Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Charge that our PB is Denying the Uniqueness of Christ is Not Unique

Earlier today I received a comment regarding my piece about what I considered to be a slanderous attack on our Presiding Bishop, The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori. The concern of the writer is that our PB has denied the uniqueness of Christ -- I assume by responding to someone challenging her understanding of John 14.6 ("I am the way and the truth. . ."). The comment is well intentioned and generous, but it does have problems.

I believe our Presiding Bishop has been consistently precise in her statements regarding literalist interpretations of John 14.6 which seem to hold that no one who does not have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as saviour will enter the Kingdom of God.

I don't have her quotes anywhere handy, but I believe that what she has said, more than once, is that we cannot rule out what God may choose to do -- including membership in the Kingdom. Interestingly, her position is also the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic Church! It is, I believe, those who want to impose limits on God's grace and embrace who are the unorthodox.

There is so much to say to this point -- let me say a little:

First, the witness of the Christian Scriptures is that Jesus honors the faith and the holiness of many who would be excluded by this translation of John 14.6. My favorite in this regard is the Syro-Phoenican woman -- there are many others. Likewise, Jesus broadens the notion of the saved in Matthew 25 where the blessed are referred to outside of a faith relationship to God through Jesus. The same seems to be true with most of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. Now I believe that those who do believe in Jesus Christ have something that others do not -- and that he is the reliable way to the Father -- but Jesus indicates over and over again that his vision of the Kingdom is broader than what the author of John's Gospel attributes to him.

Second, Jesus does talk about "other sheep which are not of this fold."

Third, St. Paul in Romans 9-11 writes that God has designated the Jews as the People of God and that God does not break promises. The Jews continue as the People of God and, writes Paul, through Christ we Gentiles have been grafted into the Jewish Holy History. So, are the "orthodox" in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion urging God to break the central promise made to humankind? Isn't that somewhat similar in intent to suborning perjury??

Fourth, there is a clear and consistent theme in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) of Jesus commenting that those who believe themselves to be IN the Kingdom are usually OUT and those who believe themselves to be OUT or excluded from the Kingdom are actually IN. One of those in the latter category was probably Levi, who was called to be an apostle while he was still a tax collector (no, there is no record of his repentance, though one can safely assume that came later).

To explain my fifth concern here I go back to a radio broadcast I hear decades ago. As a teenager and young adult I loved to listen to Garner Ted Armstrong hold forth on what were often strange and bizarre notions of religious faith and practice -- his delivery was so smooth and his tone of voice was so convincing. He was like a religious Ronald Reagan. But on the day in question, he was talking about inclusion and exclusion and the Kingdom of God. He talked about a remote village in Africa where a young mother wanted her mortally sick son baptized so he could be with God through eternity.

The problem was that the jeep carrying the priest from the city to the village had a flat tire -- and no spare in back. It was hours before the flat tire could be fixed -- and by the time the priest had arrived in the village, the child had died. "Are you going to tell me," shouted Garner Ted Armstrong into his microphone, "Are you going to tell me that because of a flat tire that child will be excluded from the Kingdom of God and the fullness of God's love through eternity?"
Do we want to give a flat tire on a jeep on a treacherous dirt road that kind of power?

Once we are here, the other questions come in -- those having to do with those who have lived faithfully in response to whatever of God's truth that has been revealed to them. One thinks not only of the spiritual big shots like Gandhi and Gautoma Buddha, but the men and women living in their wake. What about those we do not reach with the vision of Jesus Christ who might have believed? Should we be gleeful that we believe in a God who consistently slams the door shut on all those millions and millions of people? Perhaps we should all become Mormons so we can provide them with posthumous baptisms! We can join the Mormons in their twenty-first century baptisms of all the Jews Christians murdered in the Holocaust -- believing it is in our province to strip away their dignity as Jews, as the ordained People of God.

It is so much easier to admit that God is God and that if grace, mercy and forgiveness are at the heart of the Being of God then we may not invoke a single -- and I believe an incorrect --interpretation of a Biblical verse as gospel truth. Those of us who are Christians and desperate for certainty and certitude flock easily to the simplistic reading of the majestic words in John 14.6 -- but that desperate need leads not to truth, but to a triumphalism that Jesus rejects over and over again.

Jesus Christ is unique. We call him the Word of God -- that is, he embodies and he is what God wants to say. The problem here is with what is revealed about eternity through the uniqueness of Christ.

It is time for Christians to reject what our Presiding Bishop and hosts of the best of our Biblical scholars have rejected. It is time, simply, to insist that God is God -- just like it says in the Bible.