Ours is a faith of universal claims. And sometimes those claims can get Christianity into trouble. Look to poor Galileo, much maligned by the church for discovering that the earth revolved around the sun, in contradiction to the plain text of Scripture. In one of his many heresy trials, Galileo reportedly said, “The Bible teaches us the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.” Even poor Galileo turned out to be only partially right. Yes, the earth revolves around the Sun, but Galileo thought the Sun was the center of the universe. Now we know we orbit a small speck of light in a galaxy made up of millions of stars, in a much wider universe, all in motion.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…All things came into being through [the Word].”
The beginning of John’s Gospel is a universal claim. John ups the stakes on the story of Christmas. We still find ourselves in the midst of the 12 days of Christmas. (Because I know some of you went there, we are on day six: look for the swans-a-swimming). Christmas is an ongoing celebration in the church, even if the store have moved on to Valentine’s Day. The Incarnation takes some time to digest. So even after the shepherds have gone home, post-Silent night, John comes to tell us about the Word, the Logos. John’s Gospel raises the stakes and tells us this Jesus has universal consequences.
This hymn from John, the first verses of the Gospel’s first chapter, take the specific event of Jesus’ birth and plays out the truly universal questions. Much of the church’s teaching on Jesus’ identity as God, as the second person of the Trinity, is sourced from these verses. In the beginning was the Word. That is to say, Jesus is co-equal with God. The Word participated in all of creation. Without the Word not one thing came into being. That is a universal claim. The very same person who is present in Jesus was present in the creation of all things, all. As the theologian Paul Tillich says, God is the “ground of all being.” All. Universal.
This morning, universal claim is made in the literal sense, not “the way the heavens go” as Galileo reminded the church, but universal in terms of God’s relationship to all things, the whole cosmos. All is shaped by God. All is close to God. All belongs to God. From the greatest Galaxy to the smallest atomic particle. Even the “flesh” the “sarx” in Greek, that term Paul uses for the worst of human stuff. The ultimate other of God is not other. God becomes flesh, sarx. Nothing and no one is far from God. The universality is breathtaking, and healing in a world that can feel so distant from God.
I know that many of us in this congregation struggle with Universal claims. I do. Partly this is because, for Western Christians, Universality has been tied to Colonialism. The expansion of Christianity has been really the expansion of Christendom. Folks have converted to our faith at the tip of a sword. Indigenous peoples in this hemisphere were baptized and became subjects of European empires at the same time. The ancestors of many in this congregation were forced from their homes, sold into slavery, and became Christian as part of their obedience to their supposed owners. People, across Christian history, were made to confess the creed on pain of death. So it becomes historically difficult to talk about the Universal Truth of Christianity. Other opinions were not allowed.
Some of you know that in a couple of short weeks I will be headed to India. I promise it wasn’t until after the tickets were purchased that I heard the story about the young man who attempted to preach the Gospel to that uncontacted tribe of India’s coast. I am not headed anywhere near them. Though I heard the story after I had bought the tickets, a few weeks ago I did have to apply for a visa to the country, and following the instructions I received from the trip leader I emphasized that though I was a priest, I was not coming as a missionary. India is wary of foreign religious leaders, especially Christians, coming to convert its citizens.
In fact I’m going to India for quite the opposite kind of experience. I’m going with a group of American monks and religious seekers to pray with Indians. We’ll be staying in a Vedanta Center and in a Catholic ashram (the Indian word for monastery). I chose this trip partly in response to the passion we heard in our goal-setting for this year at Holy Communion. So many in this congregation are curious about other religions, about how we are to relate. As the vestry and I listened to that curiosity echo from so many, I thought, I need to find a way to learn more about being a Christian in dialogue with other faiths. How do we hold together our sense of religious belonging, and yet bless that of our neighbor?
The most famous resident of the Catholic ashram we are visiting was an English Benedictine, Fr. Bede Griffiths. In 1965 he wrote, “What is required is a meeting of the different religious traditions at the deepest level of their experience of God. Hinduism is based on a deep, mystical experience, and everywhere seeks not to know ‘about’ God but to ‘know God,’…it is at this level that Christian and Hindu have to meet.” Bede went to India not to compel the conversion of the Hindus, but to meet God in their faith, to dialogue with them at the deepest level, to learn together.
Swami Vivekananda, the teacher who brought Hinduism to the West, gave a famous speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. In the speech he told the story of a frog in a well, who thought his well was the whole world. One day, a frog from the sea fell into the well. He tried to tell the first frog about the sea, but the first frog responded, “nothing can be bigger than my well; there can be nothing bigger than this; this fellow is a liar, so turn him out.” Vivekananda pokes at the difficulty of universal claims for religion. They are often shortsighted, and require a refusal of new information.
I am grateful to be part of a tradition that says that our church is not the whole pond, that points us beyond ourselves. In February our bishop will be here and a number of folks will be confirmed or received, they will become official Episcopalians. It’s a bit tricky to explain to folks that I, as the priest and pastor of Holy Communion, can’t make someone a member of our church. But we believe that membership is bigger than the parish, bigger than this particular corner of Delmar. We are part of a wider body.
In that sense, we say, we are a catholic church. In the text here catholic is spelled with a lower case “c.” The word means “universal.” We believe ourselves to be part of a universal faith tradition, much bigger than the four walls of this church. As Episcopalians, we belong to the Anglican Communion, the third largest body of Christians on the planet. There are close to 80 million Anglicans out there. And at our best, Anglicans have never limited our sense of church to a narrow tribalism. We have seen ourselves as a particular historical component of the wider church catholic, the universal church, “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement,” as our presiding Bishop likes to say.
That sense of universality, baked into our tradition, asks us to get outside our comfort zone, to go explore. I often ask folks when they visit another country, if they went and found the local Anglicans. If you head off to London, don’t miss Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. You are invited to come with us this Summer to El Salvador, and learn alongside Episcopalians who are fighting for human rights. If you’re in Boston, spend some time on retreat just off Harvard Square with the Episcopalian monks of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. I know a couple of our members visited the American Cathedral in Paris together just this Fall. Within our tradition we glimpse that sense that God always invites us out into wider and wider circles. God is there to meet us beyond our own property lines. Might we also go and visit God in the houses of worship beyond our own tradition?
Universal claims can cause problems for Christians, as they did in Colonial times, as they did for Galileo. Sometimes a sense of universality can make people of faith behave in ways that are surprisingly small. It took the church three hundred years to apologize to the scientist. The church has just begun to apologize to Indigenous peoples and to claim its responsibility for supporting the enslavement of people. Universal claims can be problematic.
But, held gently, Universal claims can also be an invitation. In the beginning was the Word…all things came into being through the Word…what came into being through the Word was life, a life to enlighten everyone.” When we have the sense that God is acting in wider ways than we might imagine, we might discover an invitation to explore, to go and seek God where God is willing to be found.
When we have the sense, as the Vatican Council put it, that the “Spirit blows where it pleases,” that God is out there, ALL across our universe, in EVERY people group, and EVERY language, and part of ALL creation, universal claims can transform, can intimate that ALL of creation is a sacrament of God’s love. We can go from using faith as a litmus test to seeing the tenets of our faith as an invitation, an invitation to seek what is good, and true, and beautiful, to look for the ways God is living and active. Here in St. Louis, in El Salvador, in India, even in Rome, can we experience the Word of God continuing to bring life and light, even in the places we weren’t taught to look?
As Christmas continues, how do you hold the news of this season? Are you skeptical? Does claiming Jesus as a universal figure make you nervous? (Nervousness is probably good, it keeps one humble). Are you frustrated with the history of the faith, and with those who would still like to force their beliefs on their neighbor? (Frustration can be good as well, it can lead us to work for change). Even in the midst of the nerves and the frustration, can you find a little wonder, a little awe, that you belong to a tradition that would make such a big claim? Can you kindle the embers of hope in the teaching of the church that God’s Word continues to create, to bring light, to bring light, to bring love? There might just be a message worth the universal teaching. Amen.