the Greek and the Hebrew biblical texts surely have better answers than I could ever provide in resolving this ambiguity. But rather than trying to resolve the ambiguity, perhaps it is better to ask why these confounding texts exist in the first place.

The mixed message I have identified is hardly unique. In this week’s Scripture reading, we had John 12:8 as part of the story of Mary using an expensive ointment to wash Jesus’s feet. Judas takes the opportunity to chide Mary for not using selling the ointment and using the money for the needy. Jesus defends her, saying, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” It does seems like Judas, for whatever his motives might have been, was on to something. It does seem Jesus-like to sell a luxury good and provide for the poor. Jesus, a few chapters earlier in the Bible, might have suggested such a thing.

But that’s just an example. Instances of confounding text and mixed messages abound. Certainty is in short supply in the Bible. But why?

Did God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit mean to be opaque? Did the human authors of the books of the Bible err as historians and story tellers?

The notion of uncertainty in the Bible is distressing to many people. If the Bible, on its central points, is open to interpretation, then are we not unmoored? In a world filled with moral dilemmas, an inconstant guidebook hardly feels like a solution. Unlike many literalists and absolutists, I am OK with the ambiguity and the need for interpretation. I feel no need to square the circle when I encounter confounding texts.

But again, why? Why would Jesus speak in an inherently contradictory fashion? If eternal salvation is all it is cracked up to be, then why not mark a clear path for the imperfect men and women who are to follow it?

Coming back to Dr. Jay’s $64,000 question of whether heaven depends on Christian faith, it seems that Jesus’s mixed message serves a practical purpose. On the one hand, Jesus has abundant, radiating love to all the world. On the other, He needs to, shall we say, incentivize people to take up his standard, to believe, to spread the word. And so He suggests time and again that those who believe will have eternal life. It sounds like a very human solution to a very human problem.

Alex Grant

BDS Not the Right Path for First Church

Twenty-five years ago, I was an opinion columnist for my university’s student newspaper, and as a senior majoring in International Relations, I had a lot of views on how to solve the world’s problems. In one column, I authored a peace plan for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that the conflict had been raging in fits and starts since the founding of Israel in 1947, and even before, did not deter me from thinking that I had the answer. The similarity of my plan to numerous other failed peace plans gave me not a doubt that the formula for peace in Palestine was at hand.

My proposal was to hand back the territories Israel occupied in the course of the 1967 war when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan all sought to extinguish its existence. A large portion of this land was, and still remains, the West Bank. The Gaza strip, still occupied in 1990, was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 2005 and then overrun by Hamas in 2007. Mine was a 20 year plan, with the land being ceded back to the Palestinians in three, increasingly large, chunks. There would be a 10 year interval between each handover of land in order to give entities like the P.L.O. and related terrorist organizations an incentive to stop attacking Israel. The intervals would also give Israel a chance to see whether handovers would actually lead to peace, and give Israel the ability to stop the transfers should terrorism continue.

Today we search for peace as earnestly as we did in 1990. The issues are basically the same, although the violence is deadlier and the stakes are even higher now with Iran inching ever closer to nuclear capability. Indeed, I remember reading an analysis of the conflict, written in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war, which suggested a land-for-peace deal. That deal still eludes us.

In 2015, our church is considering joining the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement as a means of pressuring Israel to treat the people of the occupied territories better and to advance the prospects for peace in Palestine. As much as I share these goals, I also share some of the misgivings voiced by a recent letter sent to our congregation by two of our Jewish neighbors who called BDS a “very destructive approach” and an “anti-Semitic issue.”

The letter writers point out, accurately, that the BDS approach is “truly one sided, giving no responsibility to anyone other than Israel for the conflicts. It does not validate any rights for Israel to exist . . .” Casting Israel as the oppressor against defenseless adversaries and condemning Israel as an “apartheid state,” while capturing some of the current reality, ignores the historical context of this conflict.

While we may think of Israel as some kind of military juggernaut, it was upon its founding a weak nation, surrounded, and vastly out-numbered by its enemies. Upon the founding of the state of Israel in 1947, its neighbors immediately attacked. These included the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, plus Palestinian Arabs and fighters from other countries. Israel did not have a national army, nor did it have the arms, tanks, or other weapons that its enemies had. Only some of Israel’s soldiers even had rifles. Against the longest of odds, Israel survived.

In the ensuing years, it was the state policy of the five countries who had attacked in 1947 to destroy Israel. In 1967, Egypt, Jordan and Syria were determined to fight again, with Egypt’s Nasser kicking UN peacekeeping troops out of the Sinai peninsula so he could mass his troops against the border with Israel. Israel prevailed again, achieving a sweeping and improbable victory despite being outnumbered and outgunned. It was in this war that it occupied the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

In 1973, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan attacked on Yom Kippur, and in doing so, achieved a level of surprise against Israel’s mostly citizen army (most of the Israeli army consisted of reserves, like national guard troops in the United States). For a time, it looked like Egypt and its allies would succeed where they had failed in the past. Israel, however, managed to stop the the offensive and regained the advantage, at which point the United States and the Soviet Union stepped in to stop the fighting.

Since these conventional wars by nation-states, the objective of the destruction of Israel has been pursued by terrorist organizations like the PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah, and these organizations have been supported by countries like Iran and Syria. To this day, terrorist attacks are a fact of life in Israel. Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip by Hamas and suicide bombers on buses are the sorts of events which barely warrant a mention in our newspapers in the United States.

There is much more to this history than what I have recounted here, but I am afraid that even the broadest outlines of this ongoing conflict are unknown to many Americans. What seems indisputable from 1947 until today is that there are a large number of people in the Middle East who do not accept Israel’s existence. Indeed, there are over 30 countries which do not recognize Israel, including Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Beyond these actual governments, there are countless terror groups that find Israel’s existence to be an anathema. This includes Hamas, which functions as a quasi-government over the Gaza Strip.

When we in America seek to prod along the peace process, as I so ineffectually did in a campus newspaper 25 years ago, we tend to think of it as a bargaining process with the deal being “land for peace.” But this is not two neighbors arguing about a boundary line. Israel must deal with countries and groups whose final objective is not the West Bank, but all of Israel. Trying to complete a deal with a multitude of neighbors who not only want to adjust boundary lines, but fundamentally want you out of the neighborhood altogether (or better yet, dead) is as confounding as untying the Gordian knot.

Israel holds on to the West Bank because it is a necessary bargaining chip. Land-for-peace worked in the Camp David accords whereby Israel gave back the Sinai for recognition and peace with Egypt. While that bargain has not been achieved with the Palestinians or with Syria, it is hard to imagine how peace could be achieved without some kind of quid pro quo.

That is not the only reason Israel holds onto the West Bank. It has established settlements, with the obvious intent of expanding the territory of Israel, of establishing facts on the ground that will tilt an eventual settlement in Israel’s favor. This settlement growth has been consistently opposed by multiple U.S. administrations as unhelpful to the peace process.

In this context, it is impossible for me to see Israel as the sole villain, which seems to be the assumption behind the BDS movement. To be fair, we must recognize that Israel is still a besieged country. Imagine if we in Longmeadow were to receive rockets launched from Windsor Locks, Hartford, and New Haven. Imagine if missiles were also to hit us from the north and if car bombs and suicide bombs were to detonate regularly on our public transportation and at our shopping malls. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to feel safe.

If we, as outsiders, seek to encourage peace, surely our voices and our efforts must be directed at least as much toward the terror groups which launch the rockets and missiles and which set off the bombs (and the countries that support those terror groups) as toward Israel. To do anything less must seem anomalous to the people in our community, people like the letter writers I mentioned earlier, who care about Israel.

The letter writers also pose a good question on why we take up this cause and stay comparatively silent when it comes to the behavior of Israel’s avowed enemies or of repressive regimes like North Korea and China. What is it about our politics that causes us to focus on the sins of Israel in the West Bank while we utter not a peep about the concentration camps, the mass starvation, and collective punishment visited upon the people of North Korea?

There is a final aspect of BDS that seems deeply inappropriate to me, and that is the comparison of Israel to the white government of South Africa under apartheid. The BDS movement against Israel is explicitly modeled on the successful BDS regime against South Africa in the 1980s. Boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against the South Africa regime were meant to signal that the government was illegitimate. The fact, for example, that South African athletes could not compete in the Olympics was a statement that South Africa, as it was then constituted, was a pariah state, not fit to be part of the community of nations.

These measures against South Africa made sense because its government was illegitimate. It was undemocratic, racist at its core and in its manifestations, and quite simply, not worthy of being called the government of South Africa. Eventually, these BDS measures had some effect on ruling white South Africans who became tired of being despised outcasts.

Israel does not stand on the same footing as the white South African state. BDS measures do more than just inflict economic pain to change governmental policy, they undermine the legitimacy of Israel itself. To seek to de-legitimize Israel in the same way as the apartheid government in South Africa is to undermine the foundation of Israel’s democratic system, which, for all its flaws, is a remarkable achievement in a neighborhood of autocratic regimes and reactionary theocracies.

For the First Church of Longmeadow, or for the U.C.C. generally, to endorse the BDS movement against Israel, we would be doing more than making a polite, politically correct, nod to oppressed people. Taking on BDS is to make a resounding judgment against Israel that strips away the nuance, moral ambiguity, and historical context of this conflict. We should think deeply and tread lightly as we enter this thicket.

Alex Grant

Final Lenten Dinner: Compassion

Last night over fifty attendees gathered in Bailey Hall for the final Lenten meal of the season.   Over the course of these past several weeks, it was wonderful to experience the numbers at the meals grow, and the more contemporary worship style flowing so freely & fluidly!  The meal was italian fare, with pasta, bread, salad & desert.

 

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The theme for the evening was compassion, and the “heart” or love that God makes known to us.  We shared prayers and songs.  This evening, were treated to three performances by a youth choir that Pastor Marisa had gathered.  The attendees very much enjoyed the youth’s energy & exuberance as they sang more new and contemporary tunes.  One song that the children sang was Audrey Assad’s For Love of You.  This song was new to the youth, and they greatly enjoyed making it their own during rehearsals and sharing it with the congregation!

 

 

There were three devotionals, or hands-on projects, as part of the evening’s worship centered on heart & compassion.  People were given the opportunity to go from table to table to take advantage of as many projects as time allowed.

First, we made crosses from palm fronds – the instructions were challenging at first, but when we all worked together we came up with a multitude of crosses & proudly displayed them to one another as we completed them!

Second, there was the option to create a prayer pocket with cross stitch design.  Folks designed their own pre made pocket and completed it by folding a prayer into it, and taking it away with them as a devotional piece.

Third, folks made bracelets out of duct tape with a youth volunteer, and then affixed crosses to them as a decoration.  Lots of smiles and energy in the room as we reflected on the cross, and Christ’s immense love for all of humanity.

 

 

Here are the two main concepts we reflected on in our worship before we adjourned:

  • How have you experienced or witnessed God’s compassion and love expressed?  How have you witnessed people infused with God’s love carry that love forth into the world, and the lives of others?

 

  • Reflect on Jesus’ death on the cross.  What are your thoughts about his self-sacrifice, his humanity?  Reflect on Jesus’ compassion for humanity.  What aspects of the crucifixion are most moving for you as we enter this Holy Week?

 

Then with a final song and a prayer, we bade farewell to one another until Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week in a few days time.

Do you have further reflections on the subject of compassion and Jesus Christ that you would like to share with the group?  Please leave your comments below for further discussion and response.

Midweek Worship: Lenten Healing

 

Yesterday, about 30 participants gathered in Bailey Hall to share a powerful midweek worship service & lenten meal. The worship team has been working hard to create unique and meaningful worship during this Lenten season, and it shows! Each week, the altarpiece is supplemented with additional features to represent the weekly theme. This week’s focus is on healing. Lights were added to the altar, symbolizing the light of healing, and doves symbolized healing’s freedom and peace.

 

 

 

We discussed healing, and said prayers together concerning human frailties, and the power of God to make us whole. We lit votive candles as a prayer of healing for ourselves, or another person of our choosing. People quietly lined up & prayerfully lit the candles from one another, until we had a bright smaller altar with all of our healing prayers shining brightly.   We also  were given an opportunity to have a  personal & private prayer with Dr. Jay, which was a very meaningful & moving opportunity during this intimate worship service.

 

 

 

 

We were joined by a lively & talented praise band, which supplemented worship with a series of songs. The music was performed so that we could sing along, and also played as an accompaniment during our devotional. The spirit of togetherness & love filled the room as we all sang.

 

Lenten Worship Amazing Grace

 

Our devotional was presented by Judy Ebeling. We each chose a word that represented healing, and wrote our words on a large banner that we hung in Bailey Hall for the congregation to review & reflect upon. We then wrote our words on warm rocks (heated in the oven) with crayons. We added more designs to our rocks & enjoyed the music and the company while we created our art pieces and reflected on the power of healing in our lives. Our instruction was to take these decorated rocks, and leave them somewhere in our community for someone to find. “Know”, said Judy, “that the person has found that word for a reason.”

 

How have you been witness to the incredible power of healing in your own life? Can you think of a situation that initially seemed horrible, and irredeemable, but in which healing was the ultimate result? Who’s healing would you like to pray for now? Your own or someone else’s? Please share your reflections in the comments below.