“In All Things…”
by Rev. Chris Alexander
“The Faith of Jesus in a Pluralistic World”
Countryside Community Church
June 17, 2012
13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
This week we are concluding our congregational discussion of “The Faith of Jesus in a Pluralistic World” which attempts to explore ways Christians, through our experience of Jesus on the cross, can enter into conversations with people of other faith traditions, without necessarily trying to convert them to believing our understanding of Jesus, and allowing for the possibility that God creates other paths of faith for humanity.
Today we are looking at this biblical text in Colossians (Colossians 1:13-20), exploring the Christian understanding that God, through Jesus, is in all things, and through Jesus, all things are held together. (Colossians 1:17).
When I was child, I lived in a neighborhood that was literally built around an elementary school. Many faith traditions were represented in my neighborhood, but a large percentage of the people who lived there were from the Jewish faith tradition. When I was in Kindergarten, it was becoming more and more apparent to me that there was a difference between the faith of my friend Michelle Norban, who was Jewish, and my own understanding about Jesus. When I asked my mother why Michelle couldn’t come to Sunday School with me, she sat me down and tried to explain how there were many faiths in the world and that our faith included Jesus and that Michelle’s “church” didn’t. I’m sure she said many other profound things about the differences between our Christian beliefs and the Jewish faith, but my 5-year-old ears and mind only heard that Michelle didn’t believe in Jesus, so naturally, my 5-year-old brain concluded that Michelle and her family must be those people who would live eternity in hell, and of course, I was quick to use this new found information against Michelle at the first available opportunity.
One afternoon when I was playing school at Michelle’s house, and Michelle insisted that she got to be the teacher, I got mad and told her I wanted to be the teacher. When she wouldn’t give in to my demand, I told her that I didn’t want to play anymore, and that I didn’t think I should be playing with her anyway since she didn’t believe in God. – Nice, right? In a 5-year-old’s mind, those two things naturally follow one another, right? Of course Michelle’s response what not positive either and after saying a few more nasty things to each other, I left her house and walked down the street to my home.
By the time I reached my house, my mother was waiting for me. Apparently Michelle’s mother had overheard our argument, and called my mother to tell her what had happened. My mother was not amused. We sat on the porch steps of my home talking about what had happened, and she explained to me that Michelle was not a bad person just because she believed in God in a different way than I did, and that God loved Michelle as much as God loved me. She explained that if I felt special because God loved me, then I should think Michelle is special too because God’s love includes her as well. I still did not fully understand the relationship between Jewish and Christian traditions, but I was fully aware that I had hurt Michelle in some way, and that in doing so, I had also made God sad. So, my mother walked me back to Michelle’s house and held my hand as I apologized to her (and her mother) and let her know that I believed God loved her, so I should love her too.
This kindergarten encounter with “the other” set the tone for many more encounters with the Jewish faith and the people who practiced it. As I continued to grow up in this neighborhood I was exposed to many Jewish faith practices, and why they were important. For instance, several of the students in my classroom were absent during the celebrations of Rosh Hashanah — The Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement, and many of my friends had to stay after school to continue their education in what they called “Hebrew School,” where they learned to read, write, and speak aloud, the Hebrew language.
Later, during my junior high school years, I attended twice as many bat/bar-mitzvahs as I did confirmations, and my first real boyfriend was Jewish, so I attended family celebrations of many of the Jewish holidays, watching first hand, how tradition was lived out within their everyday lives.
In this exchange of culture and faith, I learned to talk about my own faith in ways that my friends could understand why I worshiped at the church down the street instead of attending the synagogue with them, and I was able to compare the practices of their faith with mine, learning what our faiths had in common, as well as what things we did differently and why. It was indeed a peaceful coexistence. My friends and I never tried to convert each other into believing what the other believed, we just respected each other enough to learn from one another, which in turn made us more faithful believers within our own traditions.
Not all Christians have opportunities such as this to get to know someone from another faith. And even some Christians who do live within a diverse religious setting, do not always take the time to get to know the people around them well enough to like them first, before asking questions about faith differences, so conversations with people of other traditions often begin with doctrine about what separates us, rather than what holds us together.
This series “The Faith of Jesus in a Pluralistic World,” helps us to recognize the goodness and grace of God in other traditions, without asking us to give up what we believe to be true about Jesus. In fact, it is because we are exploring our own faith traditions and practices in a deeper way, that we can see through the lens of Jesus into the appreciation of other traditions.
Our Colossians text tells us in verse 13 “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and forgiveness of sins.” Because we are already redeemed through the love and grace of God on the cross, we are freed through Jesus to accept the stranger as one who is also loved by God. If we start our conversations with others, knowing that they are loved by God, it changes the tone of the conversation, freeing us to truly be in relationship to one another, without compromising things about our own beliefs, values, and practice that we love. Imagine how this engagement with the other could change the conversation we have daily with people of other faith traditions, or races, or cultures, or sexual preferences?
In this way of life, we do exist in “the kingdom of the beloved Son,” and we allow Jesus to be the one whom Paul describes in verses 15 and 16 as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created.”
Samir Selmanovic, author of “It’s Really All About God: How Islam, Atheism, and Judaism Made Me a Better Christian.” was our Skype guest last week in our discussion of this scripture, and he spoke to this point about God coming to us in many and various forms through the ministry of Jesus. Samir said “Jesus has a way of dragging people to the ‘otherness’ of people in order for us to learn from one another.” He gave examples of what he meant by this: Jesus making the Samaritan the hero, or a Roman Soldier a hero in faith. Samir pointed out that the builders of the Hebrew Temple bought all of their supplies needed for the building from the Ishmaelites, which would be the same as if the builders of America would have purchased their supplies from the Russians. In practicing the acceptance of the other, we are practicing accepting God, we are practicing the presence of God in others.
So what is stopping us from engaging in these conversations with the world around us? For most of us here at Countryside, when we say we ought to welcome the stranger into conversation, most of us nod our heads and say “Well, of course!” But are we actually doing it? What about all those people you know who wouldn’t say “of course,” and instead talk to you about how scary the Muslims are and how, if we let them, they would kill us all, or force us to betray Jesus and follow Muhammad? I run across people like that all the time, even members of my own family. How are we entering conversations with those people about how our faith in Jesus tells us something different?
For many of us, we don’t feel as if we know enough about our own faith, or the faith of other traditions, so we can’t speak intelligently about either, in order to have a decent conversation. And then, much of what we do think we know, often comes from mass media presentations on faith practices, that are often limited or wrong, so whatever conversation we do have about these issues, often start from misinformation, or fear of the other, rather than a conversation that begins in God’s love.
So how can we address this problem of not being comfortable with what we know, or don’t know about the other? We need to ask questions, have discussions, and enter into relationships with the other, in order to learn about who they are and how they see God being revealed in the world. We need to step out, even in our ignorance, and trust the other to help us understand. This is a very scary proposition for most of us, since we do not necessarily start from a place of trust in the other, and not knowing the other well enough to trust them, means being vulnerable. Here, we face a conundrum: we are afraid to reach out because we do not know the other well enough to trust them, and yet, we will never know enough about them to trust them, if never ever reach out to know them.
The key to this conundrum, is proclaimed in our own faith tradition – Paul, in our Colossians text (verses 19 and 20) says, “19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” This text tells us that it is not necessary to have unqualified trust in the other before you reach out to them, it is only necessary to trust God. And the one true God in our tradition is the God who has, in fact, been true to us, so we already know we can trust this relationship. Trusting in God, more than our fear of the other, we are able to reach out and welcome the stranger, for God has already reconciled this stranger to Godself, and all of creation.
So the next time you work alongside a co-worker, or a professor, or anyone you know who practices a different faith tradition from your own, start the conversation by saying something like, “I am curious to hear about what you love about being a Muslim, and to hear some of the faith practices you participate in that bring you alive.” Learning from someone who loves their tradition will help you see the goodness and grace within that tradition, rather than just listening to what you hear on the news. Trusting in God’s love for the person you are talking to, also helps you to reach out to friends and family who speak about others through fear, showing them a alternate possibility of living peaceably in a pluralistic world, within their own faith traditions.
Now that all of us are older Christians in the faith, we won’t have our mothers around to drag us back up the street to apologize for our offensive behaviors, but we do have each other, to ask questions of, and to enter into discussions with, in order to dig deeper into our own traditions. In doing this, we are able to answer the other, when they ask us, what is it about our faith in Jesus that brings us most fully alive?
So start a conversation, take advantage of interfaith opportunities like “A Minister and a Rabbi walk into a Bar,” become engaged with one another, trusting God more than your fears, and be ready to be amazed at the beauty and the grace that you will begin to recognize in the everyday world around you. Amen.
Nice reflection, Chris! I particularly like where you say that we don’t have to have unqualified trust in those who are different from us in order to reach out to them. We just have to have unqualified trust in God, who is engaged in reconciling all things to God’s self.