Monday, November 21, 2011

A Kingdom of Doers

Decades ago, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr drew a distinction between all of the world’s great religions. Some, mostly in the eastern tradition, believe that time is cyclical; that we keep repeating events over and over again. Others, especially religions that trace their lineage back to Abraham, believe that time is linear; that is has a beginning and is moving toward an end. Within the movement of time certainly there are events that seem to reoccur, as pointed out by the saying, “those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it.” But we Christians believe in a beginning - “And God said, ‘Let there be light’” - and we believe in an end when Christ “fills all in all” (as St. Paul put it in today’s second reading).

On this last Sunday of the Church year we celebrate the end of time by recognizing the eventual reign of Christ the King; a reign which we now know in part, but one day will experience in complete fullness. That day is not without its troubles. Our Old Testament and Gospel readings connect Christ’s Kingship with judgment; a judgment which Ezekiel proclaims will be between the fat sheep who used their power to dominate and the lean sheep who have been beaten down, broken, and scattered. If there is going to be a weighing of the haves and the have-nots, I am pretty confident my weight will tip the scales decisively toward have. The reality is this: if you have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep on at night, and one meal a day, then you are better off than 75% of the world’s population. You are a have.

But don’t worry, affluent Christians long ago took the faith down a path to help us put this out of mind. Rather than focusing on a judgment based on what one does with what one has, a second option emerged. This is a judgment based not on what one does, but on what one believes. At this kind of judgment you and I will be OK because we profess Jesus as Lord (whether we act like it or not), but those of other faiths will be in trouble because they don’t subscribe to the right ideas about God.
At a very early age I picked up in Sunday School that God used to love the Jews but, because they rejected Jesus, God rejected them. I was taught that now God loves Christians because Christians believe in Jesus. The fancy word for this kind of thinking is “Supersessionism” or “Displacement Theology.” It is the notion that Christianity has taken the place of Judaism as God’s chosen, covenant people.

It is a theology not limited to Sunday School classrooms being led by poorly trained volunteers. The historian Grover Zinn points out that several of Europe’s great cathedrals have stone carvings portraying the church and the synagogue as two paired female figures. One – the church – stands erect, often holding a chalice, with a crown firmly placed on her head. The synagogue figure is slumped over, blindfolded, with a fallen crown lying at her feet. It is a notion replayed over and over and over again in art and in literature, as well as in the teachings of the church at the highest levels. And it is a teaching limited not just to Judaism. The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church continues to maintain that other faith traditions are inferior to Christianity, and that the Christian traditions not in communion with Rome are heretical.

We have come a long way from the simple truth put forward by James:

My friends, what use is it for a person to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it? Can that faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is in rags with not enough food for the day, and one of you says, “Good luck to you, keep yourselves warm, and have plenty to eat,” but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is in itself a lifeless thing.

But one may object: “Here is one who claims to have faith and another who points to his deeds.” To which I reply, “Prove to me that this faith you speak of is real though not accompanied by deeds, and by my deeds I will prove to you my faith.”
(James 2:14-19)

So time marches on toward a time when Christ will be all in all. Jesus’ own parable tells us that of those drawn to Him there will be some who never recognized Him, yet never-the-less served Him by serving others. This suggests that our response to a world of many faiths is not to force orthodox conformity on others, but to encourage signs of love and compassion for all, especially toward the lean, the lost, the lonely, and the unloved.

As Christians, we acknowledge the Kingship of Christ in several ways; first, as witnesses. We can speak of the truth as we have received it, but more important, by living into the truth as we know it. Isn’t this what James encouraged us to do. In a dark world we are called to be the light of Christ in our own generation.

The second way we acknowledge the Kingship of Christ flows directly from this. We are called to be servants – feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, extending hospitality to strangers, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. There are as many ways to serve as need, pain, and brokenness are manifested in this world.
Another way we live into the Kingship of Christ is by partnering with people of other faith traditions as they seek to be servants also. In a global world so closely interconnected it is more important than ever that the Ecumenical Faith Community find tangible ways to bind us together in one human family working to meet the needs and challenges of the entire human family. Jesus did not say in today’s parable that when the Son of Man comes He will reward those people of faith who zealously protected their creedal turf. He will reward those who showed compassion to others.

Here is one final way we honor the Kingship of Christ: by seeking Christ in the traditions of faiths outside of Christianity. Does that sound odd to you? It shouldn’t. Episcopalians hold that the bible “contains all things necessary for salvation.” What does this mean? It means just what it says. If you want to be saved then everything you need to know about that can be found in the scriptures. Here is what it does not say… that EVERYTHING there is to know about God and God’s will is found in the bible and no where else. We can learn something of God’s reign of love from the thoughts and actions of non-Christian groups and faiths.

Here, at the end of the Church year, we prepare again to start anew next Sunday as we enter into Advent. We stand a year wiser and a year closer to God’s dream for the world and God’s desire for St. Paul’s Church. We launch into this new beginning as witnesses, as servants, as partners, and as seekers – as people who desire to be faithful so that one day Christ may fill all in all of us.