You meet the most interesting people on airplanes. Well, I didn’t meet these people but, on the way out to Salt Lake City two weeks ago I was on the same plane with Emily and Jeff, for those of you who watch the Bachelorette on ABC that has meaning!
But it was on my way home that I had my interesting encounter. I was in the Salt Lake City airport at 6:00 a.m. and was going through security when I noticed a large group of young men and women (young men in suits, and young women in conservative dresses). They had name tags on (like our church name tags) that read “Elder Jones” or “Sister Smith.” They were young Mormon missionaries on their way East to begin their 18 month commitment to mission; going door to door in communities and serving as guides and hosts at various Mormon temples and tourist sites.
As I made my way into the cabin of the airplane and found my seat I discovered that I was sitting next to a very lovely, sweet young woman who had her Bible and Book of Mormon on her lap. I couldn’t resist:
“Hi, I am John. Who are you?” She said: “I am Sister Smith.”
I asked: “Where are you going?” She said: “To Rochester, N.Y.”
“Why?” I said. “To begin my 18 month mission,” she said.
And so started an hour long conversation about faith, about being Mormon, and about being Presbyterian. Sister Smith, whose first name is Amanda, got a little wide eyed when she asked me who I was and what I did for a living and I said “I am a Presbyterian Pastor.” I think she thought I was going to become argumentative! But I behaved.
Actually, I am so fascinated by and deeply respectful of these young men and women who give up a significant portion of their life to live out their convictions and spread their faith. I love to hear their story and to listen to their conviction. They are impressive.
I asked her to practice her presentation on me and so she told me the story of Joseph Smith and the day he went into the sacred grove with an unsettling question on his heart. This was in the 1830’s and he wanted to know which of the Great Awakening Churches was the “right” one to join. He had a revelation from Jesus, who told him that none of the churches were right. This revelation inspired Joseph Smith towards a new expression of faith, and Mormonism was born. Amanda told me about the coming of the Risen Jesus to America. She explained the finding of the tablets, the angel Moroni, and even about the Mormon rite of baptism after death.
I shared my faith with her and finally got around to asking her the question: “What is my status, as a Christian, as a Presbyterian Pastor.” And as sweet as she was, it still came down to Mormon exceptionalism, unless I was baptized as a Mormon I was not part of the “real church.” I was OUT. The Mormons had the REAL and final answer and, at the end of the day, you were either in or you were out. There were boundaries, there were rules, there were beliefs, there was history.
Now I don’t want to be too rough on Amanda. I liked her a lot and wish that I had that kind of zeal to speak so openly about my faith in the public arena. She was doing what all faith traditions do: Put a stake in the ground, draw a line in the sand, create a boundary that clarifies who is in and who is out. We can all be nice to each other but, at the end of the day, we are right and you are wrong, someone is in and that means that someone is out. God has somehow revealed to us the TRUE truth, and all the rest of you all are … well… as nice as you are, close but no cigar. Remember, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Christians do it, Jews do it, Muslims do it, Bahai’s do it (even as they critique everyone else for doing it).
There is always a tendency (a human predilection – perhaps we can call it original sin) to believe, to think that there is something unique and final and true and more important about being however we define ourselves; the eternal tendency to put ME in the center, US in the center of the world.
I was looking at the world map the other day that is hanging on our wall at home. North America is right in the center. But I have lived in Britain, guess which nation is right in the center of their world map?
In the first century, the Romans thought they were exceptional – calling everyone else barbarians. Many of the Jews thought they were exceptional – calling everyone else Gentiles.
For a while Paul thought he himself was exceptional – being so zealous for the law.
I hear lots of politicians use the phrase American exceptionalism. I am as patriotic as the next guy, but Paul would no doubt shake his head about this kind of thinking.
Paul again and again, reminds us that this tendency to boast about our own righteousness, our own exceptionalism is not righteous. St. Paul makes no bones about it: this kind of thinking is wrong headed; misses the point of the Gospel of Jesus Christ completely. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God….there is no distinction.” There is absolutely no room for boasting. If you are going to boast – boast in your suffering, Paul tells us.
This boasting of exceptional favor, is precisely what got St. Paul riled up. Paul’s insight is this: God is not just the God of the Jews. God is the God of the Gentiles and everyone else because God is God. No one should presume to be have special status, but then again, no one should presume to judge anyone else not worthy of God’s inclusive grace. This is what Jesus Christ taught St. Paul.
Because of so much that had happened to the Jewish people: exile, persecution, the diaspora (as Jews were spread all over the known world) and in Jerusalem Roman occupation it was natural that Jews wanted to create defining boundaries: This is what it means to be Jewish. The LAW, was a national boundary marker. It was their line in the sand of demarcation.
Paul was declaring to his day and to our, to them and to you and me: there are no longer boundary markers, so stop creating them. Or at least realize that all boundary markers are relative and passing. The Law helps us live good orderly lives, the law gives us parameters and points the way – but just by being rules followers doesn’t make us better, or purer, or more blessed, or exceptional. Just because we have a history that we give thanks for and seek to defend – doesn’t make us more holy.
God is doing something grander than picking and choosing. God is breaking every barrier down: there is no more Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Male or Female. Those are radical words – boundary busters.
Too many read Romans and think that Paul was just creating a new kind of law… to avoid God’s wrath we still have to do something so that we can get on God’s good side so we can go to heaven when we die. So we can be the exceptional people who are IN.
That is precisely the kind of faith, and the kind of thinking that Paul says NO to. NO, NO, NO. Faith is not about where you will spend eternity. Faith is not about making sure you stay out of trouble lest you anger God. Faith is not about being part of an in group. Faith is TRUST, giving your heart to the proposition that God loves you, and everyone else and so start acting like you believe it.
Faith is not so much about faith IN Jesus as the defining marker, BUT seeking to live your life with the faith OF Jesus. In verses 22 and 26 in the text, I know the English reads “through faith in Jesus for all who believe.” And “he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”
But the GREEK is wonderfully ambiguous and the choice of the translators to choose IN doesn’t make sense to me, given the whole argument of Paul that there is no longer any in or out. We are to have the faith OF Jesus – a fine translation too – And what does it mean to have the faith OF Jesus?
It means to open your life to the movement of God’s spirit in you, to listen intently, to do as Jesus did – to see the world not as some mud wrestling pit of endurance – where some win and some lose, where some are better than others, where some are exceptional and other entitled, and some in and others out – but the world, and our lives are the location of grace – we are freed, and loved and God is active, and we are called to spread that good news to all, to break all the barriers down, and not exclude anybody, and to share the abundance.
For in God all are invited to the party. The sad thing is when you are standing in the middle of the dance floor and won’t dance or, standing at the buffet line, refusing to eat.
That is what Paul is telling us today. No exceptionalism – just love for all.
It is more than saying: “Come on in, the door is open!” It is more like saying: “There isn’t any door and you are already right in the middle!”
Do you have ears to hear, and hearts to follow? AMEN.