Travelling towards an open heaven

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
9 May 2007

From the outside it is easy to conclude that the main division between those rather easily pigeonholed ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ in the Anglican Communion, as in other branches of the Christian faith, revolves around matters of sexual ethics. In reality the arguments are more foundational, though what they have in common is attempts to wrestle decisive meaning from biblical texts which are rich, varied and complex.

So, one of the reasons given by certain Episcopal churches for breaking away from the denomination in the USA is that “The Episcopal Church has departed from the authority of the Holy Scriptures and from historic Christian teaching on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Saviour of humankind.” In other word, whether Christians alone can be saved (restored from captivity to death and granted fullness of life by God) remains a hotly debated question in some churches.

The Presiding Bishop in The Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, has been condemned by some for her view that, while for Christians “our route to God is through Jesus”, people of other beliefs approach God through their own cultural contexts and “experience God in human relationships, as well as ones that transcend human relationships”. It is claimed that this contradicts the position that, in the Johannine account of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6).

Elsewhere too – especially in South Asia, where respect for other religions is fundamental to many Christians – numerous Anglicans risk being condemned as heretical for supposedly straying from biblical orthodoxy.

However some New Testament writers appear to take the view that being a Christian is not necessary for salvation. According to the Beatitudes, for instance, mercy will be shown to the merciful, to the poor, to those who mourn, and to peacemakers – who will be called children of God (Matthew 5.1-12). Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is quoted as saying that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven”, while many who believe that they have done great works in Jesus’ name will be condemned as evildoers (Matthew 7.21-23).

It is debatable whether any will be ultimately lost, or whether the ‘refiner’s fire’ (Malachi 3.2-3, Isaiah 48.10), when humans are painfully stripped of their illusions and brought face to face with the truth, can melt even hearts of stone. In any case, Matthew’s gospel appears to value reflection of God’s generous love over ideology of any kind. “If you forgive others their trespasses,” Jesus’ listeners are told, “your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6.14).

In the famous parable of the sheep and goats, it is not those with pious words on their lips but those who have fed the hungry, welcomed the alien, cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned who are invited to possess the kingdom, to their considerable surprise (Matthew 25.31-46). What they have done for the lowliest on earth they have done for the king, both ‘Son of Man’ – embodying what humanity can, should and will be – and ‘Son of the Father’.

In John’s gospel, too, Jesus of Nazareth, born at a particular historical moment and into a particular cultural setting – is identified with one who transcends space and time, the universal Christ. According to John, in the beginning is the Word (divine reason), without whom nothing is made, in whom is the life which enlightens everyone. It is this way, life and truth which is enfleshed in Jesus and which reveals the true heart of God (a contextual reading of John 14.6). Those who oppose his works of mercy and liberation, though they may think they are championing obedience to the literal words of God, are rejecting this truth.

In this way, the world’s (and religion’s) expectations are turned upside down: the Almighty stoops to wash feet and is executed for blasphemy and sedition.

While the exact mechanisms of redemption remain open to debate, the crucifixion and resurrection of one in whom humanity and divinity are in perfect concurrence is presented as the pivotal event in history. Salvation is offered, not from the vengeance of an authoritarian deity but from the personal and social consequences of failure to love. People and communities need no longer be trapped by hatred and fear, pursuit of wealth, power and all that does not, in the end, satisfy; death no more reigns.

It might appear that, while following Jesus is the way to salvation, there may be other ways of relating to Christ, whether recognised and named or not. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in them (1 John 4.16). God will not force people to choose the way of love and truth, but those who are open can be transformed and play their part in God’s transformation of a world wracked by division and pain into a realm of love and peace.

This is not a mere liberal embracing of all faiths. In examining any tradition, it may be worth asking whether it leads to good news or bad for the poor and downtrodden, whether its followers are supported in becoming more Christ-like or encouraged to devalue and mistreat their neighbour. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus faces hostility from the pious, he proclaims that Wisdom is justified by all her children (Luke 7.35, see also Matthew 11.19). He often draws on the legacy of Wisdom, whom some identify with the Spirit: present from the dawn of creation, those who search for her find her, and her path is the path of justice (Proverbs 3.19-20, 8.17, 20).

Superficial judgement is not enough: faith communities may be divided between the wise and unwise, those who cultivate understanding and compassion and those who spurn them. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere,” writes James in his epistle (letter). “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3.17-18).

There are indeed New Testament passages which might be read as indicating that it is only Christians (or indeed some Christians) who will be granted God’s mercy and life. But readers of the Gospels need not struggle to understand why a God held up as a model of generosity by, and embodied in, Jesus would condemn people who, faced with a host of competing belief systems, have picked the wrong one, especially since some will have been put off by misdeeds committed in the name of Christ. God is indeed loving and kind.

The Bible is complex, and those reading it will often draw different conclusions. However those who believe that it is evident from Scripture that non-Christians will be condemned are making unfounded assumptions. Indeed, as Christians, we are at risk of constructing images of God which lead us to dangerous judgementalism towards our neighbour and complacency in our own lives (Matthew 7). It is only by seeking and serving Christ in others, and opening ourselves to grow towards the One in whom humanity is fulfilled and divinity incarnate, that we can be freed and made whole.

Savi Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in London. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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