Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, March 5, 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
I become nervous, and even a bit reticent, whenever I have to attend a funeral service led by an evangelical preacher. It is at funerals where the difference in our theologies is most pronounced. They believe in what is called particular salvation, meaning that only those who have made a personal commitment to Jesus are saved, and this may or may not include the recently deceased. The sermons are therefore an opportunity to preach the gospel and save as many other souls as possible. They can ethically do no other if they believe in particular salvation.
In contrast, the vast majority of United Churches believe in what is called universal salvation. When I conduct funerals, I use scripture readings, prayers and reflections that assure the grieving families that their beloved is now resting in peace with God. I can ethically do no other if I believe in universal salvation.
Last Sunday, we had a guest preacher from the Unitarian Universalist Church, who described the origin of their unitarian and univeralist beliefs. I responded that most United Churches could be described as Trinitarian Universalists. I’ll try to unpack this for us today. Handily, our two lectionary readings for this first Sunday of Lent offer us teachings about both the Trinity and universalism.
We’ll start with that rather confusing reading from Romans. Paul writes that Adam’s sin reflects the sin of every human being. In fact, the Hebrew name, Adam, literally means humanity. Paul then contrasts the sin of humanity with the free gift of grace given us through Jesus Christ. God took on the human form of Jesus to live with us, teach us, heal us, die for us and help us bridge this gap of sin to return to God again. That’s the particular type of salvation through Jesus Christ. But this passage from Romans doesn’t say that only those who believe in Jesus have eternal life. It says that the free gift of grace through Jesus leads to justification and life for all. This passage had led some theologians to a universal understanding of salvation, although still based on the particular gift of grace through Christ Jesus.
From its very inception, the United Church has recognized God’s general revelation in nature, in history and in the hearts of people. Through the grace of Christ Jesus, the United Church has claimed that all people are included in God’s generous gift of salvation. Then, in 1966, a document was written that radically changed the United Church’s understanding of universal salvation. It moved the United Church from an inclusive position to a pluralist position. In other words, The United Church began to officially recognize other faith traditions, in their own right, not necessarily based on the gift of grace through Jesus, as valid pathways to God. This was quite controversial, but eventually became our official position in interfaith documents.
What does this mean? For us, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God. But we also accept that for those in other religions, their faith is the fullest revelation of God for them. We believe that God’s unconditional love enwraps everyone. For me, this means that God’s universal grace is so much more expansive than we could ever imagine—perhaps even reaching to the 7 planets encircling Trappist-1!
As much as the United Church is officially universal in its view of salvation, it is also officially Trinitarian. Someone said to me last week, “That means that the Celts have won.” That’s why I wore my celtic cross over my alb today, in honour of the Celtic emphasis on the Trinity.
Even though the concept of the Trinity is not found in our Bible, there are many biblical stories and teachings that point to it. Our gospel lesson today is a great demonstration of the Trinity.
Last week we heard about the Arian heresy that denied the divinity of Jesus. Earlier than that, though, were the gnostic heresies that denied the humanity of Jesus. Our gospel lesson surely convinces us that Jesus was fully human. He experienced the human emotions and bodily sensations of fear, hunger, thirst, self-doubt and disillusionment. He also drew on divine wisdom and strength to understand and resist the root of these temptations. This is a story of Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity. It’s a story that explains how God, through the person of Jesus, fully understands our own challenges, offering compassion when we struggle with temptations and sometimes make poor judgements. It’s a story about grace.
Last summer our moderator, Jordan Cantwell, visited Fisher River Cree Nation, Stan McKay’s home. She has made it her priority to visit every Indigenous ministry in our church. One evening at Fisher River, she was talking with church members about respecting different spiritual traditions and how to overcome deeply entrenched divisions. A man spoke up. He said that for years he’d been holding on to deep resentment towards the church for its role in colonization and residential schools. He blamed the church and church people for a lot of the problems on the reserve. He said he was consumed by anger and bitterness. He felt it was poisoning him, so he decided to do something about it. His solution? He started going to church. He said, “I needed to get to know church people as people. It’s so easy to hate folks when you don’t really know them. What I discovered was a community of good people whom I now consider to be family.”
I think Jordan told me that this man followed Traditional teachings. He was not a Christian, and yet he taught the church about the meaning of Christ’s grace. He lived grace.
This is the Lenten challenge I offer to you. Let us try to live more fully in God’s grace.
There is a spiritual discipline called the Examen of Consciousness, which I’m trying this Lent as a way to help me live more fully in grace. St. Ignatius of Loyola, who lived in the 16th century (1491-1556), founded the Society of Jesus, also called the Jesuits. He proposed a daily exercise of discernment, which he called the Daily Examen or the Examen of Consciousness. This is how it goes:
At the end of each day, you are invited to reflect over the day and focus not on what went right or wrong, not on the failures of the day, but on moments when you were aware of God’s grace—moments when you were present to love—as well as those times when you were forgetful or distracted from love. The focus is not on accomplishments or mistakes; it’s on moments of grace, or its absence. As you recall these moments, notice the emotions, sensations and thoughts that arise. Let your attention then settle on one of these instances and look for God’s presence within it. Pray from this memory within that moment. When you are finished, release the day with gratitude and rest in God’s grace.
(Let me know if any of you would like to try this Lenten practice as well, and we can support each other.)
When we learn how to live more fully in God’s grace, it does spill over to others. Our ability to live gracefully depends less on external circumstances and more on our choices within those circumstances. There was a church leader who was stranded in an airport due to a snowstorm. The weather was so bad, that no one could even leave the airport for nearby hotels. They could hear the howling wind even from within the terminal. The marooned travellers desperately watched the screens as one flight after another was cancelled and the afternoon turned to evening. Frustration gathered into dark clouds hanging heavily over each head, with flashes of anger bursting forth.
Suddenly, the doors to the terminal flew open and in marched a Red Cross brigade with their white helmets and insignia. They carried blankets and cots and set up a table under an unfurled banner with a giant Red Cross over the words: “Help Found Here.” The travellers were astounded that, while other transportation had been grounded, these angels had somehow made it through the storm. The church leader noted that, as everyone began to make their way to the cross, the dark clouds dissipated into gratitude. Instead of sniping at one another, they began to help each other. Their situation had not changed, except for the promise of a slightly more comfortable sleep, but their disposition was radically transformed. They were now living in grace.
May it be so in our lives.
 General Council, “World Mission: Report of the Commission on World Mission,” (November, 1966).
The Moderator’s Christmas Message, December 2016 http://www.united-church.ca/news/moderator-christmas-story-unfolding