When the angel announced good news of great joy for all people, the angel opened the door for a feisty conversation about who’s in and who’s out of God’s family. That conversation has been fueled by arrogance and fear, and given birth to violence and hatred, as religious wars and posturing in things likes Crusades, colonialism, and genocide, have all been carried out by people with great big Bibles.
So let’s take a moment and consider what, perhaps the angel meant by the phrase “for all people”, based on what the Bible says.
Here’s the thing:
Jesus is the only door. – That’s what Jesus himself says here, and so this is a repudiation of any sort of bland universalism which dismisses the central role of Christ in the restorative narrative of history.
God has applied the work of Christ to those who don’t know Christ’s name but have faith in what God has revealed. – We learn this from the entire Old Testament narrative, believing of course, that Abraham is in God’s family, and Moses, and the children of Israel who put the blood of animals on their doors and, we read, were drinking from Christ without knowing his name!
God’s historically been more generous regarding salvation than God’s people have been. This was part of what made Jesus’ message so scandalous. His first evangelists were chosen from the lowest social class. The 2nd evangelist was, from the perspective of insider religionists, a hated Samaritan, living with a man after five failed marriages. Jesus speaks of outsiders dining at the kingdom table with insiders being cast out. Jesus first speech spoke of the inclusiveness of his kingdom plans and nearly got him killed. If God’s been more generous than religious experts, and I’m a religious expert, at the very least I need the humility to acknowledge that maybe I too am at risk of being pre-emptively judgmental, and asking God to spare me from that ugly sin.
Since I know Christ and love Christ, I’ll preach Christ and invite people to Christ – I think Jesus is fantastic. His ethics are stunningly beautiful, resonating with the deepest longings of the human heart, even though there are big and small parts of us that recoil at them too, or try to explain them away. His companionship is more intimate than the most intimate lover, in that he lives within all who’ll let him. This has provided me with a source of joy, strength, hope, wisdom, that is wholly from him. To the extent that I’ve drawn on that companionship and those resources, I’ve never regretted it. And finally, the kingdom he’s creating is where I’m pinning all my hopes for the future. With every report from Syria, every school shooting, every report of human trafficking or oppression, remind me that the only hope is this new king and his marvelous power to bring life where there’s only death. This is glorious, and why I do what I do.
There’ll be surprises. I’m convinced that every person’s formula of “what’s required” for salvation will be wrong. There’ll be people, we know from this passage, who did great stuff, but didn’t pursue intimacy with Christ. There’ll be others who are invited in precisely because they did good stuff and in so doing blessed and served Jesus, as we learn here. Some will never have heard the name Jesus and be at the table. Others will have preached the Bible their whole lives, perhaps, and miss it. There are markers, and a clear invitation for all of us to know Christ, be reconciled to God, and follow Jesus daily. But if you try to figure it out with total precision who’s in and out, you’re on a fools errand, and you’ll be wrong, whatever your conclusion. So relax.
I won’t try to save anyone. I’ll simply point people to Christ as the greatest hope for this tired and broken world, and invite people into God’s story, starting today, right where they’re at. Hopefully, along the way, I’ll look and behave a little bit like the Jesus who lives in me, so that some generosity, hope, mercy, truth telling, joy, healing, come about. That will be good.
For all people… wow! Merry Christmas.