It occurred to me on Easter morning — not for the first time — that there are two directions one can move people in order to constitute a religious community, centripetally (holding them in tight) or centrifugally (sending them out).
One’s faith can be a motivation for drawing close together in some sort of separation from the world and those who are envisioned via one’s religious system as in one way or another “the other” who represent a threat.
Alternatively, one’s faith can gather a group of people to form a literal and figurative home base from which to find the resources (including their connections with one another) to strike out in search of new ways of relating to others (who are like them or not).
I have already shared with some of you what got me thinking of this. It was a very nice moment from Easter morning. I was greeting a couple after service, guests from out of town, who had worshiped with us. The husband had noticed the “Reformed” in the Old First Reformed UCC sign. They belong to a more conservative Reformed denomination, members in a congregation in another state, but were in town for Easter visiting their son who is new to Philly. The wife admitted they had sort of ended up with us by accident, a mistake really. But she said it was so good it happened. She asked to speak to me privately, and she ended up in tears.
She’d lost both her brother and mother in the last year. She worries what has happened to them since they were not confessing Christians. The church she is a member of teaches that only people in a right relation with Jesus go to heaven.
She explained that this has been the teaching she followed since she was 29 years old and joined that church. But since her loved ones’ deaths, she can no longer imagine that God would not have room in Divine love for them too.
She heard in my Easter sermon (about how the risen Christ came to different people differently) the possibility that Christians can believe her mom and brother might be fine eternally, and at peace with God, independent of their the exact beliefs, practices or relationships of their mortal lives.
How? Why? She hasn’t quite worked this all out for herself yet. But I’d offer the explanation that salvation is ultimately more about God and God’s forgiving love than our capacity or need to earn God’s concern and mercy.
Now, realistically, all communities have both forces — probably need both — centripetal pull and centrifugal push. They need some boundaries or definitions that provide a sense of commonality and membership identity.
But maybe there is something basic in asking about various faith communities’ overall visions of relating to outsiders– with some seeing others as dangerous or inconsequential, and some seeing others as the goal — finding ways to relate to them in respect and even the richness of our difference. At Old First, we understand Jesus to have taught us that everyone matters, in this life and in the next.
See you in church,