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"All the Ends of the Earth"

For Sunday August 17, 2008

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Genesis 45:1–15 or Isaiah 56:1, 6–8
           Psalm 133 or Psalm 67
           Romans 11:1–2a, 29–32
           Matthew 15:10–20, 21–28

University of Zenica.
University of Zenica.

           Monday was a happy day in my house. Our son returned from six weeks of teaching conversational English at the University of Zenica in Bosnia. In the wee hours of the morning that same day, my daughter returned from Siguatepeque in the central highlands of Honduras. She had traveled with her high school group to help build a small church. Their richly rewarding experiences made them beneficiaries of and witnesses to the global character of God's kingdom.

           There are 193 member nations of the United Nations, and this summer about 200 national teams will compete in the Beijing Olympics. But the Christian church just might be the most truly globalized institution that the world has ever known. At its best, it ought to be.

           Four thousand years ago, God made an improbable promise to an obscure nomad named Abraham. He promised Abraham that in him "all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). God repeated this promise to Abraham's son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob. Through Abraham, God formed a special people, Israel; but in electing that one nation He always intended to bless every nation.

           Fast forward two thousand years from the time of Abraham. The apostle Peter proclaimed that Jesus fulfilled the Genesis 12:3 promise to Abraham (Acts 3:25). After his resurrection, Jesus told his followers to spread his message "to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:48; cf. Matthew 28:19). In his parallel passage, Mark renders the meaning more emphatic by writing "all creation" (Mark 16:15). Similarly, in Luke's sequel to his gospel, Jesus told his timid followers, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

Siguatepeque, Honduras.
Siguatepeque, Honduras.

           Fast forward another two thousand years to today. The promise to Abraham and the fulfillment in Jesus have become an empirical reality. Luke's Acts of the Apostles begins in Jerusalem, proceeds geographically outward, and in his final chapter ends with Paul imprisoned in the imperial city of Rome. Under Roman house arrest, his last recorded prayer before martyrdom was for "all nations" (Romans 16:26). But that was only a modest beginning. Starting with a few uneducated, bedraggled disciples, today about a third of the world identifies itself as Christian, nearly twice as many as those who follow Islam or Hinduism (roughly one billion each). Christians from at least 223 countries have accessed this webzine, to take another data point (and, on average, 106 countries per week).

           The Scriptures for this week emphasize how the global character of God's kingdom is a prominent theme throughout the entire Bible.

           The purview of Psalm 67 is global rather than parochial. Originating from an ancient writer of a geo-politically marginal people, I'm always amazed at the cosmic scale of this Hebrew poetry. The psalmist prays for God's blessings to fall on "all nations." God is not a territorial god, he says, but the ruler of all nations and peoples. He thus calls "all the ends of the earth" to offer praise and thanks. His poetry pushes us beyond all ethnocentric boundaries to embrace every "other," and beyond every egocentric preoccupation to worship only God.

Myanmar after cyclone Nargis.
Myanmar after cyclone Nargis.

           The prophecy of Isaiah 56 does likewise. No foreigner outside of Israel, writes Isaiah, should ever fear, "The Lord will surely exclude me from his people." Foreigners who offer their love and worship to God will discover that his temple is "a house of prayer for all nations" (56:7). The apostle Paul tells us not to distinguish between Jews and Gentiles, for God intends to bless all peoples everywhere (Romans 11:32). And such is the teaching of Jesus in this week's gospel, where a Canaanite woman who knew that in the eyes of the Jews she was a despised "dog" earned praise as a woman of great faith (Matthew 15:28).

           Two radical corollaries follow from the global character of God's kingdom — the decentralization of your geography and the reorientation of your politics.

           Christians are geographic, cultural, national and ethnic egalitarians. For Christians there is no geographic center of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. Proclaiming that God lavishly loves all the world, each person, and every place, the gospel does not privilege any country as exceptional. A Bosnian Muslim is no further away from God's love than an American Christian. A Honduran Pentecostal is no closer to God's love than an Oxford atheist.

           Much has been written lately about American exceptionalism and our global dominance. In terms of economic, political, military, scientific and cultural influence, America is unrivaled. In that sense, it's accurate to say that America is "exceptional" (although there's no reason to think this will last forever, or that all our influence is good). But from a theological or Christian point of view, America is no more or less "exceptional" in God's eyes than Iceland, India, or Iraq. While allowing for a natural and wholesome love, even pride, in your own country ("there's no place like home"), in the long run, Christian egalitarianism subverts every form of geo-political nationalism. Our ultimate citizenship, said Paul, is a spiritual one (Philippians 3:20).

Earthquake in Sichuan, China.
Earthquake in Sichuan, China.

           Christian global vision also asks me to care as much about every country and its people as I do my own. Christians grieve the deaths of 90,000 Iraqi civilians as much as the 4,124 American soldiers killed in Iraq, or the 560 soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Christians lament the human tragedy of cyclone Nargis that killed 140,000 people in Burma, or the earthquake in the Sichuan province of China that killed 70,000 people, as much as they do that of Hurricane Katrina.

           Christian globalism implies that your politics become reoriented, non-aligned, and unpredictable by normal canons. In the gospels Jesus never proposed any political program. There's no such thing as a "Christian" politics, and efforts by both Democrats and Republicans to co-opt Jesus for their side badly distort his message. Rather, Jesus calls us to something far more radical and demanding. He asks us to do what God Himself does, as expressed in two of the most famous verses in all the Bible. He calls us to "love the whole world" (John 3:16) and "your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31).

For further reflection

           * Consider: Although there has never been a time, place, culture, language, philosophy, science, or world view with which the Gospel has been entirely compatible, paradoxically, "there has also never been any picture of the world within which the confession of the faith has proved to be altogether impossible" (Jaroslav Pelikan).
           * Contemplate: "The centers of the church's universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Paris, London, and New York," writes the Kenyan theologian John Mbiti, "but in Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila" [Quoted in Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom; The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 2.).
           * Meditate: Is the core of my personal identity formed more by nationalistic cultural values or by the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus?
           * Meditate: The apostle John envisioned heaven with people from "every nation, tribe, people, and language" (Revelation 7:9).
           * For further reading: Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom; The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); and The New Faces of Christianity; Believing the Bible in the Global South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); and Lamin Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Image credits: (1) University of Zenica; (2) Tri-City Herald World Travel Stories (Pasco, Washington, USA); (3)  DEW Point Resource Centre, United Kingdom; and (4) Wikimedia Foundation.