I have a friend who has shared with me that she has problems with the number of us preachers who make reference to "the God we believe in" as if there is more than one God. And she has a valid point.
However, I had an experience this week which made me reflect yet again on the importance of defining "The God we believe in." Even among those of us who believe in The One God--the Abrahamic God of Scripture--we find a significant variation in the character of that God. So while we agree that there is One God, we disagree on who that God really is. What is God like? Does God change? Is God loving or is God angry? Both? Loving to some while angry at others? Mad at us all? Is this a God who sits on high and judges? Or a God who enters into our world and acts on our behalf? You could go on and on with the questions.
I actually preached a sermon in the traditional service about this issue last summer. But Wednesday, I had an experience which brought it home dramatically to me.
Now I've been officiating at funerals now for over 9 years. Before I went into the ministry, I worried about my ability to perform a funeral because it seemed so difficult. Then a pastor friend took me to a funeral (of another Christian tradition) that was so BAD that I knew I might not do a great job but I could do better than that! The service had nothing to do with the deceased but had everything to do with trying to convert the crowd. Now, I do believe that one of the greatest evangelism opportunities for pastors is a funeral. We touch the lives of more unchurched folks there then anywhere else (with the exception of weddings!). WE have the opportunity to be the church for them by being present in one of the darkest moments of their lives. And we can assure them not only of the gift of life beyond this one but the promise that the God that raises the dead can also bring new meaning to their lives NOW! But I've never felt it was the appropriate time for an altar call.
On Wednesday, I was asked to perform a Methodist memorial service for a 99 year old woman who had lived most of her life as a Christian Scientist. I felt it was important to acknowledge that fact and I did a quick internet search of Christian Scientists since I know nothing about them except they aren't fond of doctors. I did discover that they do believe in Christ (not an orthodox belief but a belief) and that they believe there is something beyond this life (actually apparently they believe this life is an illusion and so is death -- once again not an orthodox belief but a belief). So in my sermon, I made mention of her faith and what it held in common with ours. Since it was near All Saints, I talked about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and her presence in that cloud. I also mentioned that the family could take comfort in knowing that she was in the care of a loving God.
After the service, one of the family members came into the office and he was mad. He said he wanted to give me a quick lesson on Christian Scientists. "No Christ. No Science" and said he felt I had mislead the family by saying she was in the hands of a loving God. Where did I find that in Scripture?
Now this family member is from out of town and I doubt that he will be back for me to show him the Biblical justification for what I believe. But it reminded me that it really does matter what we believe about God. You see, I believe that the final judgment of what happens to us eternally is in God's hands. In fact, Jesus will do the judging. The one who died for us will be the one who decides our fate. That seems appropriate to me and personally I'm glad I don't have the job! And everytime I do a funeral I make some assumptions, because no matter how good or bad they may have acted I don't know what their relationship with God was really like. Nor do I know what may have happened between them and God in their final moments or days. In this instance, I was at the hospital a couple of hours before she died and I prayed that if there was any unfinished business between her and God that it be resolved. And from what I know about death physiologically and spiritually, there is a lot of room for God to work even when the person seems unresponsive to us.
I also believe (and her my visitor and others may disagree with me but this is what I believe) that Jesus will not judge us on our doctrine. Everything I read in Scripture indicates we will be judged on the way we lived our lives and none of us will score high enough on that exam to gain entrance to heaven --that is a gift from God. No I'm not a universalist--but that is a discussion for another day. I don't believe everyone will be in heaven, but I think God makes those distinctions not us and I don't think we will be judged on right doctrine but rather on right relationship.
But I think the most important distinction between my visitor's belief and mine had to do with the character of the God we believe in. Scripturally, I don't think anyone can argue that those who die go into God's care. Even if you believe they are going to be condemned to hell, they still have to stand before God. So the question is who is The God they will stand before. I believe they will stand before a God whose primary characteristic is love. Now that doesn't mean that he won't judge folks because love does make judgments. A loving God must judge those who hurt others. A loving God must say that sin is sin because sin hurt and kills. It is a false dichotomy to say that a loving God won't judge or a God who judges isn't loving. Nonetheless, the God I believe in is a loving God and in that case all who die are in the care of a loving God. I think that is the gospel--the good news of Jesus Christ--and that is something I will not cease to preach and to shout to the world!