Tuesday, January 04, 2005

"Lord, when did we see you?"

Returning to the topic of the Sellick essay:

One of the most important insights into fundamentalism I was given was an explanation of the theology of Christian fundamentalism. One of the central tenets of Christianity is salvation; the topic, in theological circles, is soteriology. The soteriology of fundamentalist Christianity, it seems, rests on a central premise: that the salvation of the believer depends on securing the salvation of the "unsaved." It rests, in other words, on the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.

At the end of Matthew's Gospel Jesus says something he doesn't say in any of the other gospels, and says it very directly: "All authority has been given me in heaven and on earth. You are to go and make followers of all peoples." (Matthew 28:18-19a, SV) There are two ways to read this. One, is to establish a world-wide church, which has been done. The other, is to convert all peoples, down to the last man, woman, and child. And failing to do that, actually puts your salvation at risk. Because this is the Great Commission.

There is another statement by Jesus in Matthew, one just as direct and just as sweeping, and on it rests another school of soteriology. It is the parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 26. Aside from Jesus' cry on the cross, it contains what is probably the most plaintive cry in the gospels: "Lord, when did we see you?"

The parable is simple and direct in its outline: the people who served God cared for the poor, the homeless, the prisoner, the marginalized. Those who didn't, failed to see God in those people. But the twist in the tale is this: none of those people saw God. All of the people in the parable ask the same question: "Lord, when did we see you?" And that's what makes the cry so plaintive: by the time of the parable, the question comes too late. No one knew who to look for, and for those who acted rightly, that is what makes their action right. They did not act to save themselves; they acted out of love, as God is love. They followed the commandment Jesus gives his disciples in John: "Love one another, as I have loved you."

Does this condemn the fundamentalists, the adherents to the other school of salvation? No. The people who approached me in my East Texas high school asking if I'd been "saved" were sincere, even if they were also sincerely worried about themselves. We are never in a position to judge, except for ourselves; just as we are never in a position to choose, except for ourselves. But when we choose, we need to know what we are choosing, and the basis for our choice.

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