Sunday, July 27, 2008

Paul's Gospel of Inclusion

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question this week. “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? Who will condemn? Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” St. Paul goes into rhetorical overdrive as he barrages his readers with question after question. Another way to put the question might be, “Who will exclude us from communion with God?”

That really was the heart of the matter for St. Paul.[i] His Letter to the Romans is a long, complicated, and rhetorically brilliant argument for the inclusion of Gentiles qua Gentiles in the early Jesus movement. Paul is a Jew engaged with other Jewish disciples of Jesus in a debate about the basis for inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God. Must they first become Jews – accept circumcision and observance of the Torah – or not? Paul answers with a resounding “No!” They do not have to become Jewish converts to follow Jesus. They are included as they are.

At the same time, Paul argues that all Israel will be saved, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Rom. 11:29) If Gentiles are included through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus, that does not mean that Jews who are not followers of Jesus are excluded. Paul argues that “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” God will be merciful to all, whether Jew or Gentile. (Romans 11:30-32).

The tragic irony is that Christians have subsequently read Paul through the lens of the rejection/replacement argument; that idea that God has rejected Israel and replaced it with the Church as the new people of God. An inter-Jewish debate about the status of Gentiles became a Jewish-Christian debate about the status of Jews. This is actually the opposite of Paul’s argument, which is that through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus the Gentiles have been included in the people of God. It is an argument for inclusion, not for exclusion.

And so Paul assures his Gentile readers that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ, while also cautioning them against boasting about their status as if Israel is now somehow excluded from communion with God. Paul is eager to offer assurance, but he also is eager to correct an anti-Jewish misinterpretation of his teaching already current in his day. Thus he argues that all are beneficiaries of the mercy of God – the Jews, first, who respond to that mercy through faithfulness to Torah – and the Gentiles, second, who respond to that mercy through the faithfulness of Christ Jesus.

Now, all of this might seem of merely historical interest were it not for the reality of continuing anti-Jewish Christian teaching and practice, and the very contemporary question within the Church about who is or is not included in communion with God. Paul’s cultural horizon was limited to a division of humanity into Gentile or Jew; his field of vision did not include Buddhist or Jain or Confucian, and Islam had not yet been born. In fact, I don’t believe it even included Christians; Paul never uses that term and never identified himself as anything other than a Jew who believed that Jesus is the Messiah. Christianity was not yet something separate from Judaism. Even so, despite our vastly different cultural context, the basic principle remains: God shows mercy to all, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

As Christians, our communion with God through Christ is not dependent upon anyone else’s exclusion. No one else need be condemned so that we can feel affirmed. Our identity is God’s gift to us and does not need to be defined over-and-against anyone else. Neither do we need fear anyone else’s condemnation or rejection. “Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8:34).

This question of inclusion or exclusion has been in the forefront of the Church’s life in recent days. As many of you know, the bishops of the world-wide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, gathered this past week in Canterbury, England for the Lambeth Conference, the bishops’ once-a-decade meeting. Well, actually, approximately 670 bishops are there. One bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, has been excluded from the meeting because he is an openly gay man in a faithful same-sex relationship. More than 200 other bishops have boycotted the meeting because the Episcopal Church has not been disciplined for consenting to Robinson’s election and consecration as bishop of New Hampshire.

For some people, not only Bishop Robinson, but any bishop who supports him should be excluded from the Communion. This past week, the Primate of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, called for Bishop Robinson’s resignation and for repentance on the part of those bishops who support his ministry. "Gene Robinson has to be away from the Anglican world and be a normal Christian,” said Deng at an afternoon news conference. "If he is, as he always says, a Christian, he should resign for the sake of the church."

Asked if he has talked to Robinson, Deng replied, "I have nothing to say to him." He also said he cannot participate in the Anglican Communion's Listening Process because homosexuality is not "approved by the Bible" and "is not part of my culture, I cannot talk about it." Deng said there are no gay or lesbian people in Sudan. [ii]

We find ourselves in a situation where the cultural divide today between Archbishop Deng and Bishop Robinson is as great as that between Jew and Gentile in St. Paul’s day. Must gay people, as Archbishop Deng seems to believe, become or at least act “straight” in order to be included in the people of God? Must they be excluded so that others can be included in communion with God?

I would argue that we need to take our cue from St. Paul, who believed neither that Gentiles needed to become or act “Jewish” in order to be included in the people of God, nor that Jews who disagreed with him were beyond the pale of God’s mercy. Paul’s argument in Romans is the relevant biblical text with respect to the issue of inclusion. There is room at the table for both Archbishop Deng and Bishop Robinson when each can see the other in the light of God’s gracious love.

Here I am reminded of a very different reflection on the current Lambeth Conference offered by our own bishop, Marc Andrus. Marc writes that, “The Lambeth Conference brings questions of identity forward in our lives. We are with people of many different ethnicities, cultures, and languages. In the presence of great diversity our easy assumptions of identity are unsettled, and deeper ways to ground our identity can emerge. We can begin to see our life in Christ as the ground of our being, our identity.

As we are drawn deeper and deeper into relationship with one another we find that the descriptors that may catch our attention at first, those associated with ethnicity and culture, rich and capable of being explored in depth as they are, do not begin to sum up human life. Gender, sexual orientation, economic status, all these are important too. And then we begin to learn the personal histories of people, certainly conditioned and connected to all the above, but articulated in unique ways having to do with the inner life of people, their gifts and aspirations.

At some point we may come to understand, as we perceive the deepest aspirations of another person, their courage and hopefulness in the face of their own life challenges, that we are seeing Christ in that person. Christ speaks I AM from within all life, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

What Jesus, when he speaks of himself without metaphoric mediation is about is affirming the goodness of creation and the apprehension of the depth of human beings within that creation. He reminds us that we are all “offspring of the divine,” and have the divine image planted within us.

The Lambeth Conference is reminding me of the life Baptism has drawn me into and prepares me for each day. I am trying to look for Christ in each person here.”[iii]

As Christians, as the people of God, we are called not to judge who is included and who is excluded. God has already made that call and we are on the inside of God’s project of reconciliation along with everyone else. No, we are called, from within the perspective of the Christian story, “to look for Christ in each person.” Even more, as Bishop Marc has said on other occasions: “to look for the face of Christ in all of creation.”

A Guru asked his disciples how they could tell when the night had ended and the day begun.

One said, “When you see an animal in the distance and can tell whether it is a cow or a horse.”

“No,” said the Guru.

“When you look at a tree in the distance and can tell if it is a neem tree or a mango.”

“Wrong again,” said the Guru.

“Well, then, what is it?” asked his disciples.

“When you look into the face of any man and recognize your brother in him; when you look in the face of any woman and recognize in her your sister. If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is by the sun it is still night.”[iv]

So, let there be light. Let us accept that we are loved as we are. No one needs to become or pretend to be anyone else. Let us finally see each other as God beholds us: with a Lover’s gaze. Then we can become the people we are truly meant to be. Amen.

[i] My reading of Romans is indebted to John G. Gager’s Reinventing Paul.

[ii] Episcopal Life Online at

[iii] Bishop Marc’s blog at

[iv] Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations, p. 161.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Keep It Simple

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Amen. Matthew 11.28

A young woman who was newly recovering from alcoholism complained to her AA sponsor, a program veteran, “I just don’t get this whole God-thing, and prayer doesn’t make any sense to me at all. What am I supposed to do?”

Her sponsor replied, “Here is what you do. Every morning when you wake-up go into the bathroom, take a bar of soap, and write, ‘Help’ on the bathroom mirror. At the end of the day, just before you go to bed, go back into the bathroom, wipe off the mirror, and then write ‘Thank You’ on it with a bar of soap. Repeat the process daily.”

“But, but,” the young woman stammered, “Who am I supposed to be saying this to?” “Darling,” said her sponsor, “you don’t need to worry about that.”

The secret to spiritual well-being is really quite simple. It is a matter of having the humility to ask for help, and to be grateful for what we are given. When we do this, we discover that our burden is a whole lot lighter. Unfortunately, we tend to try to make life a whole lot more complicated.

No wonder Jesus says that these things are hidden from the wise and the intelligent, and have been revealed to infants instead. Our humungous brains are constantly elaborating, abstracting, and analyzing, and so we often overlook the simple truths of life. And if we are at all successful by the standards of our society, we tend toward an attitude of entitlement and self-sufficiency that makes it very hard to embrace humility and gratitude. Others might think we are weak if we ask for help. And why should we be grateful when we believe we’ve earned everything we have?

But if we are willing to see through our elaborate self-justifications and illusions about life, we know down deep inside the truth of our vulnerability. We require the help of countless others just to get through each day – from the bus driver who gets us to work, to the migrant farm worker who harvested our lunch, and the folks who remove our trash for us. And that doesn’t even begin to include our psychological and emotional needs to be seen, heard, and held by others.

Are we responsible for our birth? Do we make the air we breath? Did we set in motion the hydrological cycles that provide our water? So very much has been given to us – everything that we need, really – not because we earned it, but simply by virtue of our being alive in this moment. How can we not be aware of the infinite debt of gratitude that we owe to our ancestors, to our neighbors, to the earth, to God?

Asking for help and being grateful should be like breathing in and breathing out, the fundamental rhythm of our lives. This is what we are invited to learn from Jesus, who is gentle and humble in heart. We make life much harder than it needs to be when we try to do it all, figure it all out, and pretty much control everything our self. In fact, such a way of living is a sure recipe for feeling overwhelmed and isolated. How much lighter our burdens would be, if we spent half as much time appreciating what we have as we do resenting what we don’t have (and often don’t really need).

So, if this is all so simple, why is it so hard to do?

It is hard because we fear acknowledging our dependency upon others and, ultimately, upon God. We are not so sure we can trust that we will have a future if we are not in control of it. And so we substitute our own will for God’s will, and try to make God a prisoner of our own plans and projects rather than subjecting ourselves to the yoke of humility and gratitude.

We want to bend Reality to the shape of our will, rather than bring our will in line with Reality. We are like the enthusiastic young man, just graduated from plumbing school, who was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it intently for several minutes and then said, “I think I can fix this.” But what if the point of life is to enjoy it, rather than fix it?

Let me tell you a little secret that most religious people – especially the do-gooder types, whether liberal or conservative – seem unable to grasp: life can not be fixed if it is not first enjoyed. We can not heal what we do not love. We can not change what we do not accept.

“Someday you will understand that you are seeking what you already have,” said the Master to an intense disciple.
“Then why do I not see it now?”
“Because you are trying to.”
“Must I then make no efforts?”
“If you relax and give it time,” said the Master, “it will make itself known.”

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” said Jesus, “for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” If we are willing to accept the yoke of humility and gratitude, we can relax and let God be God. We can begin to rest in the joy and wonder of the present moment, which doesn’t depend upon us one bit, and THEN perhaps we will be in a fit spiritual state to be of service to others.

Self-will is the heavy burden that we bear. Rather than fix our problems, we need to dissolve the ego that caused them in the first place. When we accept Jesus’ yoke, replacing self-will with God’s will, resting in Reality rather than trying to control it, many of the problems that used to trouble us seem to melt away. We can spend more time enjoying life rather than trying to fix it.

Let me give you a homely example. My work requires me to attend a fair number of meetings, generally meetings to discuss issues and plan programs about which I usually have an opinion. Now, I have a choice when I attend a meeting. I can decide that I have the answers and that I’m entitled to enlighten you with them, treating any resistance to my desire as a problem to be solved through persuasion if possible, domination or manipulation if necessary. If things don’t go my way, I’m a failure or others are bad and wrong, or both. You can image how pleasant meetings are when I show up in that way.

On the other hand, I can decide simply to be present to my experience in the course of the meeting. I can be vulnerable with others, admitting what I don’t know and when I am wrong, and grateful for the wisdom and forbearance that they bring to our interaction. Conflict will not be a problem to be solved, but an inevitable reality to be embraced. I can accept whatever outcome emerges, entrusting the process to God. Such meetings are a pleasure rather than a heavy burden.

Each week as we gather around this Table we have the opportunity to learn anew from Jesus, to lay down the heavy burden of self-will and take upon ourselves the yoke of humility and gratitude. We acknowledge our dependence upon God and one another, and we offer thanksgiving for all that we have received in our creation and redemption in Christ. We leave the fixing and controlling to God, and focus on the accepting and enjoying instead.

“Help” and “thank you.” It really is that simple. Amen.

Note: The story of the plumber is from Antony De Mello’s Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations and the dialogue between the master and the disciple is from his Awakening: Conversations with the Masters.