A Wide Embrace
Romans 8.10 But if Christ lives in you ...
Observation of our surroundings
is, and always has been, a critical survival skill.
The world is unimaginably complex. To fully appreciate it we need to train
and strain our senses. Stimuli can be both subtle and demanding.
Awareness and alertness are no less crucial in city
life. The din of traffic, fumes and the media assault and dim our normal
senses. We instead tune in to new wavelengths, as it were. A businessman
may listen intensely for signs that a client will buy his goods. A mother
will no less intensely scan a crowd of children for her offspring.
More difficult as we pursue our daily lives is to lift
our awareness to higher levels. Not many look for the signs of the times.
The scale is larger, the cues more subtle, the signals more ambiguous. And
yet our well-being often hangs as much on the drift of large currents in
time's river as on the tiny eddies of our lives.
Paul's great strength was to lift his awareness from
religious minutiae to the bigger picture. He saw that Jews could no longer
claim exclusive access to God. You'll recall that he met the Apostles and
elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to insist that they, like Jesus, embrace
both Jew and Gentile.
It's hard for us to understand just how revolutionary
that was. The Hebrew race, we should understand, thought that to consort
with Gentiles was to risk deep spiritual contamination.
But despite his upbringing, Paul was able to tune his
hearing to the still, small voice of God through the religious static. He
wrote that "When I saw that they were not walking a straight path in line
with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all ...
'How can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?'" (Galatians 2.13). And so
the Church was born, soon to spread far beyond its Jewish origins.
Tragically, the vision of Jesus' wide embrace was
quickly blocked - by Paul himself.
He wrote later, "If Christ lives in you ... If the
Spirit lives in you ... If by the Spirit ..." (Romans 8). And suddenly,
access to Jesus was once more closed off - conditional not on obeying
Jewish Law this time, but conditional on complying with Paul's way of
relating to Jesus.
Christians preserve to this day Paul's distinction
between those in whom Christ lives and those in whom he doesn't. It's as
though a spotlight shines only on Christians. They are bathed in light
while in the darkness around them hover a multitude excluded from the
light of Christ.
A consequence is that Christian senses are primarily tuned to their own
religious wavelength. By tuning out those who don't perceive the world as
we think they should, we inevitably desensitise ourselves to them. Our
faculties no longer pick up the full range of God's work in the world.
So in focusing his attention on one great vision, Paul
failed to see an even larger one. He excluded the possibility that Jesus
relates to all regardless of who they are, where they are, when they are,
what they believe, and what they do.
The time is coming, I think, when Christians will have to face up to
the possibility that the embrace of Jesus is wider than that of the
Without that awareness we are inevitably short-sighted. We cannot see
the earnest devotion to God of those without religion. Our hearing is
dull. We don't listen to the joyous song and hubbub of devout Hindu
worship. Our sense of smell is numbed. We don't notice the subtle scents
of Buddhist incense. Our touch is dulled. We become insensitive to the
gentle touch of Islam, noticing only its defensive blows.
But we need not limit ourselves because Paul's awareness was limited.
Nor do we have to be bound by Paul's short-sightedness. Our vision can be
limited or broad, fuzzy or clear, inclusive or exclusive. Our embrace can
be narrow or as wide as that of Jesus. It's up to us.
I doubt if anyone can be prevented from accepting the embrace of
Jesus - and particularly not by any conditions we impose. A coming
revolution of equal proportions to that which Paul began may be a
recognition that Christians don't have a monopoly on truth. If we tune our
senses to a wider spectrum we will perceive clearly that God is greater
than any Christian theology or church.
Christians interpret the world through Jesus of Nazareth. But that's not
necessarily the only interpretation. There are other wavelengths, there are
other pictures, there are other tastes, there are other symphonies. To
insist otherwise is to claim that only we have "Christ in us."
If we will only sharpen our senses we may see all those included in the
wide embrace of Jesus.