September 19, 2011

ahead of you, not instead of

Rob Bell's latest book Love Wins happened because of an event at a community art show held at Mars Hill church, where Bell is a pastor. Here's Time Magazine's take on the event.

As part of a series on peacemaking, in late 2007, Pastor Rob Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church put on an art exhibit about the search for peace in a broken world. It was just the kind of avant-garde project that had helped power Mars Hill's growth (the Michigan church attracts 7,000 people each Sunday) as a nontraditional congregation that emphasizes discussion rather than dogmatic teaching. An artist in the show had included a quotation from Mohandas Gandhi. Hardly a controversial touch, one would have thought. But one would have been wrong.

 A visitor to the exhibit had stuck a note next to the Gandhi quotation: "Reality check: He's in hell." Bell was struck.

Really? he recalls thinking.
Gandhi's in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?
Read more 

There have been numerous discussions like this one that have come up in my life in the Church. Is Gandhi in hell? What about those with special needs? What about those who live on a deserted island? What about... Heck, is Rob Bell going to heaven? My answer is always, "I don't know." I can't. I'm on the wrong side of the River Styx to have definitive answers. I know that I believe Jesus when he says "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." But I kind of think that confining one's ability to live in grace to the years they spend on earth is selling God short.

Anyway, this all came to mind today as I read the Gospel appointed for Sunday. Jesus is embroiled in a debate with the religious powers that be. After he tells a parable (more on that later in the week) he tells them, point blank, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you." For the first time, I was struck by that one, simple phrase, "ahead of you."

So much of our time is wasted trying to change what Jesus says here from "ahead of you" to "instead of you." We want, for whatever reasons, for some people to be outside of the Kingdom. We want to know, for certain, that there are boundaries, walls, even pearly gates, that will keep riff-raff, wrong believing, nasty types out. And while Jesus does, very clearly, tell us there will be some outside the Kingdom, most of the time, the people he describes as in are those nasty types.

Prostitutes and Tax-Collectors?

And those wrong believing types, the Pharisee, Saducees, Scribes, and other powers that be? Well even they are still in, just at a later seating. There is a lot of power in Jesus' declaration of "ahead of." I'm just beginning to wrap my head around it.

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