Often discussions about universal salvation get bogged down in things like the meanings of particular words and the correct interpretation of certain Bible verses. Duelling lexicons, clash of the commentaries. If universalism is just an alternative intellectual framework, what's the point? If we remain as exclusive and dogmatic in our practice as we ever were, then no-one's gained by the change.
I've been thinking, then, about how a universalist faith affects our lives. How should it change the way we relayed God and one another?
Perhaps, for instance, we might pray Lord's Prayer a little differently.
Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name.
God is righteous and powerful but his righteousness and power are shown above all in love. We come before God in full confidence. Certainly we have shame and perhaps, because of that, some trepidation. But we need not fear, either for ourselves or for our loved ones. We know that whatever punishment we receive will only be for the purpose of our and God's greater joy.
As we see this love and compassion of God and praise it, our greatest praise will be our desire to emulate it. Jesus asks us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We earnestly want to love as he does.
Your Kingdom come, your will be done
On earth as in heaven.
In desiring God's Kingdom to come we pray fervently for the reconciliation of all things and all people. God's Kingdom doesn't rule by the sword and crush its enemies, it rules by the word of love and is reconciled with its opponents. This includes those of other faiths, those of no faith and those that hate faith.
We don't just wait for this Kingdom in heaven, we work for it and try to bring it about here on earth. We pray for the strength and wisdom to bring God's inclusive, all-embracing Kingdom into our daily lives, to see his face in everyone we encounter, to know, "here is someone God loves without fail".
Give us today our daily bread.
When we pray the word "us" we should see not just our family, our tribe, our nation, our fellow Christian, but God's "us". God's universal love is not a theoretical construct, it has urgent practical implications.
Many of God's beloved children do not have enough to eat, clothes to wear, a safe home to sleep in. This is not the way of God's Kingdom! As we pray for the Kingdom to come, so we will do all in our power to ensure the fair distribution of his good things to his beloved children. All of them.
Forgive us our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Once again, when we pray that "our" sins be Forgiven, the "us" is as inclusive as God makes it. We confidently ask God to forgive humankind our many sins, knowing that he wishes it and will do it.
Not least of the sins which require forgiveness is our own unrelenting thirst for revenge. When we pray for the grace to forgive those who sin against us we don't only mean those who have slighted us in everyday life - our over-bearing boss, our schoolyard rival, the sibling with whom we have argued. We also mean those who want to kill us, or dominate us - the terrorist who explodes a bomb in the heart of our city, the enemy soldier who plunders our countryside and overthrows our government, the drug runner who exploits and destroys our vulnerable young people, the paedophile who preys on our children.
This forgiveness is hard and costly. It is easy to recommend it to others but deep hurt is not easily erased We should not waste time pointing out the speck of unforgiveness in our brother or sister's eye, we should concentrate on the log in our own. This is why we need to pray for it in the same breath that we remind ourselves of God's forgiveness and what it cost him.
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.
We know that we can only stay away from evil with God's help. On our own we are selfish, tribal, unforgiving, dictatorial. We punish those who are not like us, and try to make the world in our own image, imagining ourselves to be God. We even try to make God in our own image.
We beg God to spare us from our own unkindness, our own desire for dominance, our own selfishness.
It is only with God's help that we can truly pray this prayer, and mean it as Jesus meant it. It is a hard prayer, a challenging prayer, a prayer the fulfilment of which would turn our world upside down.
Do we truly desire God's inclusive Kingdom, or a little principality of our own?
Do we want all God's children to be filled, or are we happy for Lazarus to starve outside our gates as long as we and ours eat our fill?
Do we love our enemies enough both to forgive them ourselves and to plead for them before God, or do we pray and work for their defeat and destruction?
Do we wish to be delivered from our sins, or do we love them and hold onto them as if they were God's own desires?
To some or all of these questions, if we are honest with ourselves, we will answer the second, not the first alternative. This is why we pray this prayer, not once for all time, but over and over, knowing that one day in God's good time it will be fulfilled and we will not need to pray it ever again.
For the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
Now and forever.