Are Jews Going to heaven? What about my friend who was a pious teenager but has lost his way? How about my father who lived a good life but committed suicide?
These questions are as tragic as they are common. They seem to be on the hearts and minds of almost every believer I interact with, yet they flow as a tragic consequence of recent church History. Yet, they are solved quite elegantly by Downton Abbey.
For those of you who have ignored the Downton-shaped hole inside each of our entertainment spirits, the show is about the lives of the family and staff of an English Lord at the turn of the century (19th to 20th). The previous era was one in which there were firm walls between the staff and family. Though they shared space, they lived in two different worlds with the staff constantly serving every whim of the family with no real relationships between them.
Over and over again, the show puts on screen characters who are hopelessly bound to the old era’s strict, clear wall between the classes, but the family and staff at Downton are in the middle of the delicate process of taking down the wall. There are moments where huge portions of the wall fall like when Sybil, the daughter of the Lord, marries an Irish revolutionary who is their chauffeur.
Then there are moments when it is taken down a brick at a time like when the Lady of the house says to the head housemaid who is fearing cancer that, “if you are ill, you are welcome here for as long as you want to stay. Lady Sybil will help us to find a suitable nurse. I don’t want you to have any concerns about where you’ll go or who’ll look after you. Because the answer is: here and we will.”
What was a bounded system that was focused on making a clear delineation between who’s in and who’s out begins to focus more on the wellbeing of the estate as a whole.
Alan and Debra Hirsch, brilliant missional thinkers, explain in their book Untamed that the Church is in the exact same place. For a long time, we have existed in what he describes as a theological bounded set. A lot of thought, time and communication has focused on understanding where the line between Christian and non-Christian exists, and exactly how one crosses that line.
Hundreds of books and thousands of rallies have been held focusing on this line. Though understanding what it means to be a Christian is important, the focus on making a clear in/out distinction ends up having some negative consequences. When all that time is spent on the wall between Christians and Non-christians, what is within that wall (namely Jesus and every aspect of the faith) takes a back seat. And what is on the outside of that wall (namely those who do not know Jesus) are more separated from what’s inside. Hirsch describes it as having a hard edge and a soft center.
What’s more, when Jesus talks about this wall, he constantly explains it in ways that say that in heaven, there will be a lot of people there that you never thought would be there. Likewise, there will be a whole lot of people not there that you thought would be there.
The solution according to Hirsch? Take down the wall. Instead of spending all your time on deciding who is in and out, spend that time on lifting up the teaching and person of Jesus. With Jesus as the focus, our call to the world is the same as Jesus own call: follow him.
This opens Christianity up to everyone. You do not have to be in some certain proximity to Jesus, you don’t have to have your life together, you don’t even have to have attended a Christian rally. You merely have to turn to Jesus. Wherever you are. Whoever you are. Then, follow him. And that next step, the step of following, is totally different for a buddhist in Thailand, a rock star in Ireland, and a minister in Alabama. A different step, but the same action: following Jesus.
Who is a Christian? The people who follow Jesus. Who goes to heaven? The people who follow Jesus. Who gets to make the call of who is following Jesus? Me.
Actually, the opposite of that. No one gets to make that call. The determination of who is following Jesus is something that only Jesus himself can decide, and I am so glad he takes that off my shoulders.
That means its time to stop arguing about once saved always saved. It’s time to stop arguing about infant baptism. It’s time to stop arguing about last rights, and start talking about Jesus. Start sharing his message of love, peace, grace, and repentance. It’s time to start calling the world to follow its savior.