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How I became a Universalist and found Jesus on the way

July 2nd, 2023

Erika Webb

Henri Nouwen said that the mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God so let me start with a short prayer:

"Blessed be the Word, the mouth that speaks, the ears that hear, the minds that understand."

I came to Community United Church of Christ 20+ years ago when I was trying to find a spiritual home that would fit both me and my children. I was raised Unitarian Universalist in Wheaton IL, which if you aren’t familiar, is the home of Wheaton College – motto “For Christ and His Kingdom” and it was 2 blocks from my house. Billy Graham went to Wheaton College and it’s the home of the Billy Graham Center. That center used to have a room where you could listen to famous Evangelical Preachers speak. There was also a model of Heaven. As I remember it, you walked up a ramp shaped like a cross and covered in brown carpet to a light that opened onto a room full of mirrors reflecting clouds going on forever. It also played Vivaldi on a loop.

I’m told it’s no longer there…

On my way to grade school and junior high, I had to pass through the Wheaton college campus. More times than I care to remember, some young earnest college student would fall in line with me and ask me “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?”

That might seem funny to imagine a perfect stranger walking up and asking you that, but trust me, that was totally common in Wheaton.

And even at a young age, I was a little flummoxed. Because I didn’t think I needed saving. I mean, I wasn’t perfect but I worked hard to be good to others, do volunteer work, do good deeds. I was even a candy striper, volunteering in the nursing home and hospital in my home town for free. So when they would further explain to me that I was a horrible sinner in need of redemption, I was… confused.

I didn’t feel like a horrible sinner.

I was also confused about how all I had to do to avoid Hell, was to say “Yes! I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior”. Perhaps I was thinking too hard about that but I didn’t think just saying some words without some action behind them meant too much.

The UU church I grew up in was pretty tame when it came to God and Christianity. Although it was UU, we sang the Song of Praise and Doxology every Sunday that we’re singing today. It was written by Dr. Charles Lyttle who was a minister in the church I grew up in from the 1920s to the 1960s. He wrote the doxology to combine the theists and the humanists within that church.

When I moved here to Boulder, I discovered 2 UU congregations in town. One was decidedly Humanist, very academic, where the God part wasn’t given much attention. The other was much more touchy-feely, more heart than brain. And neither of them quite felt right, coming from an old New England style of UU church. But I tried to make it work.

At one point, I tried to start a Bible Study at the UU Church because I realized I had never read much of the Bible and this was a disciplined way to dig into it. References to bible stories are all over culturally; in the media, in ads, in tv shows. But while some were interested, someone in the congregation told me outright that if I was interested in Christianity, I should go to a Christian church. This was where I was struggling. I was too Christian (or at least Christo-curious) for the UU Church, and not Christian enough for the other churches we looked at.

Around that time, my Dad started telling me about his Grandmother, who was a Universalist. In many UU churches, including the one I grew up in, there’s a lot of focus on the first U, Unitarianism. But not a lot on the Universalist side of things. I realized I really didn’t know a lot about the Universalist church, it’s history, it’s beliefs. In the mid-1800s, it was said that the Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them, while the Unitarians believed they were too good to be damned. All I knew was that there was a concept of Universal Salvation, and since Salvation was the sticky word for me, I never really looked into it. The Universalists believed in a salvation that meant no one can be eternally separated from God. I decided I needed to learn more about the Universalists in America.

That led me to Hosea Ballou, an early American Universalist. Ballou wrote that as finite creatures human beings are incapable of offending an infinite God. He said that the death of Jesus Christ as designed to appease an angry God was the wrong way of thinking about it–he replaced it with the idea that God is a being of eternal love who seeks the happiness of his human children. Ballou was convinced that once people realized this–that God loved them unconditionally, they would take pleasure in living a moral life and doing good works. When I was talking to my father about this, he told me that his Grandmother believed that if you were a nasty person, you were already suffering, but that if you were a good person, treated other people well, you were living your reward now because you would be happier and more fulfilled. Your relationships would be good.

At the point that Ballou was writing and preaching, Unitarians had a concept of "Salvation by Character" that led them to urge individuals to work on self-culture, striving for the moral life. Ballou's response was to stress the love of a God who had determined to save all human beings, regardless of their success or failure in attempts to live the moral life. To me, this was an interesting distinction because I remember someone asking me how many good deeds were enough? I didn’t think it was a scale with good deeds on one side and bad deeds on the other, but I could see how you could think that.

In an address before the Universalist General Convention, held in Boston in 1851 Ballou summed up his belief in a God who, as a Father, loves all his children: "Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it, and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, Did you wash it because you loved it?"

In other stories, he made clear that if you were not a good person, why wouldn’t God, as unconditional Love, cleanse you instead of punish you? Ballou argued that things were backward: It was humanity that needed to be reconciled to God, not God to humanity. Ballou believed that when humanity became convinced of God's eternal love for his children, and his determination to save all souls, evil would be overcome and life on earth would be transformed.

Ballou argued that this atoning spirit of love was available to all people, irrespective of "names, sects, denominations, people, or kingdoms, not just Christians. A loving God wouldn’t send his children to eternal punishment. No sin was that great; salvation was universal.

There’s a story that Hosea Ballou argued with a Methodist colleague over the issue of eternal damnation.

The Methodist asserted, “if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven!”

To which Ballou answered, “If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you!”

So now I had a picture of a God who I didn’t need to be a sinner in need of redemption in front of. Let’s go back to the Scripture from today:

5 But I trusted in your steadfast love;

my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

6 I will sing to the Lord

because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Your steadfast love. Unconditional Love.

I’m sure you have probably run across a red-letter bible, but the red-letter Bible puts things Jesus is supposed to have said in red letters. The first one was published in 1899. Did you know some of this maps back to what is now called The Jefferson Bible? Since it’s a good week to talk about Thomas Jefferson, I thought I would tell you about how Jefferson put together a book called “the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” which was literally a cut and paste book–he cut out of a bible only the things about Jesus and what Jesus said so that he’d end up with only Jesus. Jefferson wrote to John Adams about this project in 1813:

“We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus ... there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book and arranging the matter which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dung-hill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages.”

It should be noted that Jefferson didn’t intend to publish this octavo, saying:

“I not only write nothing on religion, but rarely permit myself to speak on it.”

I started to realize that if I concentrated on just the Gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels, a Jesus that spoke to me appeared. A Jesus who was talking about leading a good life, looking within for the Kingdom of Heaven and making it happen here on Earth. A Jesus who didn’t claim to be God or divine. A version that ends only with “Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden was a new sepulchre, wherein there was never man yet laid. There they lay they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

Jesus said things like:

Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone takes away what is yours, do not ask for it back again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.

Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.

The Kingdom of God comes not at some future time

You cannot point out the sign of its coming

The Kingdom of God comes not at some special site

You cannot point out the place of its coming

The Kingdom of God is already here, among you, now

Ask and receive

Seek and find

Knock and the door opens wide before you

That last part– enlightenment is within you, in your heart, and your spark of God has always been there. Jesus was telling us the Kingdom of God is here, or could be if we live like it is. He also talked about how if we, all of us, start living like this, it will grow and spread through the world.

Jesus talked in the parables about how the Kingdom of God or The Kingdom of Heaven will grow. I remember hearing a sermon years ago about the parable of the mustard seed. It’s tiny. And it’s incredibly invasive. Did you know parts of California are being overwhelmed by wild mustard right now? Once it takes root, especially in an area with houses made out of desert sand and mud brick, a single mustard seed could destroy the foundation of your whole house.

In Mark, Jesus says about the Kingdom of Heaven “It's like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, though it is less than all the seeds that are on the earth, yet when it is sown, grows up, and becomes greater than all the herbs, and puts out great branches, so that the birds of the sky can lodge under its shadow.”

If we all live like it, the Kingdom of God will take over and grow to something huge. And like Ballou said, when humanity becomes convinced of God's eternal love for his children and his determination to save all souls, evil will be overcome and life on earth will be transformed. This atoning spirit of love was available to all people, irrespective of names, sects, denominations, people, or kingdoms. So let’s all work to bring the Kingdom of Heaven here by living like it is.

Let it be so.

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