It was Christmastime for the small group of pilgrims from the US on their first trip to the Holy Land. They had been delayed on their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and it was getting dark when they arrived. A Muslim policeman was posted in the church as a security guard. Later, when the group returned home, the pastor preached a special sermon in which he described the pilgrimage experience to his congregation. This is what he said about the time spent in Holy Sepulchre Church:
“I must confess that I was not very turned on by the ecumenical movement until I became radicalized on our trip to the Holy Land. We stumbled into the darkened Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and they gave each one of us a little candle. I looked around through the candlelight and noticed that there were plenty of light fixtures, but none had been turned on. “Why,” I asked, “do we have to stumble around with candles?” The Muslim policeman patiently explained to me that the Christian groups who use the church fight among themselves about who should pay the light bills. Consequently, the Muslims had to shut the power off in order to stop the fighting. This is the Middle East I’m talking about. Where in the world is there a more urgent need for a witness of unity and brotherhood? Here were the Christians, in this great Christian church, witnessing to disunity. That’s not the end of it. At precisely 5 p.m. the Muslim policeman gently but firmly requested that we leave. I protested because we hadn’t really seen much of the church yet. Again, the Muslim policeman patiently explained that because Christian groups constantly fight among themselves about who is to have the right to open and close the church, the key had to be taken from them. This sorry episode opened my eyes to the urgent need for us Christians to be the signs of unity we are called to be, rather than the signs of division we so often are.”[i]
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul tells the church. It was like, “Come on you guys! Remember who you’re supposed to be following!”
Apparently – accordingly to Paul’s various letters – there was a lot of conflict among those early struggling Christian churches.
A reality that hasn’t seemed to change all that much over the past 2,000 years.
So we can understand Paul’s sense of urgency for those under his charge. He desperately wanted his congregations to be faithful in their witness to the love of Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit; particularly toward a world that was less than hospitable toward that early church and highly skeptical regarding their budding new religion.
Paul’s vision for the world was that “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So, of course, Paul wanted the first generation of Christ’s church to bear witness to the Lord of Love, the Prince of Peace. And he was afraid these emerging Christians were blowing that witness.
“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry,” Paul writes, “but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love,” Paul admonishes, “knowing that I have been put here [in prison] for defending the gospel; the others proclaim Christ, not sincerely, but out of selfish ambition; apparently with the intention of increasing my suffering in my imprisonment” (my paraphrase).
And, although Paul doesn’t directly say it, it doesn’t take much interpretation to figure out which category the Philippians’ church fell into.
“Why does it matter?” Paul goes on. “Just this: that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and (as far as that goes)” he says, “I rejoice” (again my paraphrase).
But the problem, of course, is that the character of the witness profoundly affects the relative impact it has on our world.
In response to the British Rule of India – England’s effort to civilize, educate and Christianize India (as did the Portuguese, the French, the Danish, and the Dutch before them) – Mohandas Gandhi started the Indian Independence Movement; a non-violent civil disobedience movement that would later become the primary inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr.
At the height of that movement, Gandhi observed, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
And while Christians argue (not surprisingly) as to whether or not Gandhi fully understood who and what Jesus Christ was, no one can deny the accuracy of the observation he made under those circumstances regarding Christians’ own apparent lack of understanding and emulation of the One they professed as Lord of their life.
Sometime later, Bishop Desmond Tutu had a similar observation about Christians (around the world) who seemed particularly indifferent regarding the atrocities of Apartheid: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Bishop Tutu proclaimed, with his own growing sense of urgency, “God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family; that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.”
From his own imprisonment, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be . . . This is the inter-related structure of reality.”[ii]
“Remember,” says Richard Rohr in one of his daily devotions, “how you do anything is how you do everything. Without connectedness and communion, we don’t exist fully as our truest selves. Becoming who we really are is a matter of learning how to become more and more deeply connected. No one can go to heaven alone—or it would not be heaven.”[iii]
Albert Einstein claimed that the most important question of all in life is this: “Is the universe a friendly place or not?”
In Einstein’s brilliance: “For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly. And I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.”
Einstein goes on to say, “If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially `playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.”
“But,” Einstein concludes, “if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”
Recognizing our connectedness may well be the only hope we have as human beings sharing this fragile world – a world that is increasingly shrinking as technology, exploitation of natural resources and access to weapons of mass destruction along with the capacity to deliver those weapons across great distances increasingly grows.
We are not simply victims.
Our lives do have meaning and purpose.
We cannot simply stand by in indifference and inaction.
We are called to make a choice.
We can make a difference.
As my all-time favorite benediction from William Sloane Coffin says, “May God give you grace never to sell yourself short! May God give you grace to risk something big for something good! May God give the grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”
That’s the witness we are called, as peacemakers in Christ Jesus, to share with the world.
Richard Rohr shares a wonderful children’s book called Old Turtle and the Broken Truth. It’s a story about how the world came to be so fragmented when it is meant to be whole and how we might put it back together again. He writes, “I invite you to read this tale as a child might, with wonder and imagination.” It goes like this:
“One night, in a far-away land that “is somehow not so far away,” a truth falls from the stars. As it falls it breaks into two pieces; one piece blazes off through the sky and the other falls straight to the ground. One day, a man stumbles upon the gravity-drawn truth and finds carved on it the words, “You are loved.” It makes him feel good, so he keeps it and shares it with the people in his tribe. The thing sparkles and makes the people who have it feel warm and happy. It becomes their most prized possession, and they call it “The Truth.” Those who have the truth grow afraid of those who don’t have it, who are different. And those who don’t have it covet it. Soon people are fighting over the small truth, trying to capture it for themselves.
A little girl who is troubled by the growing violence, greed, and destruction in her once-peaceful world goes on a journey—through the Mountains of Imagining, the River of Wondering Why, and the Forest of Finding Out—to speak with Old Turtle, the wise counselor. Old Turtle tells her that the Truth is broken and missing a piece, a piece that shot off in the night sky so long ago. Together they search for it and, when they find it, the little girl puts the jagged piece in her pocket and returns to her people. She tries to explain, but no one will listen or understand. Finally, a raven flies the broken truth to the top of a tower, where the other piece has been ensconced for safety, and the rejoined pieces shine their full message: “You are loved – and so are they.” And the people begin to comprehend. And the earth begins to heal.”[iv]
Let it ever be so; through the Love of Jesus Christ.
[i] Colaianni, James F. ed. Sunday Sermons Treasury of Illustrations, Vol. ii, Pleasantville, NJ: Voicings Pub.
[ii] King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter From Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
[iii] Rohr, Richard, OFM, Community as Alternative Consciousness, Tuesday, April 19, 2016, Center for Action and Contemplation.
[iv] Rohr, Richard, OFM, Union: Weekly Summary, Sunday, December 11 – Friday, December 16, 2016.