17th June, 2018
A strength and a curse of the bible is that it is open to interpretation. It is a strength in that passages can be reinterpreted and explored in different ways and therefore applied to many different situations in life. It is a curse in that sometimes the interpretations can be restrictive or downright harmful to people. Sometimes one interpretation of a biblical passage can become favoured over others, thus limiting our ability to engage with scripture in new and creative ways.
For example, the parables found in this morning’s Gospel passage could be about a range of things. I have certainly heard the parable of the mustard seed spoken about as a metaphor for faith, and how only a little in required to take us a long way. I have also heard that parable used to suggest things about the kingdom of god. For example, mustard was really considered a weed, if left unchecked it would take over the whole garden and more besides. There are a some easy connections to make with such an interpretation.
I have also heard this parable used as part of a broader message about salvation. I am not one to preach about eternal damnation, in fact I’m fairly certain that is the first time I have ever used the word damnation in a sermon. But I have certainly been in churches that were highly motivated by that concept, and saw salvation as being the essential work of the church. After all, there are so many people who are yet to be saved from the prospect of an eternity in fiery torment. In that context I have heard the parable of the mustard seed spoken of as proof that only the smallest amount of belief is enough to spare even the most wretched sinner from an eternity in hell.
There is a new film that has just come on Netflix called Come Sunday. The film tells the story of Carlton Pearson an American Pentecostal preacher and bishop who was something of a rising star in the American evangelical scene in the 1990’s. He visited American presidents, appeared on numerous television shows including mainstream news programs. His church grew to having more than 6000 people and his full time staff was extensive.
Like many Pentecostal preachers salvation was the core of his message. In fact he felt an incredible pressure to save as many people as he possibly could. For example, even when sitting on a plane flying between speaking engagements Pearson would never read a book or close his eyes, no matter how much he longed for a break or a nap. Instead he was acutely aware that he could encounter someone who was yet to be saved. At any moment someone might try to talk to him, and he needed to be ready to share the gospel. To his way of thinking, any stranger he encountered had the potential to place their eternal life in his hands.
Some of you may have encountered that sort of thinking, some of us may have even felt that way. Pearson had no doubt that with his profile and success came an immense responsibility when it came to saving as many people as he possibly could.
And this was where he ran into something of a theological problem. One day Pearson found himself watching a news report concerning a famine in Africa. He saw starving children, children who would never live into adulthood. Pearson was struck by the injustice of it. He began reflecting on the lives in such circumstances that are so tragically cut short. Suddenly he found himself wrestling with his understanding of the afterlife. He articulated his prayer to God by asking God why such children had been born into such hardship. For Pearson the problem was not only the material poverty, but also the spiritual poverty he saw. He began to ask God why these children who knew such hardship in life were also facing an eternity of suffering. Why would God possibly want these innocent people confined to hell?
To Pearson’s surprise he felt God communicate what was for him a perplexing response. The way Pearson describes that message was that it felt like God saying, “Is that really what you think I am doing? Is that what you think I am?”
For Pearson it was a revolutionary thought. His worldview had been so shaped by the assumption that making a personal commitment to Christ was the only way a person could avoid hell, that he simply couldn’t imagine God differently. But from that moment on he began to question many of his assumptions and to review much of his own teaching. Eventually Pearson discovered that he no longer believed in an eternal hell. Certainly he believed that people, like those starving in Africa, could experience hell in this life. But that old understanding he had, about the risk of eternal torment, had no place in his growing understanding of God.
So what’s the big deal? Many of us in this community sit somewhat lightly when it comes to hell as a concept. We might agree with Pearson that there is already hell enough in this life and that our energy and resources should be focussed on addressing those very real places of suffering in our world. But in Pearson’s context as a leader of a conservative American church, his change of theological perspective was a scandal.
In 2004 the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops, agreed that Pearson’s teaching was heresy. His thriving church fell apart first though the loss of people and then through having to close due to lack of funds. Since that time he has worked for other denominations and continues to develop his new theology. He ministry now includes people with disability, members of the LGBT community and others who have experienced marginalisation. He says that whereas he once taught the Gospel of Salvation he now preaches the Gospel of Inclusion.
It is a brave thing to read a passage of scripture that we believe we understand and to wonder if there might be another understanding we are yet to discover. Pearson discovered that the consequences of questioning the status quo can be personally devastating. And yet, many among the communities he serves today credit Pearson with saving their lives. Not their eternal lives, but the lives they are currently living.
We all have beliefs that make sense to us. They might be what our Sunday school teachers taught us, or the words of an influential preacher, or something we just worked out for ourselves. Those beliefs may well serve us. But we need to be prepared to consider that our beliefs may actually be a prison of our own making, and that God is actually calling us beyond them into a greater understanding of love.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant