The Last Sentence of the Bible:
Grace to All

For Sunday May 20, 2007

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           Acts 16:16–34
           Psalm 97
           Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21
           John 17:20–26

Rembrandt's Prodigal Son, by Vladimir Zunuzin, Russia.
Rembrandt's Prodigal Son, by
Vladimir Zunuzin, Russia.

           At church a few weeks ago our pastor related the story of a woman in Atlanta who had enrolled in a psychology program at a local university. One class assignment required her to identify the sort of person that she most feared, and then to go and meet just such a person. This Christian woman admitted that she most feared gay people and so, much to her credit, she befriended some gays.

           The fears of her class colleagues were even more revealing. A full 40% of the students in her class said that the people they most feared were Christians.

           Do these students rightly fear Christians? Are Christians scary people? The purpose of the class exercise seemed to be to show students how easily we stereotype each other without even knowing each other, and how we can dispel our fears by meeting people whom we find strange. So maybe Christians aren't as bad as the media sometimes suggests. There's some truth in that, but to hide behind that fig leaf lets us off the hook too easily.

           At the end of the film Jesus Camp (2006) I was so disheartened that I just sat in my seat. A woman exiting down the aisle of the theater stopped at my chair and asked, "Was that a true story?!" When I told her that it was a documentary she exclaimed, "that's unbelievable!" Jesus Camp features the Pentecostal children's minister Becky Fischer of Missouri, and the summer camp that she runs in North Dakota. I physically squirmed in my seat watching believers distort the Gospel with different litmus tests—young earth, intelligent design, abortion, global warming, Harry Potter, home schooling, and fidelity to George Bush. That's scary.

           I also keep mulling over the observation of the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg of Oregon State University. In a footnote to his book The Heart of Christianity, he says that when he asks his unchurched university students to write a short essay about their impressions of Christianity, “they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted.” That's also scary. 

           Another one of our pastors suggested that Christians have a "branding" problem. Kim observed how companies go to great lengths to brand themselves in ways that communicate not just a catchy slogan or a superficial tagline but their core identity, what they most want the public to think of when they hear their name. Good branding is powerful; just think of all the corporate jingles that you can't get out of your head even if you tried.

Samaritan woman at the well, by Michael Parchment, Jamaica.
Samaritan woman at the well,
by Michael Parchment, Jamaica.

           Kim then proposed an interesting thought experiment: "What do you think the average person on the street, in the grocery store, at the gas station would come up with if we went around and asked them to sum up in just a few words what the Christian church was all about? In many cases our branding tag line for the most part would be something like— 'We’re right. . . you’re wrong. Let us correct your behavior. Give us your money for something irrelevant to your life. Withdraw from normalcy and join our weird little subculture. Welcome to worship. . . and let us tell you how to vote.' Whether we like it or not, we have been branded in these ways by a culture that for the most part sees the church primarily outside of the mainstream of current life."

           The Bible is a mini-library of 66 books, written mainly in Hebrew and Greek by about 40 authors across more than a thousand years. It's long (my Bible is 1,635 pages), has many plot twists, and is rooted in ancient cultural settings that are foreign to us today. But can we "brand" the Bible's story? What would be its singular tagline? Can we reduce its myriad complexities to an essential substance that clarifies and enlightens rather than reduces and oversimplifies?

           Yes. The last sentence of the Bible does exactly that: "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all" (NASB, Revelation 22:21).

           That's the Bible's branding, and it ought to be ours too. Not a narrow political ideology whether left or right, not a specious theory rooted in junk science, nor judgmentalism of others that is eager to exclude people unlike ourselves. We could even reduce our branding from one sentence to one word: grace.

           Some variants in the original Greek have a different reading for Revelation 22:21 that narrows the appeal for grace to "God's people" (NIV) or "the saints" (ASV, NRSV). But as pastor Rob Bell has observed, the Gospel is good news especially to those who don't believe it. So I like the reading of the New American Standard Bible, which retains the expansive nature of God's grace by translating the Greek in a strictly literal if awkward way: "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all." Even Psalm 97 for this week has as its purview "all the earth" (97:1,5,9), "the world" (97:4), and "all the peoples" (97:6), which is rather remarkable for an ancient liturgical text written for "the villages of Judah" (97:8).

           God's lavish favor, without conditions or limits, for all people; that's our branding. In a similar "branding" exercise the apostle Paul also pushes the parameters of divine grace, not only beyond "the saints" but even beyond humanity. He says that God was in Christ reconciling the whole creation and the entire cosmos to Himself (Romans 8; 2 Corinthians 5:19).

Woman caught in adultery, by He Qi, China.
Woman caught in adultery, by He Qi, China.

          The God whom Jesus revealed isn't mean or scary, and if we reflect his image people need not fear his followers. Rather, said Jesus, he's the sort of God who throws a party for a kid who wasted the family fortune, who refuses to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery, who breaks taboos of ethnicity and gender to encourage a woman who had been married five times, who welcomes a criminal into his kingdom as the man gasps for breath while being executed, and who embraces his closest disciples even though they abandoned him and denied ever knowing him.

           And so the last page of the Bible invites everyone with these welcoming words: "Let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (Revelation 22:17).

Note: Sermons at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church by John Ortberg (April 29, 2007) and Kim Engelmann (April 15, 2007).

For further reflection:

* In your experience do people "fear" Christians? If so, why? Do you think their fears are justified?
* Can you think of Christians who break this stereotype and who are graceful, gracious, and welcoming to all?"
* Consider extending grace not only to others but to yourself.
* Cf. Donald McCullough: "Grace tells us that we are accepted just as we are. We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievements...but we are nonetheless accepted by God, held in his hands. Such is his promise to us in Jesus Christ, a promise we can trust."
* See Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?.