Pastors will keep this book--its hints, its chuckles, its struggles--close at hand. You never know when you'll get one of those dreaded questions.
They are always just around the corner. Even when things are going swimmingly for the pastor, a these dreaded questions are waiting in the wings. They might come from a tear-stained child , a gruff, "You'll have to show me" member, or from a desperate Sunday School teacher. The zinger comes and the pastor, aware that two thousand years of Christian thought have not generated a simple "I'm glad you asked" answer, most respond.
The dreaded ten:
(1) Is my Jewish neighbor going to hell?
(2) Why did God let my kitten, Fluffy, die?
(3) What do you mean, you changed the light bulb that Grandma gave the church?
(4) Why doesn't your wife sing in the choir?
(5) Who are you going to vote for, Reverend?
(6) Why are you leaving us for another church? Don't you like us?
(7) Why do you pick hymns no one knows?
(8) Why do we keep sending off money for missions?
(9) Why can't we use Christmas red on the altar table during December?
(10) Are all "acts of God" acts of God?
F. Belton Joyner Jr. is a retired United Methodist pastor and author of The Unofficial UM Handbooks and Being Methodist in the Bible Belt: A Theological Survival Guide for Youth, Parents, and Other Confused Methodists and many other books. Currently, he is a visiting lecturer at Duke Divinity School and member of Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church. He lives in Bahama, North Carolina.
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Ten Questions Every Pastor Fears
By F. Belton Joyner Jr.
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
"IS MY JEWISH NEIGHBOR GOING TO HELL?"
THE FEARED QUESTION
Karla Carpenter seemed to be lingering after the final service of a preaching series at St. Mark Church. Pastor Clarence had heard the usual comments at the door ("Great sermon," "Thanks for that message," "I enjoyed that," "Did you really like my stewed apricots at the supper tonight?"), but he noticed that Ms. Carpenter seemed to be staying more for a conversation than for a quick word.
She began slowly. "I listened to what you said in the sermon. You said that Jesus was the way to salvation. I've got this neighbor, Mr. Baum. And he is"—she hesitated for a nanosecond before continuing—"a Jew. Now, Mr. Baum is a great neighbor, a fine man, a good citizen. But based on what you said in your sermon, I have this question: Is my Jewish neighbor going to hell?"
QUICK, FIRST THOUGHTS
Why do people insist on paying attention when I am preaching! I must have sounded as if I was drawing a spiritual line in the sand when I talked about Jesus as Savior. I can tell that Karen likes Mr. Baum and wants the best for him. I guess I should have seen this question coming. (And so that yellowish-orange stuff at supper tonight turned out to be stewed apricots.)
THINKING A BIT MORE ABOUT IT
How widely opened are the saving arms of God? Or, more to the point, does God ever sadly say, "No"?
Jesus himself seems to draw a rather clear line about how one can have access to God. He said, "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Later, Peter is speaking to the leaders of the Jewish community and says, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Is it possible for someone to relate to God through Jesus Christ without that person's knowing the name of Jesus? Is the presence and power of Jesus Christ limited to those who recognize that power and presence as Jesus?
In biblical terms, "name" means the character, values, and quality of a person. A change of name suggests a change of character. (Thus, Saul's name is changed to Paul when he has the Damascus Road life-changing experience—Acts 13:9.) Does that imply that to be saved by the name of Jesus Christ is to be saved by the character, values, and quality of Jesus (seen in his death and resurrection)? Is it necessary to name the name?
Does Jesus claim as his own some whom others might consider outside the fold? In one account, Jesus describes himself as "the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). Who are these sheep for whom the Shepherd will die? Are Jews on that list? Are Gentiles on that list? Are nonbelievers on that list? Is Karla Carpenter's neighbor on that list?
Just as those listening to Jesus begin to make up their list of those for whom the good shepherd will die, our Lord says, in effect, "Whoa now! How are you so sure that your list is the same as my list? 'I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd' "(John 10:16). The Master is saying, "The boundaries for my flock are more expansive than you think!"
The apostle Paul must have pondered this point. For example, in Romans 3:22, the Apostle speaks of "the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe." That seems like a fairly clear boundary: all who believe. On the other hand, in Romans 11:32, Paul writes, "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all." That seems like a fully open door: all.
Which of those views represents God's clearest revelation?
One way the church has sought to answer that question is in the historic creeds. The Apostles' Creed, formulated between the fourth and seventh centuries, makes the claim that Jesus "descended into hell." (Some versions say, "descended to the dead.") Why would the church make such a profession? Perhaps the reality is that no one, of any time or place, of any spiritual circumstance, of any brokenness or negation, is separated from the Messiah, the saving Messiah. "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39).
If Jesus' death is for all—and he descended to the dead—then his resurrection is for all. The atonement is universal. The demonic has been defeated. Our Lord saw it coming. Early in his ministry, he sent out seventy to be about a practice of healing and a proclamation that God's reign was coming into the midst of the people (Luke 10:1-3). When these seventy returned with stories of how the demonic was defeated (Luke 10:17), Jesus announced the defeat of Satan: "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning" (Luke 10:18). Jesus wins. Satan loses.
Does Jesus give that victory to everyone or only to those who believe in him? The Scriptures say that "all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:26). The scriptures say that "just as one man's trespass [Adam] led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness [Jesus Christ] leads to justification and life for all" (Romans 5:18). The scriptures say that "all people shall see the glory of the LORD together" (Isaiah 40:5b).
Does Jesus give that victory to everyone or only to those who believe in him? The Scriptures say, "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). That was the answer of Paul and Silas to the jailer who asked how he might be saved. But the account goes on to indicate that the jailer's entire family was baptized. Did you ever wonder how the household was saved by the faith of the jailer alone? They were all baptized even though the text mentions only that the jailer was a believer (Acts 16:32-34).
Does Jesus give that victory to everyone or only to those who believe in him? The Scriptures say, "Everyone who believes in [God's only Son] may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16b). The Scriptures say, "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God" (1 John 5:1). The Scriptures say, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24).
It seems like such a simple question: Does Jesus give that victory to everyone or only to those who believe in Him? Most of us—myself included—probably come to that inquiry pretty sure what the answer might be. Oh, there are gray areas around the edges (What of babies who die? What of persons who are never presented an opportunity to accept Jesus Christ? Can a person gain and then lose salvation?), but the direct answer to the question seems obvious. Christians say clearly that one must believe in Jesus Christ to be made whole, to be saved, to go to heaven. After all, the same Apostles' Creed that declares that Jesus descended into hell (to the dead) also claims that "he shall come to judge the quick and the dead" (that is, the living and the dead). Where I come from, that about covers everybody (although I did hear someone say that "the quick and the dead" sounded like a description of the Los Angeles Freeway).
However. On the other hand. But. Nevertheless. Conversely. There are still biblical evidences of a God who gathers with grace more magnetic than we have imagined, grace powerful enough to draw all souls to God. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17).
In Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, John Wesley explored how Peter addressed the question of who found favor with God. Acts 10:34-35 notes what Peter said: "Then Peter began to speak to them: 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.'"
Wesley comments (using his own translation):
But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness—He that first reverences God, as great, wise, good: the Cause, End, and Governor of all things; and, secondly, from this awful regard to Him, not only avoids all known evil, but endeavours, according to the best light he has, to do all things well. Is accepted of him—Through Christ, though he knows Him not. The assertion is express and admits of no exception. He is in the favour of God, whether enjoying His written word and ordinances or not. (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament [Naperville, Ill.: Alec R. Allenson, 1958] 434-35)
Is Wesley right that it is sufficient for one to live "according to the best lights he has"? Is it, as Wesley suggests, possible to be accepted through Christ even though one does not know Christ?
The biblical witness speaks of a judgment against those who ignore the vulnerable: hungry, unclothed, imprisoned, lonely (Matthew 25:31-46). Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that the servant who does not do the master's work will be thrown "into the outer darkness" (Matthew 25:30). The psalmist reminds us that
[the LORD] is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth. (Psalm 96:13b, c)
John's vision was of a heavenly tribunal where persons were "judged according to their works" (Revelation 20:12).There is a biblical theme of judgment. Is that judgment based on right action or right belief?
What is the good news in the midst of this rollercoaster of ideas? Jesus is clear that he came to save the world: "I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world" (John 12:47). Yet, Jesus is also clear that there is a judge of the one who rejects him: "The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge" (John 12:48).
The good news is that our lawyer is the judge! That's not a bad deal—not a bad deal for me, for you, for Karla Carpenter, or for Karla Carpenter's Jewish neighbor. "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:1-2).
Frederick Faber (1854) summarized this good news in this hymn poem:
There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea; there's a kindness in God's justice, which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more simple, we should rest upon God's word; and our lives would be illumined by the presence of our Lord.
SOMETHING TO SAY
Karla, God bless you for your concern for your neighbor! There is certainly mystery about God and God's relationship with us. After all, God is more than we can fathom. But it is my belief and trust that Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God. What I see in Jesus is both an acceptance of all people and a call to faithful discipleship. Once when Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of God, he said the kingdom was not about our sorting who is evil and who is good, but to trust that judgment to the one who owns the field (Matthew 13:30). I am willing to do that, and in the meantime I testify to the goodness and love of the one revealed in Jesus Christ. Does that make sense?
LET'S KEEP ON TALKING
1. What about God's saving relationship with Muslims? With Buddhists? With atheists?
2. What is the meaning of my free will, my freedom of choice, if God just keeps on loving (saving) me regardless of my response?
3. What is the responsibility of Christians to proclaim what God has revealed in Jesus Christ?
God of gathering grace, grant me a humble spirit that accepts the fullness of your love, not just for me, but for all people. I confess that I stumble in trying to understand what it means that you are for all people when there are some who say no to you. Keep me close to your tender mercies. And use me as you would, as a witness to those who do not know the good news of Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray. Amen.CHAPTER 2
"WHY DID GOD LET MY KITTEN DIE?"
THE FEARED QUESTION
Barbara McArthur was getting into her car, ready for a quick bite and the afternoon nap that usually followed the busy Sunday morning activities. There were only a couple of other vehicles in the parking lot of Merritt Memorial Church. "Rev. Barbara! Rev. Barbara!" The pastor stepped out of her car to answer the shout of her name. It was Buster Shuler. Next to him stood Francine, his five-year-old daughter.
"Francine wanted to ask you something," Mr. Shuler said. The Reverend Ms. McArthur turned and looked into the tear-stained eyes of the young child. Francine's voice trembled with hurt. "This morning when you had the children down at the front," she began, "you told us that God loved us and wanted the best for us and always took care of us."
"Yes, I did. Isn't that wonderful?" soothed the pastor.
"And you said that God loved and cared for our pets too."
"Indeed! And wants us to take care of them," Ms. McArthur added.
The tears welled up again in Francine's eyes: "Then, why did God let my kitten die?"
QUICK, FIRST THOUGHTS
I'm a sucker for a child who is crying. Why didn't I get out of the parking lot before Francine spotted me! She really loved that little cat. Now how can I explain all this in a way a five-year-old can understand? I'm thirty-seven years old and I'm not sure I understand! And I wonder if this is something that came up that day I cut out of my theology class in order to get to the ball game on time!
THINKING A BIT MORE ABOUT IT
The apostle Paul knew that suffering, loss, and death were part of the human condition. But he carried the thought a notch beyond that. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now" (Romans 8:22). It is not just humankind that suffers from brokenness from God's intentional will; all of the created order (including cats!) suffers from that impairment. The whole creation groans for a new birth into life.
What about new life for all creatures? When Paul wrote the church at Colossae, he reminded them that the hope of the gospel was for all creation: "every creature under heaven" (Colossians 1:23c). When John stated what was revealed to him about God's full reign, he wrote, "And the one who was seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new'" (Revelation 21:5). God promises a new creation because the old creation is broken. Dare we say that kittens die because the creation has fallen?
Think about the Genesis account of creation. When God confronts Adam about having eaten of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:11), the man is quick to pass the blame on to Eve (Genesis 3:12). When God confronts the woman about this disobedience, she is quick to pass the blame on to the serpent (Genesis 3:13). There seems to be enough blame to go around!
When God spells out the result of this fall from God's boundaries (the punishment for sin), God speaks to the serpent (Genesis 3:14), to the woman (Genesis 3:16), and to the man (Genesis 3:17). Humankind and serpent alike suffer the consequences of this first sin. The sin separated humankind from God but also brought the entire created order under judgment.
The ripple effect of sin is like a row of dominos falling onto one another, each one toppling the one next to it. For example, as soon as Adam and Eve break their relationship with God, they become broken from each other. Prior to their act of defiance, they live happily with one another, but as soon as they violate God's will, they become broken from each other too. Suddenly, they know they are naked, and in embarrassment (and as a sign of their separation from each other), they seek fig leaves to make loincloths (Genesis 3:7). Disconnection from God leads to disconnection from each other.
The same enmity that has come between the human beings has also come between humankind and the serpent (Genesis 3:15). What God has intended for good ("and God saw that it was good"—Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) has turned into shattered goodness. God created humankind and the rest of creation to live in harmony, but the same disobedience that changed the way Adam and Eve related to God and to each other also changed the way that humanity and creation related. The writer of Genesis uses the term "enmity" (Genesis 3:15)—hostility, antagonism. Clearly, what was intended for life has fallen into the valley of the shadow of death.
Excerpted from Ten Questions Every Pastor Fears by F. Belton Joyner Jr.. Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsOpening Mumbling: An Introduction,
Question 1: "Is my Jewish neighbor going to hell?",
Question 2: "Why did God let my kitten die?",
Question 3: "What do you mean, you changed the light that Grandma gave the church?",
Question 4: "Why doesn't your wife sing in the choir?",
Question 5: "Who are you going to vote for, Reverend?",
Question 6: "Why are you leaving us for another church? Don't you like us?",
Question 7: "Why do you pick hymns that no one likes?",
Question 8: "Why do we keep sending off money for missions?",
Question 9: "Why can't we use Christmas red on the altar table during December?",
Question 10: "Are all acts of God acts of God?",