Sermon by Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian
May 27, 2018
II Corinthians 5: 10-21
In my last pastorate, I skipped Sunday worship one Sunday to go see the Dalai Lama at the Yum Center. Jamie surprised me with tickets to his talk as a late Mother’s Day gift. You may wonder why a Presbyterian pastor and committed Christian had so much interest in hearing a talk given by the leader of the Tibetan strand of Buddhism. In a nutshell, it is because I believe God’s MO, the Creator, Son and Holy Spirit’s MO or modus operandi, God’s way of being in the world, is to embrace it. Not part of it, but all of it. And, I believe I, as a follower of Christ, am called to do the same. Not just for the sake of the other I reach out to, but for my own. Let us pray.
Mother God, you who embrace the world with the Son and the Spirit, teach us the humility we need to meet your revelation to us with respect and joy, no matter who it is who reflects you to us, no matter the faith he or she practices. Amen.
II Corinthians 5: 10-21 forms part of Paul’s struggle with trying to win over the members of the church at Corinth. They had been unsettled by other Jesus preachers who discredited Paul’s work by claiming they had more impressive credentials. In the heat of defense and attack Paul engages in some of his most profound theological reflections, and in so doing speaks the Holy Spirit’s word to us on how to be ambassadors for Christ.
Notice that in 5:10 Paul says that both he and the Corinthians will stand before the judgment seat not for what they have confessed, but for what they have done. Paul asserts that his ministry is based not on an ego-trip, trying to prove he is right and everyone else is wrong, but on living for Christ as Christ died and lived for him and for all (5:14-15). The love of Christ motivates him and keeps him on the path, controlling how he operates (5:14). Might he be saying that the primary thing is to embody Christ’s ministry of love as we interact with others, all others?
The famous statement, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” belongs to Paul’s argument that we approach people with a totally new system of values once we have become Christ’s. For us in this time and place, could that mean that its immediate reference is a change in value systems with respect to the way we look at people? If everyone, regardless of confession, is made in the image of God, that is, the image of Christ, then what do we owe them in terms of honor and respect and compassion even when their religious understanding differs from our own?
Paul uses the idea of the new creation to underline his point that his opponents who boast of their pedigree and achievements are pandering to common human values, rather than to what matters before God. So Paul keeps bringing his words on Christ’s ministry back to God. And for Paul God is the compassionate one, the one whose work is reconciling people to himself (5:18). If that is what God does, and we are made in God’s image, is that not what we should do, reconcile people to ourselves, and perhaps even leave their reconciliation with God to God? A couple of anecdotes to suggest what that might look like.
A Baptist preacher in Louisville explained why he was going to hear the Dalai Lama at the time I went to see him, and why he was encouraging his congregation to get out of their Christian ghetto and into their community to learn from the dialogue sponsored by the interfaith paths to peace that coincided with the Dalai Lama’s visit. He began his editorial with a story about learning about a more loving God, the God of reconciliation, not division, through Mindy Choades, beside whom he had to sit in music class due to his behavior problems.
One day a few days before Christmas break Mrs. Seymour walked down the aisle of desks where Joe and Mindy were sitting, leaned over, and said softly, “Mindy, you don’t have to sing these next songs.” Mindy nodded, closed the songbook, and folded her hands. Joe asked, “Why don’t you have to sing these songs, Mindy?” She said, “Because they are Christmas carols, and I’m Jewish.” Joe, recently retired from Highland Baptist church remembers, ‘I don’t remember whether I said it aloud or simply thought it, but the words rushed to my brain: “Mindy Choades is going to hell.”’ This teaching had been nurtured in my psyche for years by good and well-meaning preachers and teachers who loved God and loved me: No Jesus, no hope, no heaven, they said.
That night I tossed and turned as I cried and wrestled with God. How could God reject Mindy, who honored her father and mother and their teachings? How is this fair and loving? What fun is heaven if so many wonderful people are excluded? The whole faith enterprise was unravelling, until a quiet voice rose in my heart that responded, “Mindy is my child and I love her as much as I do you. You let me worry about Mindy.” Do you know that was essentially what John Calvin said about trying to figure out who was in and who was out in terms of heaven? Anyway, by morning Joe Phelps says he had discovered for himself, as Calvin had, that God is bigger, more beautiful and more understanding than we can ever imagine God to be, and that we should let God be God, and focus ourselves on being like him.
Craig Barnes, my pastor in the Washington DC church in which I first heard a call to ministry, said about our Christian beliefs, it just has to be true for you. I was suspect. Doesn’t it have to be true for everyone for it to be I pondered? Years later I am clear on nothing if not utterly clear on this: No, your identity in Christ is between you and God in Christ. If you recognize that God was in Christ, you DO have to be clear that in Christ is how you have been called to relate to God. But, how Christ relates to others is not your business. How you relate to others is your business, however, yours and Christ’s.
And how we relate to others for my money should be centered in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, hospitality and compassion. What does that sort of ministry look like? I once read an article in Presbyterians today about the Friendship between Rick Ufford Chase, former moderator of the PCUSA and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, general Secretary of the Islamic Society of North America. They had met at an interfaith luncheon. Dr. Syeed explains, “I was just reading verses in the Qur’an that tell us we are to look for Christians who are full of compassion, mercy and kindness. When I met Rick at the luncheon, I told him how keen we are to enter into relationship with Presbyterians and Christians who are centered in their own faith and yet committed to all of God’s people.” Dr. Sayyid Syeed invited Ulford Chase to the national gathering in Chicago to receive an award on behalf of the whole denomination. In presenting the award, the secretary said to our former moderator, “If we cannot reach across religious boundaries for the work of reconciliation and peace here, in the most religiously plural place on earth, then we have no right to expect our sisters and brothers to do so anywhere else in the world.” Ulford Chase and wife Kitty were subsequently named codirectors at Stony Point Conference Center. It is now home to the community of living traditions, a multifaith community of Muslims, Jews and Christians who live and work together while working as allies for justice and peace. (Presbyterians Today. May 2013. “Better Together, Presbyterians and Muslims.” pps. 18-20)
I think this story reflects what I am trying to say about God’s inclusive way of being, and how that might look if we were to imitate it. First, there need be no contradiction between mission, that is commitment to Christ’s work in the world (including making disciples of all nations, even baptizing them if they so desire, and dialogue, relationship. If Christians believe that the truth about God has been revealed supremely in Jesus and want to persuade Muslims about the truth as they understand it, how can they enter into any kind of meaningful, open ended dialogue with Muslims? If Muslims believe that Islam is the truth and want to invite non Muslims to accept Islam, should they not be engaging in argument and persuasion rather than discussion and dialogue and relationship?
The most helpful perspective on this dilemma I have heard came from Sheikh Muhammad el-Hajj of the Transcendental Theosophy Institute in a southern suburb of Beirut. At a seminar in 2001, at which he spoke to graduates of the Near East School of Theology, a Presbyterian pastor asked him, What do you think of evangelism? – using the word tabshir, which in Arabic and for Muslims has very negative overtones. I suspect that the pastor expected the sheikh to say, “I don’t like evangelism and you Christians should stop it!” But what Sheikh Muhammad actually replied was this: “I have no problems with evangelism provided 2 things – First, that you realize that while you are trying to evangelize me, I am trying to evangelize you and second, that when you realize I am not going to immediately become a Christian, that is not the end of our relationship. (Presbyterians Today. May 2013. “Better Together, Presbyterians and Muslims.” pps. 29)
God in God’s own being is relationship, Father Son and Spirit. The centrality of relationship to our faith is what we are celebrating today, trinity Sunday. Interestingly enough, one of the thorniest theological issues that comes up in interfaith dialogue between Christian and Muslims is the Christian understanding of God as triune. How, they demand, can we believe in one God if we worship three? How indeed? How would you answer that question? Like Augustine did, explaining that God is one like a relationship is one thing. But in that relationship there are three joining together to form that one whole. There is the Lover, the beloved, and the love that flows between them. But one Holy and inseparable relationship from which flows its different poles that bring its expression into full view. Or perhaps you have a better way of thinking of it.
Of this much I am completely sure. We are all made in God’s image. As such, we may not refuse relationship, exclude anyone from the list of people with whom we can be with and for in the name of Christ. Why? It is in relationship with God and others that Christ reveals himself to those of us who call ourselves Christians, and try to live into that calling. And we wouldn’t want to miss Him when he comes, through whomever’s life and work reveals Him to our hearts.