"Beholding The Inclusive Vision"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - May 2, 2004

Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-18


     This morning we are going to be looking at one of the cyclical themes found in the book of Revelation, a very late addition to the New Testament.  This particular book was written to give encouragement and hope to Christians who were being persecuted because of their beliefs.  The vision described in our lesson is so universal and inclusive that it could cause some Christians to reconsider what they believe about the nature of eternity.   

     This passage describes people who have achieved a certain level of awareness.  They are  together in afterlife in spite of their very different cultural backgrounds and heritage.  Listen to the make up of this group: 

There was an enormous crowd -- no one could count all the people.  They were from every race, tribe, nation and language, and they stood in front of the throne of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.  (Rev. 7:9) 

       When one of the elders asked, "Who are these people?" the answer was given, "These are the people who have come safely through the terrible persecution." 

     This is one of the remarkable passages in the Scriptures that should give every religious group in the world pause if they preach and practice the belief that they alone possess the truth. Of course, Christianity is one of major religions of the world that proclaims such exclusivity. 

     Yesterday's The Washington Post featured an article describing how Bishop Carlton Pearson of Tulsa, Oklahoma was declared "unorthodox and heretical" by the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops Congress.  Bishop Pearson believes that Christians far underestimate the power of God's love, a love he believes extends to all people whether they believe in God or not.   

     Listen to the ruling of this Congress, "Because of our concern for many people that could be influenced to adopt this heresy and in so doing put at risk the eternal destiny of their souls, we are compelled to declare Bishop Carlton Pearson a heretic."  He was found guilty by this collective of bishops for preaching that God's love reaches beyond what they deem plausible.  These bishops believe people are saved by their beliefs rather than by God's love and grace.   

     During many worship experiences we pray, "Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  In spite of this request of God, many Christian denominations today remain separatists in their beliefs, rituals and practices.  The prayer Jesus taught his disciples spoke of God's will being done, not of how essential it was to hold specific beliefs.   Why is it that so many Christians are unable to express this very basic behavior?  God's will is expressed by people simply caring for each other without expectations, not by lifting up specific beliefs that make claims about the nature of God's love.    

     When we consider this vision in Revelation, what was the common denominator that brought them together?  The answer is that they had made it through the persecution.  What spirit did each of them have that brought them through their trials?  What spirit enabled them to rise above the possible temptation to fight fire with fire during their unjust persecution?  

     There was a story that surfaced recently that might shed light on what connected the individuals in this group. An Israeli man and a Palestinian woman who lived in Gaza had developed a deep love for each other and planned to marry.  When their families learned of this, each became enraged and vowed to disown their children if the couple moved forward with their plans.  The daughter's response to her father was classic. 

Father, I love this man.  His spirit sees beyond the ethnic boundaries and limitations our peoples have imposed on each other.  I want to spend the rest of my life with him.  If you disown me because of my love of him, then you must do what you must do. Yet, I will always honor you and mother as my parents. I could never pretend that you no longer existed.  You taught me to love unconditionally. 

     Take a moment and consider where you are in your thinking.  Could this Jewish man and this Islamic woman be part of that enormous crowd of people featured in Revelation?  The author of Revelation went out of his way to be very specific in describing how inclusive this group in paradise was, "They were from every race, tribe, nation and language."   

     Suppose this couple had opened their minds and hearts to love's power?  They had turned their spears into plows.  They had learned how to be compassionate.  The Word of God had been inscribed on their hearts as God promised in Jeremiah.  They had learned how to perceive beyond the old tribal rivalries and their love for each other had helped them transcend the differentials in their respective ideologies and traditions.  Is this possible?  Of course it is.

      Many years ago I belonged to a clergy group called United Christian Ministries of Prince George's County.  One day Father Aldo Petrini celebrated a mass with all of us.  There were 35 clergy in our group.  Among us were nine priests.  During the mass I noticed that a number of the priests had become emotional, a display I did not understand.  \

     While presenting his homily, Father Petrini said that he and his colleagues have longed to see a day when Roman Catholics and Protestants could be one at the table of the Lord.  He said, "Today nine of us have broken the Law of our Church and have discovered that we can be one.  This is a great day for us!"   

     Think of the possibilities if leaders of the world's great religions, religions rich in cultural traditions and practices, began to perceive beyond the boundaries they have fought to maintain for thousands of years.  We might awaken to a world where people cared more about each other than about their own personal salvation. 

     The setting referenced in this Revelation passage is exclusive even though it is inclusive of everyone who has this universal consciousness.  Not everyone wants to transcend their belief in barriers, in separatist attitudes and their belief that they hold an exclusive right to God's love.  Those standing together in our lesson were those who defined themselves very differently.  They had come to realize that they were one because of how they loved.     

     The Lamb in this passage represents the spirit of Jesus, not the spirit of Christianity. Jesus taught a way of being not a new system of beliefs.  He said, "My sheep hear my voice."  The rest will not be able to hear that voice until they are ready to perceive beyond the barriers that their own beliefs have created and maintained.  In Christ's vision, we are one.  As disciples, we are sent into the world to share the Good News of God's love for all humankind.  Can we learn to live that way today? 

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

    Ever present God, you have provided us with so many gifts of the spirit, yet we are never at a loss for finding ways to block their effectiveness.  You have given us the capacity for inner peace and we fill our minds with worry.  You have created us to be loving, while we invest energy in doubting the sincerity of others.  You have created us to be generous and we give with expectations.  You gave us the ability to trust, and we seek reassurance at every bend in the road.  You have created us in your image and we choose to dwell on our perceived failures.  O God, lead us to rediscover the aspects of life that are eternal, that reflect your nature and that will carry us to victory over all our earthly struggles.  Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

    Fill our minds and spirits this day, loving God, with the indwelling of your spirit.  As in no other time in history, we have coming into our living spaces images of the ravages of war.  We have watched as people grieve over their losses, over their hopelessness to change what is happening and over their lack of vision for a future where  peace reigns. 

    We talk of love, yet even among the faithful, fear makes us cautious with each other.  We hold people at armís length if they do not mirror our particular beliefs and values.  We want so much for the world to be other than what it is.  Yes, Jesus called us to stand in the midst of it and be a light.  

    Teach us the power of a smile.  Guide us to extend validation and assurance to those who may be carrying silent wounds they cannot acknowledge.  Empower us to extend the gift of understanding, a gift that could easily become a turning point for someone who has missed seeing the sign posts that would have guided them.  Teach us, O God, how to be that guide. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .