James 2:1-10 (11-13) 14-17 “A Universal Love for All”
Mark 7:24-37 “Jesus Goes Outside the Borders”
We like to be special. All people like a sense of specialness, to have one’s identity defined by a special uniqueness or gift. And so people can be defined by their physical specialness, their psychological profiles whether they are introvert or extrovert, whether they are intuitive or sensory, whether they like to get things done quickly or go more slowly and deliberately.
In this life among people and institutions there are endless comparisons. We’re defined by our races, by our ancestry, whether we were a country boy or a city girl and especially by our religious identities. Most of us perhaps growing up in this country define ourselves if we had a religion, as Christian. But it’s becoming more common even in our country define ourselves as something else. It could be Muslim, or Buddhist, or Jewish or increasingly as an atheist. All these descriptions can be seen is what makes a person special or unique.
Certainly it’s okay to recognize these differences and diversity because it’s a part of the world in which we live. The only caution is that there is a tendency to take them too seriously, and to think that our specialness somehow makes us more special in the eyes of destiny and even among people around us. In eternity or in an eternal view, all forms are mortal and thus are passing. Or we often say that in God’s sight, speaking anthropomorphically, we’re all seen as the same.
While practicing golf at the local practice range in Hamburg, I found myself next to a friend that I’ve known for the past two years. To my surprise he is taking up golf! It seems that his son who is been in the Air Force now for a couple years, has discovered golf on one of those numerous country club courses which seem to accompany most big bases. And so we were talking a little bit about our lives and our families and our readings and thinking. He told me how recently and watched a history or science channel in which Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk upon the moon on July 20, 1969, was being honored following his recent death. One of the astronauts that accompanied him describe the sense of awe and wonder circling around the moon in a small spacecraft, looking back at the little ball that was now the earth and thinking how terribly insignificant he felt amid the billions of years, of light years in space! The astronaut described how it was a spiritual awakening to him, but then added perhaps sadly, it was “nothing like anything you would find in most churches.”
I then asked my friend if he had ever heard of Edgar Mitchell, another one of the astronauts who on a later mission also walked on the moon’s surface. The mission became a spiritual transformation in his life and shortly after they returned to Earth, Mitchell left the NASA program and devoted his life to spiritual studies and understandings. Today several chapters of his organization, The Institute of Noetic Science, exist around the country. The nearest chapter around here is in Toronto.
Yes from the perspective of space it may be easier to perceive our finite existence in a speck of time in the eternity of space around us. Without our sense of being part of the Great Spirit, or the great Creator, with the great Tao, we would be as nothing but a speck of sand in an endless desert.
That’s why I believe Jesus was what I would call a “Universalist.” For the writings we have about him reveal he taught God as Spirit and in this Spirit or Kingdom of heaven we all abide and have the potential to experience. We could call it the Presence or the Mind, or the Soul, Mother Earth or Father time. It’s beyond description because it just is! As a part of every one of us, incarnated in a mysterious way in these mortal bodies, we are all one with the same Spirit called Love. We see in the lessons from ancient Scriptures this emphasis. We see ourselves as one with all those whom we consider poor or outside of our circles, and among the rich or the richest. We also see it in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 7, with the story of Jesus connecting with a Syrophoenician woman and a deaf man. To many of the Israelites, who tended to think of themselves as God’s special people, these were Gentiles or unclean. In the stories of Jesus, he went out of his way to show inclusion with a universal love for all peoples! There are no inferiors, there are no people with “bad karma” who must be shunned because of their condition, race, sexuality, or language.
No doubt this was why Jesus’ ministry was mainly done on the streets and in villages of his area. Not much of his ministry was done in temples or synagogues and what he did wasn’t recorded with favorable acceptance. (Like being chased toward a cliff after the sermon ended!) Jesus shunned special identities which gave some people God’s special favors over others. Jesus was a universalist in the sense of recognizing all people as having a center which was divine, and that within dust like himself there was a part of heaven itself considered to be a Child of God.
Historians have pointed out how in the early centuries of the current era (C.E.) the universality of the message of a man named Jesus was carried to all peoples. It was a simple message that inside every one of us resides Divinity or Holiness. To experience and live by it one must awaken to it, which is the experience or the true meaning of resurrection. And so whether Greek or Roman, bond or free, rich or poor, male or female, in our divinity or our Spirit we are all the same, One in Christ, our True Selves!
However, this teaching of the universality of the divine presence began to be shut down in the third and especially the forth centuries. Leaders within the church, aided by the emperors of the Roman Empire, sought to bring the empire together with one emperor with one faith. And without that faith a person was to be considered lost and damned to eternal hell. The fourth century creeds (Apostle and Nicene) made it one way to get into the one form to being one of the special ones to be saved for all eternity as one of God’s favorites. Yes, there was resistance at first, as writers such as Origen, but by the Six Century with the collapse of the once great Roman Empire into the hands of the Catholic rulers, the teaching of universalism was officially banned.
And so for most of us raised in the Christian church, exclusiveness has been a common teaching we were given. We were among the humanity born as sinners and totally depraved, unfit for the presence of God. There was no way, we were taught, that we could ever be accepted into the holy presence of our Maker. And so we were taught a man named Jesus came to earth as the only perfect Son of God. And as the perfect son of God, he died shedding his blood as a lamb upon altar so that we, accepting him and making a confession of our sins and belief in the shed blood, could be accepted as one of God’s special elect children. And along with this special election, and repeating the beliefs and following the directives of the church’s teachings, we could be guaranteed eternal life in the form of our resurrected bodies!
Yet the teachings of universalism have remained. The ideas of early church leaders or followers of Jesus who were called Gnostics, taught the experience of our divine nature coming to life by our awakening to it. There were various renewals of these teachings over the centuries, often in monasteries, and in teachings of Thomas Aquinas and his “heretic” follower, Meister Eckert. But universalism became renewed most forcefully in the period of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century. First there were the Anabaptists, and then later the Unitarians, and then the Universalists. They all taught that by awakening to the understanding of our divine nature being within, we could have and experience eternal life right now. But with the nineteenth century’s further development in Newtonian science and predictability, these teachings seemed to fade in the West. But in the last century with teachers like Albert Einstein and the evolution of quantum physics teaching the relativity of time and space, a new appreciation and experience of mystery has been awakened. Along with that there’s been a new awakening to the religions of the East which stress our liberation as found in the awakening to the presence of the Divine within. We’ve seen and felt it in the experience of the past generation, the New Age thinking with renewal of meditation, eclectic meditation music, and pilgrimages to the East. Today a large percentage of people who claim membership in traditional religions now accept such things as clairvoyance, telepathy and reincarnation. Today there is also a growing acceptance of the great diversity of all people among all races and with their various sexual preferences. The old ecumenical alliances of various church denominations of the past century are giving away to new ones which today are called Interfaith rather than Ecumenical.
Perhaps we are seeing a portrayal of the future church. Such new beginnings will certainly cause conflicts as new ideas clash was some of the old. But ears and hearts are opening to a new awakening, a sense of new life, to the oneness of life in the midst of all of our individuality and seemingly differences. Awakening can be painful but in time it becomes wonderful.
This is the season of many students returning to college. For thousands of students this will be their first time away from home. Many of them, like myself many years ago, will find a transition to a new and much more diverse culture overwhelming and threatening. In my experience 50 years ago, I was ready to leave college in two weeks! A parent told me a few days ago their son went away to his first college year and they’re not allowed to speak to him for over a month! It’s like a young person going into the service and for six weeks of basic training not being allowed contact from his or her family. It’s a time of painful transition into a new awareness, into a new maturity, into a new and much broader world than ever been experienced before.
As this church and many others go through transitions from the narrow teachings of the old to a much broader understanding of the Presence of Spirit everywhere in every person, it will become a radical new beginning. It can and will be painful, shocking, lonely, and creating at times a deep homesickness for the security once was enjoyed. We will want to “quit and go back home to mama.” But as the pain and newness is patiently endured and accepted, a much deeper and broader life unfolds before us all. May that be the experience throughout the Christendom world and all others during these years, and even here in West Seneca, NY.
Summary of talk presented at the 1st Presbyterian Church of West Seneca on September 9, 2012, by Rev. David Persons.