“…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Is. 56:7
Today is designated by many congregations throughout the world as World Communion Sunday. The idea began in 1933 from the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was then sent as an overture to the General Assembly and adopted in 1936 by the Presbyterian Church USA. In 1940 Worldwide Communion Sunday was adopted by the Federal Council of churches, which in 1946 became known as the National Council of Churches. Then as now, not everybody agreed to such a World Communion, but many did and many more do now.
The idea was to promote our interconnectedness among Christian churches and individuals. Again, many congregations in the world did not join and probably never will. For unless there are identical belief statements about God, Jesus, the Bible and doctrines, many will never join.
However the movement has grown and evolved. In cities like Buffalo what was formerly known as a council of Churches changed in the 1990s. The Buffalo Council of Churches had begun back in 1857. But in 1975, about the time we moved here, it became known as the Metropolitan Ministries and soon expanded to include the Roman Catholics. Then a significant change came in 1999 when it became known as the Network of Religious Communities. So no longer is it just a network of people who call themselves Christian but includes members of six or seven different religious organizations.
The growing view of many, including myself, is that we are actually all One in Christ! It’s a belief to not further divide us but to unite us. It’s a belief based on understanding the universality of God’s Spirit in all peoples. And to make a network of religious communities operate, it becomes much more than making a proper confession of oneness but joining hands in prayer and service to one another as well to as the community around us.
From our birth, however, we have based our identities on our uniqueness and separateness. We discover our genders, what race we belong, what country we should give allegiance and what parties we should belong to in opposition to others. How did this all happen? It happened in the universe and with us all being born in time! It is what happened 14 or 15 billion years ago when out of nothing the “Big Bang” occurred and matter was born exploding into billions and billions of little pieces. Why or how did all of this happen? There are many theories but the one I go back to the most over the years is from that book called A Course in Miracles. “Into eternity where all is one, there crept a tiny, mad idea, at which the Son of God remembered not to laugh.” (Ch. 27, VIII.6, “The Healing of the Dream”)
Where then did the universe come from? It came from our dreams, our imaginations of what it would be like to be separate from our Creator God and on our own. But I often ask, “Why would we ever do that? Why would we leave paradise and come to this place of conflict, disease and death?” Some suggest it was our “boredom” with love, paradise, and with never having conflicts! And so our ego was born and now we live in this dream of being separate from our Source, the one Great Spirit of which we are all Oneness.
With our ego being born, came the idea we are bodies and somehow special in our differentness. As the Course says, “The pursuit of specialness is always at the cost of peace. ….. Specialness is the idea of sin made real. Sin is impossible even to imagine without this base. For sin arose from it, out of nothingness; an evil flower with no roots at all.” (Ch. 24, “The Goal of Specialness”)
Peace, love and communion are then found in our return to holy oneness. It comes from our awakening or resurrection that all forms are just temporal and unreal. It comes from our awakening to the reality of spirit, of our angelic existence, of our non-separation from the Source who made us. Often people are blessed, and we by them, when they have special messages sent to them from Entities on the “Other Side.” Helen Shucman, scriber of the Course, was one of those, listening and writing what she was given from a Voice.
The Bible teaches this as well. Yes, to be sure, many can use the Bible as a book of separation. They can point out that Israel became the specially chosen and beloved nation as the special people of God. The rest were damned, despised, delegated to seen as lost heathens.
But the true purpose of Biblical “specialness” was simply to teach others that we are all one. We see it in the blessings given to the patriarch Abraham recorded in the story from Genesis 12:
“Now the Lord said to Abram, go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…… And in you all families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This is the purpose of an enlightened mind and people at its best; not believing we are the only ones part of the eternal family of spirit but privileged to be teachers and sharers of our universal oneness!
Thus holy places created under ancient Israel and through the church era were all to be centers of the universal teaching that we all can come back Home to God by our awakening. In Isaiah 56 we read:
“…and the foreigners who joined themselves to the Lord, to love the name of the Lord and to be his servants, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer; – for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples!”
In the early church writings toward the end of the first century we read from John’s Gospel, chapter 16:
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this goal. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
A few years earlier we read from the anonymous writer of Acts where Peter awakened to his real purpose of spreading the good news of the universal love of God.
“Then Peter began to speak to them saying, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:34)
Yes, forms may different as they certainly do, and the words and the rituals will have great diversity. But it is to be the same Oneness of spirit among all peoples of the earth. But over the ages each religion has succumbed to the idea that somehow its beliefs, practices and words are more loved and favored by the Divine Creator than others. So how then is this universal oneness, this worldwide communion recognized?
It is recognized by loving and forgiveness offered to each other. It is recognized in our practices of living and walking the talk. As we say here each Sunday, “Lord forgive us our sins or our debts as we forgive others.” It is recognized in how we love our adversaries and enemies in different ways than the usual hatred and brutality. I remember back on 9/11 when at the close of the day, as we all had been shocked by the tragedy of the events of the attack on the twin towers, a group of us gathered in the sanctuary of Wayside to support and pray for one another and our country. One of our older members walked in and I still remember him saying to me, “now we must learn that hardest lesson of all; loving and forgiving our enemies.”
The late Joseph Campbell said in his 1991 interview with Bill Moyer that the greatest failure of world religions, Christianity included, has been their unwillingness to forgive its enemies. And thus for the most part of history the world has been ruled and led by hatred from Christians, Muslims, Hebrews, Buddhists and Hindus as the world’s greatest religions. Such a historical record prompted the late author Christopher Hitchens to write his top-selling book, “God is Not Great!” In his book he argues quite convincingly that “organized religions have created the violent, irrational, and intolerant thinking in our world as they have allied themselves to tribalism, racism and bigotry, investing in ignorance, hostility toward free inquiry, contemptuous of women, coercive toward children and being so sectarian that it ought to have a great deal on his conscience!” I agree.
As some of you may know that most of my troubles over the years of working in the church have resulted in becoming too inclusive! I’ve been criticized for not being Reformed enough, not being traditional enough, not being even Christian or Jesus centered! However as I read the stories of Jesus in our Gospels, I feel at times in pretty good company! And obviously we see that Jesus would tolerate none of it; he simply spent most of his time working outside of officially organized religion.
A popular book being read today in many traditional churches like the Presbyterian is called, “Christianity Beyond Religion.” It addresses many of the reasons why people today are turning away from organized religions and churches. The author, Diane Butler Bass, charges that in many churches today, “It’s all about form and very little about spirit, love, and forgiveness.” When she asked a group of Presbyterian pastors, most graduates from Princeton Seminary who were leading churches in that area she was visiting, what their central ideas were about their churches as religious centers, answers came: It’s about Roberts Rules of Order! It’s about keeping the Book of Order and the traditions from our Reformed heritage alive.” She said it was almost unbelievable to hear such answers and statements from present leadership in Presbyterian churches. (“Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening”, Harper One, 2012)
It reminds me of the Vatican’s response to the recent manuscript suggesting that Jesus may have been married. The response said; “The work of scholars will never change us from believing and practicing our traditions and our doctrines!” Amazing!
On December 22 of this year some believe that a significant change in the world’s thinking may occur. It marks the end of the old Mayan calendar of a previous age of divisions and borders. Some felt it predicted the end of the world. But others believe it predicts the end of an era or age. They hope it marks the beginning of the new age of inclusiveness, of seeing the one God of eternal love within all peoples. I hope it is this renewal, a “New Age” of visionaries seeing the possibilities of living more on earth like it is in Heaven. The question we ask, however, is will this awareness come to you and to me?” Will it mark a new openness to the universal presence of divine oneness, leaving behind those destructive ideas of specialness to be replaced with a new inclusiveness? Will it return us to a deeper Spirit identity as the True and Higher Selves? Will we practice more consciously that awareness each day and in each encounter? Will we practice a love which does not demand by force or harshness but allows love to be loved? Will it be a new age where Christianity will fulfill the words attributed to Jesus; “If I be lifted up, I will draw all people unto myself?” (John 12:32)
Summary of a talk shared on October 7, 2012 with the folks at 1st Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, NY.