A local Four Square Gospel pastor was a recent guest columnist in our local Sunday paper. He posed a challenging question: Where do you want to spend eternity? And gave the options: heaven or hell. And gave the answer: only by accepting Jesus as your personal savior certified by your baptism in the Spirit can you qualify for heaven. That can be a very compelling argument for some people.
As an Episcopalian deeply rooted in our Anglican tradition, it’s not an argument I am much interested in. It’s been said that we have a tendency toward an incarnational theology, which means, at least in part, that we don’t worry much about where we will spend eternity. As followers of Jesus Christ we take that as a given. What concerns us more is a question such as: What does it mean to be a follower of Christ in this world and during our lifetime? The question itself implies that we are also not much interested in worrying about the Second Coming, the Rapture or Armageddon. For most of us, the end of time as we understand time coincides with the time of our own death, and there is not much point in worrying about what may, but probably won’t, come before then.
What is very important is to recognize that each of us who claims the name of Christ is a part of the continuing Body of Christ, the Church, commissioned to go on with the work of Christ healing, making whole, reconciling, and proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God is near.
In the parable of The Good Shepherd, the sheep that was lost was searched for, found and restored to the flock from which it had strayed. However powerful that story is, it is about a sheep that was already a member of the shepherd’s flock and not a stranger to him or the other sheep. But when Jesus claimed the title of the Good Shepherd for himself, he also announced that he would gather other flocks of whom we know nothing, who are strangers to us, but who are known and loved by him. Both are important. The flock we know must be tended, but the flocks we do not know, the flocks that Jesus is off gathering by his own authority and power, the flocks Jesus never asked our permission to save, those flocks we cannot cast into the outer darkness or consign to hell. In the first place, we are utterly ignorant about the matter. In the second place, it is God and not us who has the authority to gather them in whatever way God chooses.
That forces a major change in the way we, or at least I, approach evangelism. It is no longer a matter of confronting someone with the challenge that if you want to avoid going to hell here is what you have to do. It is a matter of proclaiming that you are already saved by the power of God through the love of Jesus Christ, here, now, in this life and for all eternity. Accept this gift and join with us as disciples of Christ continuing in his work of bringing the light of the kingdom of God into our own time and place. Good grief, that sounds like work.
The problem, as I see it, is that the Four Square approach has more sales appeal through a really good and very simple scare message. It fits in better with contemporary political propaganda techniques and plays more effectively into anxieties about life sensationalized by talk radio, television and movies. It avoids all the difficulty of apprehending the central place and meaning of the Eucharist. It sidesteps the Greek gobbledygook of the Nicene Creed. It does not have to explain the role of tradition, especially the messy parts around the Reformation. It doesn’t care what makes an Anglican different from a Catholic or Lutheran (Garrison Keillor claims we are all Lutherans, just in different clothing). It’s more culturally relative even though that idea would be anathema to them. Either you’re in or you’re out, and here are the rules for getting in. It just makes a hell of a lot more sense to a great many people.
I think that means that we Episcopalians will always be a rather small denomination whose primary mission is the formation of disciples out of people who have no particular interest in becoming disciples but who stick with it anyway.