Born at Elstow in Bedfordshire in 1628, John Bunyan was largely self-educated and used the Bible as his grammar. He read very few other books, and they were all piously Protestant in nature, yet he produced Pilgrim’s Progress, probably the most original text of spiritual genius that century, telling the story of the man Christian on his journey through life to God. It was not written while he was a prisoner in Bedford gaol, as often stated, but during a confinement some years later. History tells us little of the man but what is clear from his writings is that the salvation of the soul was what mattered most to him. He died on this day in 1688.
Hebrews 12. 1-2
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
When I was teenager, I was told that the most important question I could ask myself was, “If I died tonight, where would I be?” That’s a very Bunyanesque question. His greatest literary work, The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come, is an allegory of the journey to find salvation. The allegory’s protagonist, Christian, is an “everyman” character, and the plot centres on his journey from his hometown, the “City of Destruction” (this world), to the “Celestial City” (that which is to come: Heaven) atop Mount Zion. Christian is weighed down by a great burden—the knowledge of his sin—which he believed came from his reading “the book in his hand” (the Bible). Christian leaves his home, his wife, and children to save himself: he cannot persuade them to accompany him.
It isn’t, however, a Jesus-shaped question. Jesus did not come to “show us the way to heaven”; he came to bring heaven down to earth. Salvation, for Jesus, is not about escaping from this world, but about transforming it into what he called, “The Kingdom of God”. When God’s will is done as perfectly on earth as it is presently done only in heaven, this world will be all that God intended it to be, and it will be sheer heaven!
Far from a call to abandon friends and family and “save yourself”, Jesus made how we treat one another – particularly the most vulnerable and needy – as the criterion for how God will judge us.
Not giving up on the world, but doing everything necessary for its salvation – even if it means handing over God’s own son to murderous, hate-filled humanity: that is the God revealed to us in our Bible. And that is what the “great cloud of witnesses” are there to tell us. They remind us that God is loose in our world – even when God seems most invisible, and we are most convinced that we are abandoned to our pain and despair. Hanging on to that promise and living by it, however unlikely it seems: that is what the writer calls “faith”.
Sin is living by the apparent “evidence” of our experience that God is not here; does not care; that there is no Easter Sunday. That evidence is provided in abundance by our media. When we’re most tempted to give up: that is when we must look again at Jesus and keep on keeping on.
Like Christian, O God, I am a pilgrim. Lead me, not out of your world, but into it. Show me the places where you are at work; the people among whom you live and move. Teach me to recognise you in them. Teach me your compassion and love. Open my eyes and ears. Transform my heart. Open my hand and my wallet.
As I die to myself and my own safety and comfort, show me the Spirit-Life you yearn to give me. Show me, too, the ways in which I can bring that same Life to others.
Through your Holy Spirit living and working in me, may my being and my actions make a Jesus-shaped difference … for Christ’s sake! Amen.
Lawrence Moore is a church mission and discipleship consultant, and attends Worsley Road United Reformed Church in Salford.