Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Only Way?

Ed Loucks
As a “recovering evangelical” firmly committed to “heaven-and-hell framework” described by Marcus Borg, one of the words I grew up with that he does not use is “conversion.” He comes close with his discussion of salvation, but conversion has a much broader meaning than that. Conversion can mean an acceptance of the tenets of Christianity and the rejection of one’s former religious commitments, but it can also mean a new insight, a new way of perceiving the Christian faith to which one is already committed. I experienced a conversion when I left the heaven-and-hell framework and moved to the historical-metaphorical understanding that one finds in Borg’s book, “Speaking Christian.”

There are numerous stories of conversion in the New Testament: the conversion of St. Paul is the most dramatic, but what about the conversion of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, or the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch after receiving instruction on the book of Isaiah from Philip, or the conversion of doubting Thomas? A conversion story that I have found most helpful, when dealing with the difficult question—is Jesus Christ the only way to be saved?—is the story of the conversion of St. Peter.

In Acts 4, he tells the Jewish leaders, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” By Acts 10, Peter has had a conversion experience. He was visiting his friend Simon the tanner at his beachside home in Joppa. Lunchtime approached, and Peter, feeling hungry, went up on the roof to get some fresh air while lunch was being prepared. He fell into a trance, and saw a vision—a sheet coming down from heaven, tied by the four corners, and heavy with various kinds of life that Peter had been taught all his life, as a devout Jew, were unclean. A voice told Peter to rise up, kill, and eat. He responded as a good Jew would, saying that he would never eat such unclean things. The voice said to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”

The vision occurred twice more, leaving Peter wondering what it could mean. Then there was a knock on the door and three men asked for Peter. They told him about Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, and a Gentile. They told Peter he was a devout and holy man, and wanted Peter to come to his house and show them the way to God. 

The next day, Peter set off for the centurion’s home in Caesarea. Cornelius’s home was filled with Gentiles, seeking the truth that Peter would bring to them. Peter said, “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.” And the Gentiles were filled with the Holy Spirit.

What about John 14:6, a verse that was pounded into my head as the son of missionary parents? Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Brian McLaren, in an essay entitled “A Reading of John 14:6,” writes “Is Jesus the only way? It depends on where we are trying to go. If we want to abandon earth as a lost cause and evacuate upward to heaven as soon as possible, I suspect we are going in a different direction than Jesus.” You can find his essay online, by the title above. I recommend it.

Jesus did not come to earth to establish an exclusive club, or to sell insurance policies guaranteeing a quick admission to heaven. He came to show us the Father (John 14:8-9). All of us (John 10:16). God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus did not say, “Worship me.” He said, “Follow me” (Matthew 11:28-30). I find it easier to worship Jesus than to follow Him.

Meditate on Micah 6:8—“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Ed Loucks is a parishioner at St. Paul's, K Street. Share your reactions and thoughts with the diocesan community on Facebook.