Monday, October 06, 2008

It’s True All Over

Psalm 19
(Exodus 20:1-20, John 1: 18)

Today is world Communion Sunday, which was started by the Presbyterians in the 1940’s. Most Christian traditions, Roman Catholic and American Evangelical churches excepted, have since joined in. The purpose of the observance is to highlight the commonality of belief in widely diverse practice. In other words, even though the way we worship is different, we’re really talking about the same God and the same Jesus.

But I got to thinking—what is it that we have in common with the other churches who observe this day? What can we say that Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Episcopalians can also say? For that matter, what can we say that Roman Catholics and American Evangelicals can say?

It’s not as easily said as you’d think. Of course, we claim that there is a God. But many religions outside of Christianity claim that; that isn’t a claim distinctive to Christians.

Then you begin to look at the basics of our belief, and it’s hard not to begin with the Ten Commandments. They are ethical, basic, and very much held in common by other Christians as bedrock. But if we are to think about what makes all Christianity distinctive from other religions, that won’t fly, because Jewish belief and practice also hold the Ten Commandments to be holy. They probably hold them to be holier than we do, in fact.

So whatever distinctiveness we exhibit has to be located in the Person and Work of Jesus. Is it enough to claim that Jesus existed? No, not really, because the Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, second only to the prophet Muhammad. They revere Jesus as a teacher and prophet.

No, we do not become distinctive until we speak of Jesus as the Son of God. To be able to say, with the Gospel of John, that he was with God, and he was God. That somehow, Jesus was more than just a man on earth with a great teaching for the world. John claims to us that Jesus, or the Word, was present at the creation of the universe, hovering over the waters as a mighty wind. As the Spirit. And that spirit came to earth in bodily form, as our Philippians passage last week said, emptying himself so as to take the form of a human being, and not just a human—but as an ordinary human. Not as a King, but as a member of a society that was occupied by a foreign power and did not hold citizenship in that oppressive society.
In short, it is the metaphysics of the matter that make it distinctive for us. It is the spooky bits, the unscientific bits. What makes us distinctive in the world of religions is the part that we can’t explain. You’ve got to admit, there is a sense that we could probably have come up with a more concrete bit of material with which to make our argument. This is what Paul means when he talks about the foolishness of the Gospel. He taught, he performed miracles, but we really don’t base our belief in his divinity on those. We can’t even necessarily claim that we are the only ones who have a founder who came to earth in order to guide people to the light—that’s what Buddha did, too.

No, for us, it is that belief in what Christians call the Trinity. That Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three experiences of one God, are indeed one person, present at the creation of the world, and yet involved in a very real way in the lives of ordinary, flesh and bone humans. One part submitted himself to a human death, and returned to life after a certain amount of time, like a starfish generates a new arm.

On world Communion Sunday, it is good to remember that what we believe about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is both what unites us across all denominations, traditions and locations around the world. Worship practices can change, and do. The way we do communion can be different. The way we baptize can be different. But that we hold Father Son and Holy Spirit to be God, three in one, not three Gods, and not one God with subordinate helpers, is what makes us unique.

So, as we take communion in a few minutes, I invite you to meditate, or pray, or think about the person who is the farthest from you in this world. Think of someone with darker skin, someone with different clothes, someone who speaks a different language. Think of someone who eats different food and does different work. And think about the fact that despite all of your differences, you and they hold in common the belief that the person we know as Jesus, who came to earth to show us God’s love and died demonstrating that love, was also with God, and in fact was God at the beginning of creation, and is with him now.

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