“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Philippians 2:12-13
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Matthew 21:23
Jesus is pressed on his authority. Who gave him authority to speak and act as he did? God did. The God whom Jesus calls “Father” gave him the authority that we as Christians accept and believe. However the majority of humankind, down through the centuries, are quite different when it comes to matters of religion. The majority of humankind do not experience God, understand the works of God, pray to God, give a name to God the way we do who profess to be Christians.
Not that these others wouldn’t acknowledge the birth and death of Jesus Christ. Some do. Muslims, some Buddhists, and even some Jews, would readily acknowledge Jesus Christ to be a prophet, or a great moral teacher, but they would not ascribe his being the Lord and Savior of the world. That’s not going to change. I don’t think so. We Christians – this very diverse lot of people who identify ourselves as being followers of Jesus Christ – are a minority of the peoples who have populated the earth. We Christians always have been in the minority in this world which God so loves, and I suspect we always shall be a minority.
As Christians, we need to recognize “the Christ of culture.” Jesus Christ 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 Jesus Christ: access to education, health care, political reform, 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 that bear witness to Jesus. On and on it goes, some of it into our present times.
In our own generation, we know more than our forebears did about various missionary efforts and crusades down through the centuries to evangelize the “pagan masses.” Inevitably these well-intended missionary enterprises were packaged in the expatriates’ culture. In so many places, with the introduction of Jesus came imposed lifestyle changes in diet and dress and deportment, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad. The gospel has not always been good news. –You may know the story of the Eskimo hunter who went to see the local Christian missionary who had been preaching to his village. “I want to ask you something,” the hunter said. “What’s that?” the missionary said. The hunter said, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” the missionary said, “not if you did not know.” To which the Eskimo hunter replied, “Then why did you tell me?” (1)
As Christians we need to venerate, not just tolerate, the faith traditions that surround us in our world community. Dr. Joseph Hough, sometime president of Union Theological Seminary, said, “What is essential for the Christian faith is that we know we have seen the face of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is not essential to believe that no one else has seen God and experienced redemption in another place or time or way.” (2) Which is to say, we have no monopoly on God.
As Christians we acknowledge our own experience of God’s revelation. We as Christians believe that God became “incarnate” in Jesus Christ; God became a human being. God is absolutely sovereign. (3) That is, God is totally free, free even to be born and live among human beings as a fellow human being. God is free to do this. But why say that God’s freedom ends there? In Jesus Christ, God appeared in a particularly clear and ultimate kind of way. And yet, 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 diverse manners….” (4) In the words of John’s gospel, the wind – the Spirit of God – blows where it chooses….” (5) In the words of our Muslim sisters and brothers put it, “Allahu akbar!” which means not only “God is great!” but “God is greater!” “God has always had many witnesses.” (6)
For much of my life I presumed there was one message, one power, one salvation, one truth, one revelation that had been given, and on Pentecost that one message began being promulgated throughout the world in many languages. I don’t presume that any more. It’s simply too convenient. It leaves me presuming too much pompous insight about who God is and how God is at work. God has always been at work in various times and diverse places and ways and languages. And it is we who must become the linguists to learn of the greatness of God’s continuing revelation in this world. This is how we must “work out our salvation,” as St. Paul says. The truth is that God is always greater: certainly greater than the confines of our past experience. Our theology can describe our experience of God, but not prescribe who God may be or what God may do. So we pray that the eyes of our heart be enlightened, to use language from the Letter to the Ephesians, “to have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” (7) That love of Christ is meant to venerate and liberate others, not incarcerate them just to our own experience.
Momentarily we will be invited to profess our Christian faith, using the words of the Nicene Creed.
- The Creed begins, “We believe.” We. We who believe as we do, meanwhile recognizing that many people in our world don’t believe as we do. And that’s largely due to enculturation and revelation.
- We believe in one God. We presume that one God is at work in this very diverse world among every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. (8) One God at work according to God’s good pleasure.
- And we are saying, “we believe.” The words “believe” and “belove” come from the same etymological root. To believe, to belove is language of the heart, more than language of the head, and certainly not language of the fist. We believe, by God’s grace. To this we give our whole heart.
In Iran, carved on the walls of a Christian church, are the words of the great 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi:
“Where Jesus lives, the great-hearted gather.
We are a door that’s never locked.
If you are suffering any kind of pain,
stay near this door. Open it.”
This is what we witness in Jesus: the door of his heart open wide for everyone. (9)
- Annie Dillard tells this story in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
- James C. Hough, Jr. (Source unknown.)
- Hebrews 1:1.
- John 3:7ff.
- 1 John 2:1-2 – “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
- Quoted from Ephesians 1:18; 3:18-19.
- A riff on Revelation 7:9.
- John 10:16 – “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
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