Sunday, July 17, 2011

Love Wins!

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida
5 Pentecost - Proper 11 - -Year A - July 17, 2011
Genesis 28: 10 - 19a; Matthew 13:24-30,36-43
Preacher: The Rev. Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth….Matthew 13:41

            Does the name Rob Bell mean anything to anyone?  Rob Bell is the 41 year old founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He was inspired to name his church Mars Hills in honor of the place where Paul reportedly delivered his famous speech in Athens about “the unknown God” (see Acts 17:23). 
            Today, Mars Hills Church in Grand Rapids has between 7,000 and 10,000 worshippers at its two services per weekend.  They were up to 11,000, but I gather some have left because of Bell’s so-called “liberalism.”[1]  Some of the controversy is pretty recent.  Rob Bell is causing quite a stir, and especially in Evangelical church circles.  
            It all started earlier this year with the publication of his book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven. Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.[2] In the wake of the book’s publication, Bell received a great deal of media attention.  He was the subject of a cover story in Time Magazine this past April[3] as well as of Christian Century Magazine this past May[4].  What’s the big deal?   What’s so controversial? 
            In his book, Bell explores the several ways the Bible understands the word “heaven,” but that’s not what is provoking the conservative Evangelical backlash.  What’s provoking the backlash among theological conservatives is Bell’s questioning of traditional dogma concerning hell and punishment and God’s wrath.
            Bell was inspired to write Love Wins following an incident at his church...Here’s how Bell describes the incident.  He writes: “Several years ago we had an art show at our church.  I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking, and we invited artists to display their paintings, poems, and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker.  One woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling.  But not everyone.   Someone attached a piece of paper to it.  On the piece of paper was written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’”[5]

            “Really,” Bell writes in response to that note.  “Gandhi’s in hell?  He is?  We have confirmation of this?  Somebody knows this?  Without a doubt?   And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know.”[6]

            This prompted him to ponder a series of questions: “Of all the billions of people who have ever lived,” he writes, “will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every other single person suffer in torment and punishment forever?  Is this acceptable to God?  Has God created millions of people over tens of thousand of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?  Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?”[7]
            This last is a critical question, and as the book plays out, it is clear that Bell’s belief in a loving God negates the possibility of God acting in hateful and heinous ways.  Bell rejects traditional views of Hell and Punishment, and most particularly any exclusivist Christian claims which declare Christians are in and everybody else is out.   This has led to the primary charge that conservative evangelicals have leveled at Rob Bell; that he is a “universalist,” someone who claims in some sense that all human beings can come to salvation, living in ultimate harmony with God as if that’s a filthy word and concept.
            Actually, Bell challenges the “universalist” label because he continues to insist in his belief in a Trinitarian God and in Jesus Christ as a part of that Trinity and he understands that “When you’ve experienced the resurrected Jesus, the mystery hidden in the fabric of creation; you can’t help but talk about him.  You’ve tapped into a joy that fills the entire universe, and so naturally you want others to meet this God.  This is a God worth telling people about.”[8]
            In a critical response to Bell’s book and teaching, R. Albert Mohler, Jr. president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stated that Bell’s book is “theologically disastrous.”[9] He added, “Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way.”[10]   [I can’t help wondering, wasn’t that precisely what Jesus was doing during his ministry on earth?] Mohler declares, “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world, then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the Cross.”[11] 
            It strikes me that the primary impulse behind Mohler’s comment and thinking is fear....He is afraid that Christianity will lose its influence if it doesn’t have the coercive factor of hell and fear....I don’t agree with that conclusion and I don’t accept it. 
            I believe a Christianity based on Christ and Christ’s love for the world is compelling and exciting.  We don’t need the fearsome coerciveness of hellfire and brimstone to be transformed and transforming in the world.  I’m in total agreement with Rob Bell when he writes, “I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.  It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it’s for everybody, everywhere.  That’s the story.  ‘For God so loved the world...’ That’s why Jesus came.  That’s his message.  That’s where the life is found.”[12] 
            I really like Rob Bell’s book and I pretty much agree with everything he wrote in it...We will feature it in September as the last in this year’s Summer Book Discussion series.  
            Actually, in some ways, I’m surprised Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived has gotten as much attention and press as it has....Bell is saying a lot of what many of us in main-line Christianity have been saying for years.....But, then again, as Jon Meacham notes in his April 25 Time Magazine article about Bell’s book and its impact, “Particularly galling to conservative Christian critics is that Love Wins is not an attack from outside the walls of the Evangelical city, but a mutiny from within...a rebellion led by a charismatic, savvy pastor with a following....”[13] Meacham adds, “it is difficult to imagine that an Episcopal priest’s eschatological musings would have provoked the volume of criticism directed at Bell which threatens prevailing Evangelical theology.”[14] [Meacham is an active Episcopalian].
            I bring up Bell’s book because today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 13 is a judgment parable.   In Matthew’s Gospel, it follows immediately after the so-called Parable of the Sower that was last week’s Gospel reading (see Matthew 13:1 ff.)  Here, sowing image is used again, but this parable has much more of an edge.  
            A man has sown good seed and gone to bed.   While he was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the seed.  In an agrarian age, messing with a person’s crops could be life threatening and Jesus is playing upon that image.  But of course the parable is not really about crops and a harvest; it’s about the kingdom of God and judgment.
            In his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, biblical scholar Douglas Hare offers some interesting insights.[15]  He notes that in the parable itself, “emphasis is placed upon the farmer’s patience.”[16]  Observing that separation of the weeds from the wheat is postponed until the harvest is ripe, Hare writes, “Perhaps Jesus used this parable to point out that human beings are not competent to make the kinds of judgments implied in separating the wheat from the tares; in plucking out what they think are tares, they may very well be pulling up wheat.  Only God can make such judgments,” Hare writes, “and in due course this will be done.  In the meantime, we must be more patient with one another.”[17]  “Taken this way, “Hare observes, “the story becomes a parable of grace,” adding,  “In the strange world of the parable where separation is graciously postponed, it may even be possible for weeds to become wheat.”[18]  
            There is another interpretive possibility, however.  Hare notes that this is revealed in verses 36 – 43, where Jesus goes into a house and explains the parable to his disciples. Hare suggests that this section reflects the concerns of the evangelist Matthew and his church.[19] 
            Hare explains, “Matthew is greatly disturbed by the mixed state of the church which contains many who enthusiastically call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord’ but who refuse to follow his ethical teaching.  By means of this interpretation [that is the explanation in verses 36 - 43], Matthew assures himself and others that a day of reckoning will come to those pseudodisciples; the glorified Christ will send forth his angels to purify the church of all who disregard moral law.” [20]
            But Hare makes an important observation: “Remarkable in this [latter] interpretation,” he writes, “is the absence of any reference to the householder’s patience.  What was central to the parable is ignored in the allegorical interpretation.”  “Perhaps,” Hare writes, “Matthew was less pleased than Jesus with God’s long-suffering!”[21] And this gets us back to Love Wins and Rob Bell.
            Early in Love Wins, Bell rhetorically asks, “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?”[22]  He continues, “This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves.  Why them?  Why you?  Why me?  Why not him or her?  If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom; the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate?  How does a person end up being one of the few?  Chance?  Luck?  Random selection?  Being born in the right place, family or country?  Having a youth pastor who ‘relates better to kids”?  God choosing you instead of others.  What kind of faith is that?” Bells asks, “Or more important, What kind of God is that?”[23] 
            Furthermore. as he asks quite provocatively, “Whenever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened,  redeemed – and everybody else isn’t – why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that is in?”[24]
            In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus seems to tell a parable about a patient and long-suffering God....It appears that Matthew couldn’t leave it at that; he needed to “explain” the parable and give it a harder and more judgmental edge; a pretty common failing which Matthew falls into several times in his Gospel.[25]  The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears 6 times in Matthew’s Gospel, but only once in Luke and never in Mark, the oldest Gospel and the one which served as a source for Matthew.   What’s that tell you?  Whose phrase is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” Jesus’ or Matthews?
            I prefer to think that Jesus left the parable more open ended...That he didn’t go into the house to explain it; its meaning was pretty evident in its original form.  The 2x4 wasn’t necessary.
            I’m with Rob Bell...I believe in a God who is Love (See 1 John 4:8, 16); I believe in a patient and long-suffering God who is pulling for all of us; who wants us all to be reconciled to him or her and to each other; I believe in a God who wants us to help him, or her, bring heaven to earth, understanding that “Heaven is that realm where things are as God intends them to be.”[26]  I believe in a God who invites us into the depths of a relationship of love and into a discovery of what heaven means through Jesus Christ....
            In this view the message of Christ is necessary and essential because the cross points to the potential for wickedness and evil in this world even as the resurrection declares that wickedness and evil can never and will never be victorious.  Why do I believe this?  Because like Rob Bell, I place my life and my convictions in this God who I believe with all my heart is Love.  For me, as with Rob Bell, this God and this Love wins!  This Love always wins!  And in this winning love, we win too!!

[1]    For additional biographical information, see “Bell, Rob”  on Wikipedia – The On-Line  Encyclopedia at

[2]   Bell, Rob Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (EPub Edition New York: HarperOne – A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, 2011)
[3]   Meacham, Jon “What If There’s No Hell?”  Time Magazine – April 25, 2011 – p. 38ff.

[4]   Marty, Peter “Betting on God’s  Love” The Christian Century – May 17, 2011 – pp. 22 ff.

[5] . Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle location 80 – 85 ff.) - Chapter 1 “What About the Flat Tire”
[6] Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle location 85 – 93 ff.) - Chapter 1 “What About the Flat Tire”
[7]   Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle location 85 – 93 ff.) - Chapter 1 “What About the Flat Tire”
[8]   Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle locations 2183 - 88) - Chapter 7 “The Good News Is Better Than That” 

[9]    See Meacham p. 40

[10]   See Meacham p.40

[11]   See Meacham p. 40

[12]   Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle locations 33 - 39) – Preface  “Millions of Us” 

[13]   Meacham p. 40

[14]   Meacham p. 40
[15]   Hare, Douglas R. A. Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1993)

[16]   Hare, p. 155

[17]   Hare, p. 155

[18]   Hare, p. 155

[19]   Hare, p. 155

[20]   Hare, p. 155

[21]   Hare, p. 155

[22]   Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle location 93 - 98 ff.) - Chapter 1 “What About the Flat Tire”

[23]   Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle location 93 - 113 ff.) - Chapter 1 “What About the Flat Tire”

[24] Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle location 107 - 113 ff.) - Chapter 1 “What About the Flat Tire”

[25]   For examples, see Matthew 8:11 – 12; 13:47 – 50; 22: 11 – 14; 24:45 – 51; 25:14 – 30.  

[26]   Love Wins e-book edition (Kindle locations 574 - 582) - Chapter 2 “Here Is the New There ”

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