I had a good experience in church today. Well, for starters, the sermon was riveting. This was Pentecost, and the priest amazed us all by literally engaging in a flame-swallowing exhibition. I hadn’t seen this phenomenon since I was a child. It’s really quite astonishing to see someone put a burning flame right on his tongue, and then next put the whole wick in his mouth and extinguish the flame. It’s even more astonishing when it comes in the middle of an episcopal church sermon by a crimson-vested priest. But then again, I was so distracted by the flame-swallowing, that now, at a distance of a few hours, I can’t remember how the words he said segued in and out of the main show. I’d have to listen to the sermon again. Not that I’m criticizing the good reverend; his sermons are fine.
However, for me, the most important sermon that I hear on Sunday is the one that goes on in my head. I’m just not that good of a listener—too active. I think I catch on quick, and then I want to go out and do it. At this late age, I’m not likely to change much before I croak. Sometimes it’s the sermon, or part of it, some times it’s the readings, and sometimes, the thought just pops into my head. But sooner or later, most every Sunday, I am busy thinking about things spiritual, and not just what the preacher said. This Sunday’s first reading was Acts 2:1-21. This is the story of the Holy Spirit coming into a place where the disciples all were gathered and resting on them as the tongues of a divided flame. They began to speak in their native tongues, and yet they understood what each other were saying. As my partner, Stephen, said later, “This was the undoing of the events reported in Genesis of the Tower of Babel.” (Where humans tried to build a tower to heaven, but not to praise God, but humans.) This being Pentecost, the gospel reading was from John 14, where Jesus answers Philip’s request to be shown the Father by saying that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him, and that he will in fact send an Advocate, the very Holy Spirit.
All this scriptural talk about the Holy Spirit, plus the concrete demonstration by the priest got me to thinking. In the Episcopal Church, we frequently say the Nicene Creed immediately after the sermon. I have kiddingly called this affirmation the “Not-So-Nicene Creed,” and I have long been aware that it was written in the 4th Century by bishops that Constantine locked in a room and wouldn’t let out until they had a way to denounce the hypocrisies abroad in the land that either Jesus was not fully human or Jesus was not fully divine. It is my opinion that certain things that are said in the Nicene Creed got us quite off the track. For example, the idea that Jesus Christ is the only son of God. However, I don’t have to nit pick the Nicene Creed or any other Creed to do my sermon for the day.
The point I wish to make is that creeds are fine for the people that want to say them as an affirmation of what they have come to understand as the truth. What is not fine about creeds, generally speaking, is that almost all of them contain the idea that if you do not agree with them, you are in trouble—with God and with his earthly emissaries, namely the blokes that wrote, believe and say the creeds. And speaking of finding the Holy Spirit, such a creed (that sorts human beings into two piles, sheep, who believe it, and goats, who don’t believe it) is really death to spiritual development. I would argue that the central message of Jesus Christ is that human beings CANNOT be divided into sheep and goats. Look at it this way. God made us all. So God is in all of us. My metaphor is suffering here, but the idea is clearly that you can’t possibly be evil just because you believe something that somebody else disagrees with.
I have a problem with evangelizing, Christian or otherwise. Supposedly, the whole point of evangelizing is converting people to seeing things the (right, Christian) way that you see them. Woah. There goes loving your neighbor as yourself down the tubes. What I think is much closer to the truth is that all these religions, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, are somewhat imperfect attempts to show how we can all be one family, one big, human family under God. But we aren’t there yet. If we are born into one of these religions, practicing it faithfully is probably better than having no spiritual discipline at all. We can all learn a lot by trying to live a good, religious life of one form or another. But evangelizing for a particular religion, especially one that says you can’t be a son of God unless you emulate the founder of that religion, is a step in the wrong spiritual direction.
I’m much more comfortable with ecumenism than evangelism. Maybe we need a new word: ‘ecumenizing.’ If the world’s religious would stop evangelizing so much and start ecumenizing more, they would be starting with the premise that we are all imperfect, striving souls in the same boat. Perhaps the true religion that will embody God most perfectly is still far into the future. It is a goal toward which all the world’s religions can strive. I seem to be clear, however, that the sincere practitioners of such a religion will never meet neighbors that they don’t like, even though they probably will disagree with them.
Which brings me around to the title of my post. Jesus said “I am Alpha and Omega.” I guess I just have a little too much Omega on my face today.