In the Psalm appointed for today – Psalm 47, which we have just sung – we proclaim that “the Lord , the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth….” If you were of the Jewish faith, you would acknowledge the truthfulness of this testimony, that “the Lord , the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth….” And if you were of the Muslim faith, you would acknowledge that there is One God ruling over the earth and heavens. In all three Abrahamic traditions: the agreement that there is One God, about whom there is great disagreement. You need only look in the phone book Yellow Pages of this area to see the diversity of faith traditions in greater Boston . We know that there is enormous diversity of belief between these religious traditions and even within these various traditions. (We who call ourselves “Episcopalians” certainly know of late that there is some significant diversity of beliefs within our own tradition!) Are we all talking about the same God? It depends. On the most obvious level, it depends what you believe.
We could read the Qur’an as saying “No, not the same God.” The Qur’an proclaims: “The true religion with God is Islam” and “Today I have perfected your religion for you, and I have completed My blessing upon you, and I have approved Islam for your own religion.” [i] And likewise, in John’s gospel we hear Jesus saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” [ii] This is Jesus speaking, the one whom we Christians call “the Savior of the world” which God so loves. [iii] Most of the people on the face of the earth don’t believe this statement of Jesus, or at least they don’t know that they believe this. Most people down through history, including the present, have not called themselves “Christian.” Some of them would acknowledge the birth and death of this Jesus. Some, among them Jews and Muslims and even Buddhists, would respectfully acknowledge Jesus to be a prophet or a great moral teacher, but they would not ascribe his being the Lord and Savior of the world. And I don’t think it will ever be otherwise. We who identify ourselves as being “Christian” are a small minority of the peoples who have populated the earth.
I’ll say more about how Jesus is “the Christ of culture.” Jesus was born in a particular time, of a particular race and gender and religion, informed by certain cultural norms and world views… as is true for all of his followers during the last 2,000 years. We can look back on history and see how the propagation of the Christian faith has been as glorious as it has been scandalous. An incalculable amount of good has been shared with the world in the name of Christ – access to education, health care, economic development, political reform, courts of justice. And, parallel to this, an incalculable amount of bad has also been promulgated by Christians – crusades, pogroms, racism and slavery, the economic exploitation of the developing world, the oppression of women and minority peoples. An amount of this sacrilege has supposedly been justified by the very scriptures which bear witness to Jesus. On and on it goes, as you would know, and some of it into our present times. We know more than our forebears did how missionary efforts toward the evangelization of the “pagan masses” inevitably were packaged in the expatriates’ culture. In so many places, with the introduction of Jesus came imposed and expected lifestyle changes in diet and dress and deportment, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad.
If we’re going to face the question whether Jesus Christ is Savior of the world, it seems to me important for us to fess up to what we know about the world. That untold masses of people have lived and now live who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ. They do not know his promises, and they have died or will die not consciously having received the salvation Jesus speaks about. Others will have heard about Jesus Christ through people who call themselves his followers. Mahatma Gandhi, who was very familiar and revering of the Christian scriptures, was reportedly asked by some Christian missionaries what he thought about Christians. Gandhi responded that he very much hoped some day to meet one…. For some, down through the ages and even in today’s headlines, their experience of Christians and Christianity has been more of oppression than liberation, having been tortured or abused or simply confused by those who call themselves faithful followers of Jesus Christ. For those who die in that state of desolation or incarceration or obfuscation, what is to be said? Are all these “lost” and not “saved”? Are those who are not exposed to Jesus Christ or who are blinded from knowing the true Jesus, sometimes by his very followers, fated to live out an eternity condemned and separated from God? I want to believe not.
As Christians we say that God became “incarnate” in Jesus Christ, that is, that the God of Gods became a human being. But I think we would never want to say that God is incarnate in Jesus alone, but simply that in Jesus Christ, God appeared in a particularly clear and ultimate kind of way. But God’s revelation and incarnation are not in any way limited to Jesus Christ. God’s revelation and incarnation are of the warp and woof of human history. The God who faces us and speaks to us in Jesus Christ is the same God who had already spoken and who continues to speak (as the King James’ Version says): “at sundry times and in divers manners….” [iv] God has always had many witnesses.
Some years ago I spent the better part of an afternoon alongside an old Navajo woman with a creased face and a soft voice. We sat together on the ground of her reservation in New Mexico. She was a potter, and she talked with me about what she called the Great Spirit, as she molded dark clay with her weathered hands. She spoke slowly but with a kind of authority that was absolutely charismatic. She in no way professed to be Christian. Her religious faith was that of her native ancestors. For this woman, her very life and all the sacred earth had come about through the Great Spirit, and it would all return to this same Spirit. And I knew that I was on holy ground as I sat in the presence this luminous woman. Though we used different names for our experience of the Holy One, I believe we shared a revelation from the same God, whom we loved and longed for. I knew it was the same God. (I would imagine that many of us here have had such experiences.) I have had similar experiences of revelation in contacts with Jews and Buddhists and Hindus. And I have met this same revealing God through the skill of artists – through their creation of music and poetry and painting and photography. The same God, I would say.
As a Christian I want to believe that though God revealed God’s own self with a kind of clarity and fullness and in the person of Jesus Christ, God’s witnesses have lived throughout the ages, before Christ and since, and whether they knew it or not. And I would say that we see the ultimate evidence of God’s manifold witnesses, down through the ages and into the present, most particularly in one way, the common denominator for us all. And that is love. [v]
Where love is, there is God. Where there is any love at all, there we see the life and witness of God which I (as a Christian) see revealed most supremely and uniquely through the person of Jesus Christ. [vi] So much of the world – before and now – does not know this name Jesus Christ. But in every culture, in every age, there has been the witness of love, seen in the very youngest, up to the very oldest, in the most wonderful settings and also in the most sorry of conditions. We hear in the First Letter of John, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” [vii] I would say that the One God is drawing the whole world to himself, for the love of it. God is certainly not in a rush.
If we as western Christians have anything of value to share now with the world, it is not military prowess or economic opportunism or even democratic principles. I would say that the most valuable thing that we as Christians have to share with the world now is love. If we take on missionary enterprises to the far ends of the world, or simply to the end of the block, the only witness that will have integrity is the love of God. To love as God loves, at least to desire to love as God loves: with a kind of self-effacing, self-spending, all-including generosity, to friend and foe alike. If my motive for witnessing to others about this One God is to reform another’s behavior, or to hope that they will believe as I do, I would say that is widely missing the mark. If my motive for witnessing to others about this One God is even in the hope of saving them from the fires of hell, I have already passed judgment on them and done exactly what we have commended by Jesus not to do: not to judge. [viii] What we as Christians have to witness is the love of God, without strings. The love of God, shone into our hearts, which we reflect like a mirror outward. What that love would actually look like depends on a myriad of variables. But I would say, for starters, that we be quick to listen to others’ experience, especially those whom we find “different”; that we hesitate before we speak or draw conclusions; and that we avoid the temptation to stereotype, which is oftentimes a convenient and self-serving form of judgment. And I would say we have a great deal to learn from other people – especially those of other religious traditions – about their own experience of the love of God, the majesty and wonder and glory and service of God.
I would say that God is in no way limited to any form or language or creed or time to speak to us or through us. How God works, where God works, when God works, be it in time as we know it, or in time which is forever God’s alone, that is up to God. I want to believe that God will win out. That Jesus, in bursting through the gates of hell, has forever undone the finality of condemnation. I want to believe that God’s love is ultimately irresistible. And if the children of God (I mean, all people) are not lured by the love of God in this life, we will be lured by the love of God in whatever the life is to come, whether we call that place purgatory or hell or whatever. [ix] God is a patient God, long-suffering, full of compassion and abounding in mercy [x], a God who in no way is limited by form or language or creed or time.
I say that I want to believe this because (I have to tell you) I’m not really sure about this. I say that I want to believe this – that everyone has been created in the image of God, that God’s love is irresistible and unlimitable – because I find that if I don’t hold to this, I could easily be tempted some days to offer my judgment on who’s “in” and who’s “out,” who I deem worthy or unworthy of God’s love and God’s life because of how they look or talk or act or believe. On a bad day, I might even be tempted to think that an irritating person who crosses my path, a co-worker, a family member, a fellow passenger on the subway is simply an avoidable and temporary irritation instead of someone created in the very image of God, someone whom God desires to share eternity… and with me. Everyone is a neighbor, sooner or later. I want to believe that, lest I construct a metaphysic that revolves around me and looks an awful lot like me and my own kind. When our theology, our Christian theology, moves beyond de scribing our own experience of God to pre scribing what God may or may not do or be or become, then we have created a God in our own image, a God who is far too small for this very complex world.
Is Jesus the Savior of the world? Yes. That is how I would express my theology, simply because I am a Christian. I would say that Christ is slowly drawing the world into himself. This world, the galaxies, the suns, the planets in their courses, is beyond measure and limit, created by the One God who is not confined by time or language or creed, and whose lure is ultimately irresistible. In the gospel lesson appointed for today, we hear Jesus’ prayer to the God whom he calls “Father,” that we all be one. [xi] Let the kingdom come. Let us pray and practice our Christian faith in accord with Jesus’ own prayer, that we all be one. Let the kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
[i] The Qur’an 3:17 and 5:5, quoted from “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?” by Lamin Sanneh of Yale Divinity School in The Christian Century ( May 4, 2004 , Vol. 121, No. 9), p. 35.
[ii] John 14:6.
[iii] John 3:16f.
[iv] Hebrews 1:1.
[v] Note Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
[vi] I have drawn an amount of insight and inspiration from The Interpretation of Religion , by John Baillie ( New York : Charles Scribner’ Sons, 1928), pp. 459-470.
[vii] See 1 John 4:7-21 “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also….”
[viii] See Matthew 7:1-5 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get….”
[ix] This is very similar to the doctrine, known as apocatastasis , which holds that hell is temporal and purgative and that in the end all beings will be saved, i.e., all moral creatures – angels, humans, devils – will share in the grace of God’s salvation ultimately.
[x] Psalm 86:15.
[xi] John 17: 20-26.
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