ALL SAINTS’ DAY, 2004
Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18:
It is critical from time to time (if not every time and all the time) to take ourselves on an outside body experience, to look in at ourselves from the outside. It is a maxim that we should apply to every facet of our lives. How do we as a nation look to outsiders? How do we as a town or district look to outsiders? How do we as a faith look to outsiders? How do we as a faith community look to outsiders? In the case of these last two we might also look for any disparity between the two sets of observations; do we as a faith community demonstrate the same strengths and weaknesses we as a faith might demonstrate? That is a question we might place on notice for a while.
There are many in the community around us, and in the wider world of other religions and of the rejection of religion, who see selfishness at the heart of the gospel. Much of Christianity portrays itself as a religion obsessed with something called the ‘salvation’ of the believer’s soul, the passport of the individual believer from the trials of this world into a more benevolent world as yet unseen. To make it worse there are forms of Christianity that make that observation all too true. Taking words of Paul wildly out of context, these interpreters see ‘the present form of this world is passing away’ as an invitation to disregard human or environmental suffering as something of no moment to the believer: ‘the present form of this world is passing away’ so why care, for I have my passport to the next world?
I have a hunch that this is in part at the heart of the growing western, and especially Australian, rejection of Christianity. The tough environment in which our forebears made their way offered little encouragement for God-botherers. Why suffer deprivation in the present in order to take a chance on an unseen future?
The Buddhist observer might add another dimension to the question: can your own future good time with God, your salvation and future existence in some state called heaven, ever be a state of wholeness when there are others who will not share it? The Archbishop of Sydney, so much in the news at present, has been very public about his fears that his mother, who died without public confession of faith, is unable to share God’s reign with him. The Buddhist would ask whether, in that case, the Archbishop of Sydney would ever be able to embrace the eternities of God, when the population of heaven is so deplete and the mother who gave him life is not invited to share in the eschatological banquet. The very act of enjoying such circumstances would be to the Buddhist an act and a state of selfishness. A look from the outside at our readings from Daniel and Ephesians would do little to dispel their doubts; the first celebrates the future of the ‘holy ones of the Most High’ who ‘shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever,’ while the second announces with seeming smugness ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance.’
How then, are we, (if we believe our encounter with the risen Lord is genuinely a message of hope for God’s world) to project a gospel of hope, and not one of selfish reality-denial? It may in fact be that the Buddhist observer can give us a hint as to how the saints should live. For at the heart of Buddhism, and, one would hope, at the heart of our faith too, is a call to reject selfishness. The Buddhists might say a call to reject ‘self’ altogether, and there we might part company with them. We might instead say with the great and grumpy saint Paul, that ours is a call to de-prioritize self: it is no longer I who lives (no longer I who matters), but Christ who lives in me. Or, as John the Baptist puts it in the Fourth Gospel, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ The motivation for our life becomes, in that case, no longer our own happy time in the eternal futures of God, but our call to bring others to know the compassionate Christ who whispers words of justice and compassion into the ears and hearts of the most lonely and broken and wretched of the earth. We are called, as German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, to live for others.
If, wearing our outsider mask, we were to walk into much Christian worship or conversation, we would hear much self-centred singing about the gatherers. Many songs would be about the exclusive, even elite, relationship we claim to enjoy with God: ‘I’ve been redeemed by the blood of the lamb,’ or of the auto-erotic ‘just let me say how much I love you’ varieties. Such songs wallow in the ‘me and Jesus’ relationship, and say nothing of what that relationship does to challenge us to proclaim by loving action God’s reign in the world. That is one major reason why Anne and I are very careful about the songs we allow in worship: what we sing and how we worship dictates the types of believer that we become. It also tells those on the outside looking in who we are. Are we a selfish people of god, or a people of God challenged by God to exercise transforming love in the world that is lent to us? We are called to be the public face of God, and that is no slight challenge.
Yet in the end, we all know people along the way who have inspired us by their ability to be that public face of God and (to slaughter my grammar) to be it well. Some are famous: the great saints down through the ages. Others are those known to us alone, the people who touched and transformed our lives, breathed the breath of God into our lungs, and encouraged us along life’s journey. It is these we celebrate this day.