Scripture – Romans 12:9-18
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, October 4, 2015
When David Buschart was ten, he had a conversation with his mother about religion. The gist of it was that while his buddies were Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist, his mother described their family as "Just Christians." Later he observed a troubling pattern among different denominations. Nearly every Christian tradition tried to "claim the spiritual high ground as the genuine Church of Christ, unlike the other wannabes."1
"The Eastern Orthodox Church states that it alone is 'the one true church of Christ on earth.' In various times and ways, Roman Catholics have claimed that 'outside the (Roman) church there is no salvation.' In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII left no ambiguity in the matter when his papal bull stated, 'We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff'...Some Protestant denominations have inherited this superiority complex, splintering into endless new denominations, each one believing that it parses the truth better than the group they left."2
This has been one of the great failings of the Christian Church: one church after another declaring that it has cornered the market on truth and is the only authentic Christian body; all others are imposters.
In a world comprised of numerous cultures and races, and with people from such a variety of backgrounds and holding different perspectives, does it make sense that one expression of the faith would be adequate for everyone?
Mark Twain did not think so. He wrote, "I could have given my own sect the preference and made everybody a Presbyterian without any trouble, but that would have been to affront a law of human nature: spiritual wants and instincts are as various in the human family as are physical appetites, complexions, and features, and a [person] is only at his best, morally, when he is equipped with the religious garment whose color, shape and size most nicely accommodate themselves to the spiritual complexion, angularities, and stature of the individual who wears it. Besides I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it falls into selfish hands, as it is bound to do, it means death to human liberty, and paralysis to human thought."3
Today we peer at a passage from Paul's Letter to the Romans. This "book" of the Bible holds one of its greatest passages. In the eighth chapter, Paul writes that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. This assurance is something for every person to cherish. However, this love is not merely to be embraced. It is to be shared. As Paul says in today's reading: "Love one another with mutual affection."
Writing to a small community of faith in Rome, comprised of both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, he encourages them to build tight bonds with one another. Paul urges them to care for each other, to respect each other, to lean on each other, and to look out for each other.
Many of you have embraced Paul's words. You have been there for a fellow member when he lost his job or when she lost her husband. You have visited the person who can no longer drive, the one exhausted from chemotherapy, and the one whose memory has vanished. It is a beautiful expression of love when people care for their fellow brothers and sisters in the community of faith.
And, yet, Paul says that sharing love with fellow Christians does not fully express Christ-like love, so he expands the circle of love and concern. He counsels, "extend hospitality to strangers."
We who seek to follow Jesus are to be filled with his loving Spirit so that we can be open and welcoming to both friend and stranger. Many resist his advice because other voices warn them not to welcome the stranger, but to fear the stranger. Whether it is refugees fleeing for their lives or Muslims in the next town, we are told to beware of people unlike ourselves. The very fact that they are in some way different is given as reason enough to be suspicious of them and to draw a line between us and them. Paul says "Take that line and expand it into a circle that includes strangers.
Then, in verse 14, Paul boldly calls on us to expand the circle even further so that it not only includes strangers, but even enemies. Paul writes, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them." It sounds as if Paul had heard the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek. Paul embraces this counterintuitive logic that understands what many fail to comprehend. Returning evil for evil may satisfy an urge to get even, but it escalates the animosity which only widens the gulf between us and our enemy. Knowing that we cannot control how others will treat us, Paul adds this practical advice: "So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."
This is one of the immense challenges for people who follow Jesus. We are to do everything within our power to live peaceably with all.
Growing up in the church, I was taught that the Jews were God's chosen people, but after Jesus came, Christians superseded the Jews. That is, only those who believe in Christ are saved. Later, I learned that Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last great prophet, thus Muslims superseded the Christians. In each of these three faiths, the belief that "We are God's chosen and you are not" has had deadly consequences for centuries. It must end. People in each of these faith traditions can believe that their religion is the best path to God for them, but there are other traditions that are a better spiritual path for others.
As followers of Jesus, we have good news to share. However, we must also keep in mind that people of other faiths also have good news to share. We cannot simply tell others what we have discovered about the Creator and how to live a spiritual adventure that generates joy, purpose and hope. We must also listen to the truth and wisdom that others have discovered in their faith traditions. If we expect others to respect what we have to say, we must also respect what they have to say.
Faithfulness to Christ need not lead to an arrogant attitude toward other faiths. Faithfulness to Christ need not lead to self-righteousness. Faithfulness to Christ need not lead to closing our minds to teachings of other religions. Faithfulness to Christ need not lead to discriminating against all other faith traditions. Faithfulness to Christ ought to lead to openness to the wisdom of those religions that strive to live within the contours of justice and peace.
Every major religion has its version of the Golden Rule – to treat others as you want to be treated. Further, there are gems of wisdom in each of the enduring world religions that support the common good. However, even if you are so uncertain of your own faith that you feel threatened by another faith, there is no reason to condemn those who seek what is in harmony with the core teachings of Christ.
All religions are not the same and there are differences that need to be acknowledged. However, the conversation with those of other faiths needs to begin by affirming what we hold in common.
It seems increasingly apparent to me that there is a greater difference between people of faith and people of no faith, than between people of different faiths. Jews, Christians and Muslims all have their radical elements that try to impose their twisted theology on others – Christians who are anti-Semitic and threaten Jews, Jews who oppress Palestinian Christians and Muslims, and radical Islamists who terrorize anyone outside of their small circle. However, the core teachings of the Abrahamic faiths are the same – love, justice, forgiveness, generosity, concern for the poor and oppressed, and striving to live together in peace.
World Communion Sunday was adopted by several Christian denominations around the world 75 years ago. Its goal was to remind Christians from the numerous branches of Christianity of our unity in Jesus. It has never been fully successful because some branches arrogantly claim that they are the only true expression of Christianity and those who belong to other branches of the faith are not welcome at their table. While Presbyterians have an open table, we are excluded from the table of some Christians.
Despite the fractures within Christendom created by those who claim to be the only true believers, could it be time to transform the meaning of the term "World Communion?" As you know, the word "communion" has more than one definition. One meaning is the sacrament of the Church we also call the Lord's Supper which we will celebrate in a few minutes. Another meaning of "communion" is fellowship or a group with ties to one another. Rather than having the term "World Communion" point exclusively to the goal of unity among Christian Churches, could it include the goal of unity among people of all faith traditions? In this way, one weekend a year, people of different faiths would highlight the spiritual teachings we hold in common. It would celebrate the communion we share with people of faith around the world.
Every day our planet grows smaller as the free flow of information increases and people become more mobile. These forces can be harnessed to stoke suspicion of others and lead to divisiveness, or they can be directed toward empathy, understanding and appreciation of differences. Wendell Berry writes, "We can either befriend our enemies or we can die with them, in the absolute triumph of the absolute horror constructed by us to save us from them."
Will we hold before us a vision that leads to increased distrust, hostility, and violence, or will we hold before us a vision that leads to respect, healing and cooperation? It is not too dramatic to say that the future of our children and grandchildren hangs in the balance.
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