Monday, September 17, 2012

General & Specific (Revelation)

So Jesus and Peter are golfing.  They come to a long par 5 with a huge sand bunker in the middle of the fairway 300 yards from the tee.  Jesus takes out a driver.  Peter suggests using an iron to lay up for an easier shot.  Jesus replies, “Tiger Woods wouldn’t lay up.  He’d drive over the trap.”  So Jesus swings away and just as Peter warned, the ball lands short and rolls into the bunker.  Jesus walks up to the ball, swings again and it lands in the cup for a double eagle.  The next hole has a lake on the left side of the fairway.  Jesus takes a 3 wood out of his bag.  Peter reminds him that he has a tendency to hook his drives, but Jesus says, “It’s the club Tiger Woods would use.”  He swings and, sure enough, the drive hooks into the water.  Jesus walks up to the lake and then walks out on the water, addresses the ball, swings, hits the ball, and it lands in the cup for an eagle.  Well, the foursome playing behind our Lord and Savior have been watching all of this in disbelief.  One of those golfers approaches Peter and says, “Who does that guy think he is… Jesus Christ?”  “Well,” says Peter, “the funny thing is he is Jesus Christ.  The problem is he thinks he is Tiger Woods.”

In this morning’s Gospel reading we hear the person who thinks he is Tiger Woods solicit feedback on what others are saying about him.  He then asks those closest to him what they believe.  Peter proclaims, “You are the Messiah.”  Jesus then sternly orders them not to breath a word of this proclamation to anyone because, at least in the verses that follow, he needs to reframe for them what it means to be the Messiah.  It is a lesson that pairs nicely with what we heard read from the Book of Proverbs where God’s wisdom, personified and walking through the streets, offers counsel to all who will listen.

Theologians make a distinction between what they refer to as “general revelation” and “special revelation.”  We see one and then the other in these two readings.  The word ‘revelation’ refers to what we know about God and what we know we can only know because God chooses to make it known to us.  General revelation is knowledge about God that can be discerned from what God has made – the creation.  We can look at the world around us, at human beings and our social ordering, at art, music, and beauty and discern something about the nature and will of God. 

I’ll give you an example of this.  In my office I have a hanging that depicts a specific teaching from each of the seven great religions in our world:  Brahmanism, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism.  Although the words of each teaching are slightly different, they all put forward what we in the Christian tradition refer to as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Islam, for example, teaches “Not one of you will be a true believer who does not wish for his brother the same that he wishes for himself.”  Confucianism asks if there is a maxim that one ought to follow throughout life.  Indeed there is.  It is called the maxim of peaceful goodness: “What we don’t want done to us we should not do to others.”
This is one example of general revelation; of God’s personified wisdom being open and discernable by all people in all times and places.  It is proclaimed in the streets and the valleys.  It is written on the stars and proclaimed in the lilies of the field… general revelation that all people can know. 

Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s special revelation.  We learn things about God in the Word incarnate that we can not know through general revelation.  Take this morning’s Gospel.  We can look no where in the created order and discern the teaching that if we seek to save our life we will lose it and if we lose our life we will find it.  In fact, what we learn from creation is just the opposite, isn’t it… life is about natural selection and survival of the fittest. 

The Christian tradition holds that special revelation is not something we achieve, but rather something we receive.  When Matthew recounts the reading we heard this morning he recalls Jesus’ response after Peter’s confession, “Blessed are you for flesh and blood [general revelation] have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven [special revelation].” 

From this I take that every human being is able to know something of God and God’s will.  And thus, every human being is accountable to God for that which is readily apparent to all people – a certain awe for a higher Being and a certain value and respect of all living things.  But I also take from this that those of us who have received the special revelation of Jesus Christ are tasked with a mission and held to a higher standard.  Our mission is to worship Christ, to embody Christ’s teachings in a manner that is faithful and compelling, and to preach the Gospel (using words, if necessary) to the end that others might become people of faith.

I count myself as blessed to have received the good news of God in Christ and to be called to this mission.  It is a special revelation that has come to me because of a variety of factors to which I can claim no credit.  First, I was born in a time after Christ.  Second, I was born in a society that is predominately Christian at a time when most parents took their children to church.  Next, I was born into a family of Presbyterians and we went to a church each week.  That church offered a variety of programs for children and youth to expose us to the faith.  It hired a young youth minister who was devoted to Jesus and shared his faith openly with us.  These are factors that not everyone enjoys.  But beyond all of this, there was something more… something – as Jesus puts it – from the Father.  Beyond being an accident of time and place, faith is a gift that bestows blessing and implies calling.  I am blessed to be a person of faith and called both to live it and to share it with others.

What if I had been born into a different family in that Presbyterian church; one that attended only on Christmas and Easter?  Or what if I had been born closer to this day and age when attending church is not a given and many young people have serious reservations about Christianity as they see it lived out in our day?  Or what if I was born in an Islamic country?  Sure, I might be familiar with the teachings of Jesus, and I might even be open to seeing how many of his teachings corresponded with those of my tradition, but would I strip away all the layers of my culture and heritage to take on another so completely foreign to my own?  Probably not.   I am who I am not because I am special and certainly not because I am better than other people, but because God chose to be known to me.  It gives me a task, a purpose, a role to play in life.  I am to be a witness to God in all that I say and do.

The German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, writing in the 20th century, proposed a notion he called the “anonymous Christian.”  Through it, he made a compelling case that those born before Christ and those who came after Christ but never heard the gospel could in fact be saved by Christ through the faithful practice of their own religion.  It was an idea that met with widespread acceptance.  Since then, others have broadened Rahner’s thinking about anonymous Christians to include adherents faithful to other religions who live in accord with what this morning we are referring to as general revelation. 

I used to look at today’s Gospel reading and think that Peter was going to get to heaven because he knew something about Jesus that other people did not.  I used to think that because I knew it too I was going to be rewarded while those who did not were going to be punished.  That fixation on heaven does not sit well with me now because Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is not just some glorious afterlife, but is a reality emerging in the here and now.  I now see how people of faith – all faiths – are to learn from God’s general revelation and bring it to bear in the world.  We in the Christian tradition who know the special revelation of God in Christ are given the added responsibility of living for the world those deep truths that can be found nowhere else but in the incarnate One.  I now see that we have been given a light not to be hid under a basket.  We are called to let that light shine for all the world to see and know what God has made know in Christ.