The Shaker hymn “Tis the gift to be simple” ends with the phrase, “Till by turning, turning we come round right.” I don’t know what inspired those words, but I think of them every time I come across the 18th chapter of Ezekiel where God puts to rest the idea that it is God who visits the sins of the father on generations of sons yet to come. In that same chapter God twice declares that God takes no delight in the death of anyone, not even evil persons, and only desires that each turn away from death and toward God who is the only source of life. The chapter is filled with turning: the turning of good persons who end up doing bad things, the turning of bad persons who end up doing good things, and the turning of each again. It is that turning and turning again that is my life, and undoubtedly yours also.
Ezekiel can be read to imply that one’s turning away from evil and toward God must coincide with one’s death if there is to be hope for salvation. It almost sounds like a roll of the dice, and I don’t think that is what God meant. It seems to me that the entire passage opens the door for us to begin apprehending God’s desire for a universal salvation that will be realized centuries later in Christ Jesus. In our turning, turning, it is God in Christ who will see that we come round right. The author of Hebrews envisioned that as happening through the constant intercessions of the resurrected Christ whose saving act was accomplished once for all. At the same time, I am convinced that God never takes away our free will, so that it is possible, and perhaps probable for some, having been turned round right, to choose one last turn and go head long into the darkness of that which is not life. It is the last turning that C.S. Lewis imagined so well in The Great Divorce.
Questions yet remain. For instance, is it in this life only that we make that last fateful turn, or, as Lewis imagined, is that last opportunity in another time and space when one confronts the reality of God in Christ? As followers of Jesus, how can we best share that good news with those who have not heard it? How essential is baptism and/or a confession of Jesus as one’s personal savior to that final turning? How essential is church membership and attendance? Is the word ‘essential’ appropriate at all? Maybe we would be better served talking about the role of Christian discipleship, the sacraments and membership in dedicated assemblies, and leave the question of essentiality behind.