Earlier this week, as I was searching through iTunes for various podcasts and other such things that I could download to my new iPod, I came across a lecture by Sir Jonathan Sacks. Lord Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, and he was giving a lecture at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) on the topic of a book he wrote a while back entitled, “The Dignity of Difference.” I haven’t yet had a chance to read this book – though I hope to in the near future – but the book’s subtitle is “How to avoid the clash of civilizations,” and its thesis, as I understand it, is to offer insights into how to deal with the very real and unique conflicts of the 21st century. I mention this now because some of what I’m going to say comes from Rabbi Sacks and, coincidentally, is very relevant to the Scriptures we have before us this evening.
There is, I think, a tension that is experienced by all of us who claim that through our beliefs and expressions of religious faith we have some connection with the Truth, with the Divine, with God. That tension can potentially be experienced by all people of faith – especially by those of us who come from the monotheistic traditions of the west and who believe in One Universal God who is the God of all that is, the God of all creation. This tension, sadly, is one that isn’t always expressed or resolved in a very pretty way. And the tension is simply this: If – on the one hand – we as a people of faith believe in the One God and in the tradition that is ours, the tradition that leads us to love and serve and worship and come to know God in THIS way — and they who are “out there” – on the other hand – they who are not part of us and yet who also claim to know God in ways that are markedly different from ours, and perhaps even hold particular beliefs that are not only different but even contrary to ours – how can we both be right? If God is universal and One – shouldn’t the ways of knowing and serving God also be universal and One?
In today’s world, you don’t have to look very far to see what I was referring to when I said that this tension isn’t always expressed in a pretty way. We live in a world where conflict and discord seem to be more the rule rather than the exception; and whil hopefully that’s less true in our personal lives that it is on the world stage, it may be true there, as well. Whether we look at our own political battles here in the US – battles that seem to be becoming more strident every day – or if we look around the world and see the conflicts between powers great and small – isn’t it the case that all parties to such conflicts, regardless of what they are, are in some way claiming, “We have the Truth”? Aren’t they claiming, “We are right, and you are wrong”?
It struck me as I was reading the scriptures for today how flawed that way of living in the world can be. Let me read to you again a line from today’s 2nd reading from the Book of Revelation: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God.”
Notice that the author of this very Christian text does not say, “God’s dwelling is with the followers of Jesus.” The author does not say, “God’s dwelling is with the Catholics … or the Protestants … or the Evangelicals … or even the Christians.” The author doesn’t say, “God’s dwelling is with the Jews … or the Muslims … or the Buddhists … or the atheists.” The text does not say, “God’s dwelling is with the Democrats … or the Republicans … or the young … or the elderly … with the able-bodied or the physically-challenged.” It doesn’t say, “God’s dwelling is with the straight people … or the gay people … or those who form families ‘this way’ or ‘that way.’” The text is quite clear, especially with its more accurate translation of the Greek word, anthropon, translating it into English not as “men” (as was the case in some older translations), but as the more accurate “human race” or “humanity.” God’s dwelling is with the human race; it is with all humanity that God dwells. For those in our world who tend to see “the other” only by the labels that set them apart from us, that’s an essential insight for us to remember. God dwells with “them” as much an as completely as God dwells with “them.”
That being said, what then, does it matter whether we are Christians or not? If being a good Christian leads ultimately to the same divine dwelling as does being a good Muslim, or a good Jew or a good American or a good Iranian … what difference does it make? In the end, when the former earth has passed away and God’s reign of a new heaven and new earth is upon us, such distinctions might mean very little. But in the meantime, you and I must live our lives not in the general, in the abstract … but we must live our lives in the concrete, the flesh-and-blood of the here-and-now. We must live our lives marked by the very real differences that exist among and between us.
In his lecture, Rabbi Sacks tells a story of when he was a young man, considering the possibility of becoming a rabbi. He feared, however, that if he became more religious, more immersed in the faith and history and traditions of Judaism, that he might begin to lose interest in or even respect for things non-Jewish. In sharing this fear with an old Rabbi, he was told this parable:
“Imagine 2 people whose lives are spent carrying stones. That’s what they do, they carry bags of stones. One spends his life carrying what he sees as just rocks and rubbish, and the other carries diamonds. Now, imagine if you give each a sack of emeralds. The person who spends his life carrying rocks thinks, ‘Ah … here’s just another heavy sack to ‘schlep,’ another burdensome weight to carry.’ But the one who spends his life carrying diamonds knows that these emeralds are stones of great value. And even though they aren’t diamonds, they’re still precious. And so it is with us. If your religion is for you just a heavy weight, a burdensome bag of rocks, a dead weight which you experience as a simply a strain on your back and in which you see no beauty at all, then not only will you not value your own religion, you won’t be able to value the religion of others. But if you know your religion is beautiful and precious … if your religion and your faith are for you a beautiful diamond … then when you see an emerald, you may realize that it’s not your kind of stone, but you will also realize that on its own it is beautiful and precious. The more we value and appreciate the real beauty of the faith which is ours, the better we can see and value the beauty in the faith lives of others.”
One of the diamonds for us as Christians is that very simple commandment of Jesus that we love one another. This is what we hear Jesus say today in our reading from John’s Gospel, which comes as part of John’s narrative when Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples before his own passion and death. You will recall that instead of telling his readers about the meal part of that event, John tells his readers about how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. That action is followed by Jesus’ explanation of what “washing feet” really means and how he gives them his commandment that we are to love others as he has loved us.
A couple weeks ago we read that passage from later on in John’s gospel, one of the post-resurrection encounters that the disciples have with Jesus – in which Jesus meets the disciples on the side of the lake, tells them what to do in order to haul in a great catch of fish, and then fixes breakfast for them and shares a meal. Recalling then the three times that Peter had “denied” Jesus just days before, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Peter, do you love me.” You may recall that in speaking about that passage, Fr. Bob mentioned that the Gospel writer actually uses two different words which, in the Greek of the original text, mean “to love.” Agape is that self-less, altruistic love that God has for God’s people. It is this kind of love that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel. That’s the word Jesus uses here, agape. Jesus’ great commandment to love one another is a commandment to love as he loved.
Let us pray that we may, as followers of Jesus in this place, in this time, in this day and age that is ours, that we may have the eyes of faith to see the beauty that is the diamond we have been given, and that following the example of Jesus, we may never fail to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters, giving ourselves in loving service to all humankind.