The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s150g06 Advent 3 17/12/2006
'do not presume to say: 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'' Luke 3.8
So we cannot presume to say that 'We are in Christ'!
The fact that John the Baptist rules out any preferential treatment for those of Jewish heritage, implies Jesus rules out any preferential treatment for Christians as well.
A while back, after a lecture on the relationship between Muslims and Christians, a questioner asked about the killing of innocent civilians as in terrorist bombings. The person said that while the Qur'an does forbid this, terrorists reason that no non Muslim is innocent because they haven't accepted the true faith and hence no culpability can be assigned whenever there is 'co-lateral damage'. Again I have heard Christians from Africa say that they would never trust a Muslim, for in their experience Muslims do not consider telling lies to non Muslims to be reprehensible. And it is difficult to argue against these things to people who have had relatives killed by terrorists and to those who have suffered from the lies of others.
But Christians do precisely the same things! To suggest that others who do not wholeheartedly believe as we do shall go to hell as the words of the Athanasian Creed, in its second paragraph supposedly implies: 'which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly'. (APBA p487) I think that it is significant that this is included in the latest version of the Anglican prayer book for Australia (1995) in the SHORTER edition designed for parishioners in the pews. So some Anglicans in Australia have not yet entirely given up consigning others who don't agree with them to everlasting damnation and I quietly suggest that this is a sizeable proportion of the human population that is - billions, while they point the finger of blame at those who murder some thousands of people as in 9/11. I have no doubt what so ever that the inclusion of the Athanasian Creed in all versions of APBA has nothing to do with a love for the intricate exploration of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity that the rest of the words seek to do, but rests on this expression of condemnation of OTHERS whoever they are.
But doesn't our faith guarantee some reward? Well, if our faith is that we are blessed and others are damned I have to ask what difference (in practical terms) is this to the faith that anyone else professes that they are blessed and we are damned? We are banking on us being right and others wrong and whoever is right will win out and others who are wrong will miss out. So in actual fact, in practical terms, this 'unique' faith of ours turns out to be identical to everyone else's. This is not the sort of faith I hold, and this is not the sort of god I worship.
And I don't really care whether people believe in miracles, the inerrancy of the Bible, creation, transubstantiation, the penal substitution theory of the atonement or the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary - or not if 'we' are right and 'others' are damned, in the end our faith is identical, in practical terms, with the faith others hold. Others are actually expendable, only the conditions we set for others are different.
There are, of course many, many examples in the gospels where Jesus distances himself from people who would claim a special relationship with him at the expense of others.
So in Matthew he says: '"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'' (Matthew 7.21-23)
Another time he says: 'While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."' (Matthew 12:46-50).
And in his final public speech, he says: 'Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'' (Matthew 25.37-40)
Luke records his reception in his hometown of Nazareth, among the people with whom he worshipped all his life, people who could name the members of his family. When he suggested in his sermon: 'But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.' (Luke 4.16-29)
Later in Luke he speaks to the people of his generation: 'You will begin to say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets. But he will say, 'I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!'' (Luke 13.26-27)
The parable of the unmerciful servant tells us precisely the same thing. We as Christians know the cost of our redemption perhaps equivalent to the 10,000 talents the unmerciful servant owed. Others don't know they are redeemed, let alone the cost. The parable is directed towards us and it is we who have to be forgiving, particularly of religious differences.
Anglicans, of course, are rather want to presume to come to the table of the Lord because of our self abasement: "We are not worthy .." Isaiah, when he sees the vision of the Almighty falls prostrate and proclaims his sinfulness. The Lord picks him up and gives him a job to do. Anglicans I think often find it more comfortable to stay on one's knees we think that it's a safer place to be. But doing what God wants is far more joyful.
So often when we think of forgiveness we think God is talking about the petty concerns between individuals, and I am sure that God would have us live in peace with those who have offended us. But God is more concerned that Christians don't consider the rest of humanity expendable, for these were precisely the ones with whom Jesus associated.
In my hospital chaplaincy work there are some who have had difficulties with the Church in past times and don't wish to talk with a chaplain. I usually say something like I'm not interested in religion either. I have my own problems with the Church especially with the people who believe that those who don't agree with them are damned to seriously commend the Church to others. But the strongest adverse reaction I get is from a few who have a special relationship with Jesus and are disappointed when I don't claim a similar relationship. Interestingly there are parallels with those who have a physical illness in the general hospital and those who have religious delusions in the psychiatric hospital.
Those words in Matthew about the others who will be commended for their charity, despite them having no personal relationship with the king (they had never met the king to recognise him) tells us Christians in no uncertain terms that many, many people who do not go to Church but are charitable will be commended and included.
But this is not a hard task, for in fact it is a lot easier to listen to and respect where others are coming from, commending them for the good they do - than it is to try to get them to believe the things we do, live the way we do, and worship in precisely the same manner as we do. John describes those who would claim some special relationship with Abraham as a brood of vipers! In those quotations from the lips of Jesus, he often describes those who would claim a special relationship with him as evil-doers. We all need to hear these condemnation and get about what God really wants us to do: honouring all.
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