Several weeks ago Pope Francis stirred up some more controversy. As you may have noticed, he seems to be very good at doing this. What caught people by surprise this time was who he included among the redeemed in Jesus. He didn’t just include good Catholics or Christians in general. He didn’t even stop with people who participate in the world’s great religions. No, he didn’t stop until he included even the atheist who does good.
“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can . . . “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” … We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Of course not everyone agrees with the Pope. Surely only those who agree with us belong in the kingdom of God. If you let in atheists, then where do you draw the line? And, when we gather at the table, shouldn’t we have a test to see who is worthy to partake? After all, didn’t Paul condemn those who take bread and cup unworthily?
Now Pope Francis isn’t the only religious leader to court controversy. Jesus also was known for stirring things up. He even found faith in unexpected places.
In fact, on several occasions Jesus was surprised by the faith shown in God by people who lived outside the boundaries of the Jewish people – his people.
Remember the Syro-Phoenician woman who taught Jesus that even though she was an outsider she could be a recipient of divine grace? (Mark 7:24-30).
Then there’s this story of the Centurion and his servant. He may be a worshiper of Israel’s God, but he’s also an officer in an occupying army. That makes him an enemy of the Jewish people.
Unlike the Syro-Phoenician woman, this Centurion comes with high recommendations from the religious leaders of Capernaum. They’re the ones who ask Jesus to heal the Centurion’s servant. He might be part of this occupying force, but he’d paid for the building of their synagogue.
It’s quite possible that Jesus had misgivings about going to the Centurion’s home, but he heads off anyway. As he nears the house, the Centurion sends word that since he’s unworthy of such a visit, Jesus needn’t trouble himself further. But, because he understands the principle of chain of command, all Jesus needs to do is say the word and his servant will be healed.
When he hears the Centurion’s message, Jesus turns to the crowd and tells them that he hadn’t seen such faith even among his own people, the people of Israel. In other words, once again someone from the outside had revealed the nature of true faith.
We may miss the importance of Jesus’ response, because we have a tendency, as Christians, to think that we have a corner on the truth. Maybe you don’t think this way, but it’s an easy trap to fall into. In our eagerness to defend our faith we can close our ears to voices from outside the community, and in doing this we may miss the point that for God “truth” is love.
Theologian Douglas John Hall points out that we can’t “possess truth” or own it but we can be oriented toward it when “our fallen creaturely orientation is righted and we are, in some measure, turned by the divine Spirit towards God and therefore, when we in some measure, mirror God, we are turned also and simultaneously towards Truth, for God’s word is Truth. (What Christianity Is Not: An Exercise in ‘Negative’ Theology, pp. 143-144).
At one time in my life when I thought I possessed the Truth. Yes, I was rather narrow-minded during my late teens! There’s no way I could have envisioned that some day I would get so deeply involved in interfaith work. There were walls of Truth that needed to be defended at all costs, and there was nothing of value to be learned from those who stood outside these walls.
Over time my “exclusiveness” has given way to a new sense of “inclusiveness.” I didn’t give up my faith in Jesus. Jesus still defines my faith in God. I didn’t even decide that Christianity is just one way among others, so that it didn’t really matter what you believed – as long as you were sincere. What changed was my ability to see the presence of God in places I never thought possible. As I developed a larger pool of relationships, my theology has become less abstract and more relational.
When I went to Santa Barbara, fresh off being a theology professor, I got involved in an interfaith clergy association. As I built relationships with other faith leaders outside the “fold,” I learned something Jesus already knew – faith can be found in rather unexpected places.
One of these friendships was with a Rabbi. Now, a rabbi isn’t an enemy soldier like the Centurion, but our friendship taught me important things about the presence of God. Over the years, as Arthur and I wrote articles and worked together on numerous projects, I learned a lot about myself, my faith, and about those whose traditions are different from my own.
On one occasion I spoke to his confirmation class about how Christians understand Jews. He asked me to speak on this subject because well-meaning Christian youth were approaching their Jewish friends hoping to convert them. Arthur hoped I could help them understand their friends’ motivation. On that occasion I took Brett with me. He was probably fourteen at the time. Arthur turned to him and asked: “do you think we Jews are going to hell because we don’t believe in Jesus? Brett answered – “No, I don’t believe that.” I was glad that Brett learned this lesson a lot earlier than I had!
And since I’ve moved to Troy my horizons have continued to broaden. My friendships with Padma and Saeed, and many others, have helped me think more deeply about this question of religious truth. What I’ve discovered is that there are many people of good faith, whose lives exhibit more fully the love and grace of Jesus, than is true of many who call themselves Christians. So, where does this put them in relationship to the God we worship?
When the Pope spoke about the redeemed in Christ, he didn’t mean to say that what we believe and who believe in doesn’t matter. I don’t think he’s even a universalist. But he does seem to recognize the presence of Jesus in places we often discount.
A man asks Jesus: Who is my neighbor? And Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan, which tells about how an outsider lived the faith. On another occasion Jesus’ disciples complain that outsiders are doing work in his name and need to be silenced. But, Jesus says – if they’re not against us, they’re for us. (Mark 9:38-41).
When Jesus received the Centurion’s response, he recognized in it an abundance of faith. He was even surprised by its powerful nature.
So today, as we go out into the world, where will we find unexpected expressions of faith? How will these discoveries transform the way we envision our place in God’s mission? How will it inform the ministries of those we will call to serve as leaders at our Congregational Meeting later this morning?
Yes, where will Jesus find true faith?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 2, 2013