Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (2 Corinthians 1:15-22) transports me back to my favorite Simpsons episode, One Fish Two Fish Blowfish Bluefish, where we find the family in the kitchen on a Thursday night, meatloaf night (as it was, is now, and ever shall be, Lisa recites in despair). Homer watches the main dish circling around and impatiently demands, Isn’t there anything faster than a microwave? Someone suggests they go out to eat the next night, but Homer reminds them that Friday is pork chop night (from cradle to grave, etched in stone, Lisa laments with more despair). Marge suggests they try the new sushi place on Elm Street, and when Lisa begs her dad to break tradition and try something new; she gets a firm No! More pleading gets a firmer: If I said “no” the first time would I say “yes” the second time? To which she responds Maybe on the 99th time and starts the cycle of Please dad? – No! Please dad? -No! Please dad? until Homer finally gives in with his signature concession, well, ok. The kids have plenty of experience to support their understanding that for their dad, no never really means no, that there is always a yes, or a well ok, at the core of his being.
Throughout church history there have been Christian leaders who have understood the nature of God much as Lisa and Bart understood the nature of their father, that the final answer from God to humanity would always be a resounding yes. Whereas Homer Simpson could be counted on to say well, ok, Julian of Norwich could count on the goodness of God and the power of Christ’s grace gift to say, All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well. From early church fathers like Origin and Clement to theologians of the Middle Ages such as Johannes Scotus Erigena and Meister Eckhart to the Reformation era’s William Law and William Penn to early American figures such as Benjamin Rush and Elhanan Winchester to the 19th century’s Soren Kierkegaard and contemporary theologians such as Jan Bonda and Brian McLaren, believers have read the Bible and followed the lead of the Holy Spirit to conclude that salvation is ultimately universal. These leaders all resonated deeply with texts such as today’s daily passage, where Paul speaks of the human tendency to vacillate, to say yes and no, but he assures the readers in Corinth that when it comes to Jesus, there is only one answer: In Him it is always “Yes.” There isn’t a qualifying clause of yes, but. . . or yes, if. . . anywhere to be found. Only yes.
Of course, you can read through Paul’s writing and find passages far less inclusive and universal. The question becomes how to read these contradictory yes and no texts in light of each other. Christian universalists interpret the negative passages of exclusion through the filter of the positive passages of inclusion, not vice versa. The excluding passages of judgment, then, are seen as describing part of the journey toward the ultimate end of yes for all. While universalists agree that God’s final word on salvation for humanity is yes, it doesn’t mean anything goes and everything gets affirmation. There is a wide range of attitudes and actions that God does firmly say no to – oppression, injustice, materialism, the myriad forms of destruction that categorize “sin.” But when it comes to the relationship between the Creator and those created in the Creator’s image, the “no” of judgment serves the larger purpose; the hellfire and brimstone burn away the dross of destructiveness in order to restore the golden relationship between us and God intended from the outset. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.