Monday, December 29, 2008

Understanding God: Who gets into heaven (4)

Part Four

One of the most important things that you must understand is that Jesus never taught an individual salvation. In other words, the community of the faithful is just as important as the idea of a particular person “going to heaven.” This is one of the greatest misunderstandings among some modern Christians, particularly those in non-denominational churches or with fundamentalist or Evangelical outlooks. So this is another reason that it is problematic to have an attitude of “who” individually is going to go to heaven and be “saved” and who individually is “not.”

An individual view of salvation has never been part of the Old Covenant and Jesus did not endorse such a change in stance, and neither did the Apostles or disciples. The entire Catholic Church is built in continuation of the emphasis on the “body of the faithful” for this reason, not because everyone loves “control” and a “bureaucracy.” So in this post I am going to demonstrate the Biblical basis for the community of the faithful rather than focus on individual salvation. I am not saying that souls will be judged by God as a collective, however, a strictly “individual” view of “salvation” is not what God expects. Further, an individual basis of salvation is a temptation to some sins of omission.

Exodus 19: 2-6
While Israel was encamped here in front of the mountain, Moses went up the mountain to God. Then the Lord called to him and said, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites.”

1) The Lord has Moses address every single Israelite gathered together in total.
2) The Lord calls them “the house of Jacob,” which is a terminology of a single family unit.
3) The Lord says that if they obey they shall all together be his “special possession” even though God has all the earth and its people to his own.
4) The Lord says that all the Israelites will be “a” as in one “kingdom of priests,” indicating that it is a communal and collective priesthood of people, whether or not an individual is of the priestly tribe or not, and whether one performs a priestly function or not.
5) The Lord says that they will be a “holy nation,” again a collective communal covenant, not individual.

Throughout the Old Testament you can read for yourself that even though Laws address individual behavior, the Laws are given to all the people, and God always refers to the faithful collectively. One other important event that I’ve blogged about often is also underscoring the importance of the community over the individual’s “goodness” or “salvation:”

Isaiah 6:1-7
In the year king Ozia died [742 BC], I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!” At the sound of that cry the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke.

Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin is purged.”

1) Isaiah was a high priest serving in the temple, so he was far from being having “unclean lips.”
2) Yet in his astonishment at seeing God in his glory Isaiah forestalls God from even speaking to him!
3) Why? Because Isaiah by virtue of living within a community, a people of “unclean lips” he has guilt of association, even though he is a holy priest about to be called to be God’s greatest prophet since Moses.
4) Did God or the angel reply, “Oh, tut, tut, do not worry Isaiah, for you are individually saved and justified and you do not need to be modest in front of us?” No, they did not. Immediately the angel brought an ember from God’s altar to purify the lips of Isaiah.
5) Further, the angel agrees that to be a righteous PRIEST living among unclean lipped people gives him a “wickedness” and “sin” that had to be “purged.”

Nowhere is it more clear that even being righteous but living within an unclean community/society filled with sin taints if for no other reason sins of omission in addressing the sin even the faithful.

Jesus himself makes this abundantly clear when he relates this story of the poor man Lazarus:

Luke 16:19-31
“There was a certain rich man who used to clothe himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted every day in splendid fashion. And there was a certain poor man, named Lazarus, who lay at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. And it came to pass that the poor man died and was borne away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; but the rich man also died and was buried in hell.
“And lifting his eyes, being in torments, he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he creid out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.’

“But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime hast received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now here he is comforted whereas thou art tormented. And besides all that, between us and you a great gulf is fixed, so that they who wish to pass over from this side to you cannot, and they cannot cross from your side to us.’

“And he said, ‘Then, father, I beseech thee to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they too come into this place of torments.’ And Abraham said to him, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hearken to them.’ But he answered, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hearken to Moses and the Prophets, they will not believe even is someone rises from the dead.’”

1) Notice that the rich man is in hell because he neglected one specific anonymous man, Lazarus, who was a beggar lying dying in front of the rich man’s gate.
2) So the rich man is not in hell because he didn’t believe in God and he probably was even a prominent man among the faith, giving alms to charity of the prescribed times and amounts.
3) The rich man finds himself in hell because rather than being fully in the communal faith of tending to one’s neighbor in the fullest sense of the term, he had a correct and “by the book” faith.
4) Astonished by this he begs Abraham for the chance to warn his five brothers, who are undoubtedly living their prominent and privileged lives as pious and observant men, for he realizes now that being pious and observant and believing but ignoring communal need, especially at one’s front door, results in a trip to hell.
5) Notice that his attitude did not change even in hell because what does he ask? That the poor man Lazarus be the errand boy to either bring him water or to warn his brothers. The rich man does not use his chance to beg for mercy from Abraham, asking for his intervention.
Jesus is making several points when telling the disciples this story and I’ve provided commentary on the various points in previous posts. What you must realize here is that again, the rich man is not in hell because he was a “sinner” who “did not accept God as his personal savior” and even more to the point since his brothers have no clue they risk hell, just like the rich man, they all were undoubtedly believers and observant believers at that. It is not enough to be a believer and it never was enough to be a believer; one must be in the body of the faithful and ready to serve God’s will in all parts of the community in which one lives.

Here are other clues that show you how Jesus maintains the view of the faithful as a “nation of priests” and “the house of Jacob,” as God did during the Old Covenant. You do this by reading two instances where Jesus and the disciples discuss entire cities.

Matthew 11:20-24
Then he began to reproach the towns in which most of his miracles were worked, because they had not repented.
“Woe to thee, Corozain! Woe to thee, Bethsaida! For if in Tyre and Sidon had been worked the miracles that have been worked in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And thou, Capharnaum, shall thou be exalted to heaven? Thou shalt be thrust down to hell! For if the miracles had been worked in Sodom that have been worked in thee, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for thee.”

1) Jesus worked many miracles in these towns and he is wrathful not because they didn’t thank him but because they did not use the miracles as a sign to repent.
2) Jesus expects, just as God did in the Old Testament, entire towns to repent and convert, not individuals.
3) Jesus explains and expounds that towns that are sinful but had no advantage of a visit by him and miracles (though he preached to people from Tyre and Sidon, Mark 3:8, so he knew them well and was not discussing them theoretically) will be treated better in their day of judgment than the towns who had received miracles by Jesus.
4) Jesus goes as far as to explain that heaven is an exaltation (a lifting up in position), not something to be “expected”… it is an honor, not the default route for “adequate” observant behavior. Thus Jesus says sinner towns that had no advantage of a visit by Jesus over sinner towns that received miracles from Jesus and perhaps are nominally observant but did not view the miracles as a sign for total repentance and conversion.
5) Jesus compares this situation to when God destroyed the city of Sodom for its sin. Jesus is saying that if he or one of the prophets or angels had performed in Sodom the same miracles that Jesus performed this day in the towns he lists, that the entire city of Sodom would have repented. Sodom was FAR more sinful than these small observant Jewish burgs so you now can see how dismally these towns failed to understand that the gift of the miracles was a call to total conversion, even if they were not raging centers of sin like Sodom was.

Luke 9:51-56
Now it came to pass, when the days had come for him to be taken up, that he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before him. And they went and entered a Samaritan town to make ready for him, and they did not receive him, because his face was set for Jerusalem. But when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, wilt thou that we bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?’

But he turned and rebuked them, saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” And they went to another village.

[Note: they refused Jesus entry to their town because the Samaritans believed that their temple on Mount Garizim was the only legitimate place and they were hostile toward anyone going to the temple of Jerusalem to worship].

1) Notice that entire towns and villages received guests, or they did not. The communities act as a whole, so it’s not like Jesus could have entered anyways because one or two good hosts would welcome him while the rest do not. This shows that community mores can sometimes “trump” the presence of individual good people, another reason why God and Jesus both emphasis the body of the faithful rather than the individual. Unfaithful communities can prevent faithful individuals from performing God’s will, and that is a problem if the faithful are in acceptance of this situation.
2) Consistent with the emphasis on community that I am explaining to you, the disciples James and John offer to call upon God to bring fire upon the entire town.
3) Consistent with the emphasis on community, Jesus replies that he is there to save, not destroy. He is still referring to the entire town; otherwise he would have said, we should not destroy the good with the bad. There is no separation of faithful individuals from the community in which they live and, most importantly, prosper (as the rich man who did not even notice Lazarus to help him). Faithful who prosper in unfaithful communities are in a problematic position when they must account to God.
4) Jesus gives the opportunity to host him to another unnamed village. Again, an entire village gains from the loss of the other town in the opportunity to host Jesus.

This continuity of viewpoint of the importance of the entire community is why in the Epistles the Apostles may address letters to individuals but they are always mindful of speaking to the entire body of the faithful. This is also why even heaven where there is no flaw is nonetheless referenced and actually viewed in Revelation as a city, the New Jerusalem. There is a continual emphasis at every level that salvation is not an individual matter, but one inexorably intertwined in the entire community.

So this is another thing you must keep in mind when thinking about “who goes to heaven?” God during the Old Covenant and Jesus in bringing the New Covenant never emphasized individual salvation: individual behavior, yes, individual judgment, yes…. But salvation and being God’s people is also linked to one’s role in the community of the faithful, and that does not mean only one’s fellow church attendees. God and Jesus Christ both demonstrate continuity throughout scripture of the importance of collective repentance, works and salvation within one’s local geographic, not ideologue, community. I cannot too strongly emphasize that the observant rich man went to hell even though he believed and also performed his perfunctory obligations, but missed in saving the poor man Lazarus, who was his community right outside his gate. Being a believer and perfunctory in one’s observance of God is not a guarantee of salvation as defined as being “exalted” to heaven if one has gotten to where one is by benefiting from or ignoring the prevailing sinfulness and inadequacy of one’s geographic community.

[Conclusion of Part Four].