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March 5, 2004
Each Friday's eMo is a meditation on a lectionary text for the upcoming Sunday's worship. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.


Lord, will those who are saved be few?
Luke 13:23

That is to say, will I be among them? I, and my family? My friend? Is it possible that someone I love will be consigned to the fires of Hell, leaving me to sing and feast my way through eternity without them?

Or -- far worse -- is it possible that it I am the one who will be left behind in anguish?

The walls of European cathedrals are literally plastered with scenes of the Last Judgment: frescoes are painted on the wet plaster, paint and plaster drying together, forming a bond more permanent than a mural painted on the dry surface of the wall. Everyone is there: Christ enthroned at the center, the righteous either clustered around him or close by to his right, singing. In older frescoes, the righteous are homogenous: identical people in identical clothing, singing identically. Sometimes later paintings contain actual portraiture: the faces of real people, recognizable to those who knew them -- doubtless the patrons of the artist and their families, rewarded for their generosity with orchestra seats in heaven. And there are the damned, either to the left of the throne or spilling down the wall to cover the bottom, tortured in a thousand imaginative ways by the demons of the nether world. Don't think there's not some portraiture there, too.

It was a comforting thought: by behaving myself, I can choose everlasting joy, heightened by the knowledge that those who oppose me will suffer terribly. All right. As a means of social control, it might have worked. People might have allowed their eyes to wander for a moment from what the priest was doing at the altar and fastened on a pair demons happily roasting some trussed sinner on a spit, and resolved with a shudder never to miss Mass again.

But I wonder: is fear of punishment the highest moral engine we possess? What kind of a person wants an enemy to remain an enemy, preferring his agony to his restoration? Could I really sing if I knew that others were screaming? Who am I, really, if I take a grim satisfaction in other people's getting what's coming to them, and if I attribute that satisfaction also to my God?

Each of us must ask ourselves who God is. Throughout our lives, we must ask, and we usually ask again and again. Our vision of God develops. Initially, we think that God is like us, mirroring our prejudices, a larger version of our vindictive selves. We search the scriptures for signs that this is so, and we always find the ones we want. God rewards and punishes with mathematical precision and temporal immediacy, we hope, raining down candy bars on the good and sciatica on the bad in predictable -- and preventable -- ways. We need not have observed much of life, though, to begin questioning this symmetry. It certainly doesn't work that way here on the earth.

And our experience here makes us wonder about life there. We have assumed that the sorting we do on earth is mirrored obediently in heaven, and that is probably not the case. We probably don't decide who is saved and who is damned. The righteous may not be as homogenous as they look in those ancient paintings. As we grow up, God becomes more mysterious and yet more loving, more present and yet more unknowable. We are sure of less and less. Heaven maybe a lot bigger than we thought; God certainly is.

And Hell may not exist. Alienation from God, and the alienation from other people it always carries with it, is not a place or a time. It is a condition. We can begin at any time to leave it behind. We need not stay there. We don't have to remain estranged.

Strive to enter by the narrow door, Jesus says. But when you get there, you might be surprised at who else is at the banquet.
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