Several weeks ago I was seated in a very familiar auditorium with hundreds of other United Methodist clergy. This is not an unfamiliar setting – I’ve spent much of my life in similar circumstances. As part of our meetings, various invited and scheduled individuals – leaders of our conference or denomination – stand and share information with us. I have forgotten much of what I heard during those few days, but one message still leaves me in shock.
One of the leaders of our seminaries stood up and began to share a story from a few years ago about an “athiest church.” For any of us who are aware of the great diversity of spiritual movements not just in our country, but around the world, this is an old story. Secular humanists have gathered for many years to provide insights for life, communal support, and values as to how to live in the world. Yet, it seemed to be news to this man. He continued this story, relating that when he heard it, there was one thing that came to mind – He thought it was “pathetic.”
My mouth hung open, stunned. My friends sitting near me shifted in their seats, obviously uncomfortable with such strong and judgmental language. This man continued his talk, stating that the Bible tells us that only followers of God can gather in true koinonia. Koinonia is a Greek word (and the New Testament was written in Hellenistic Greek) which essentially means fellowship. He stated that only people who gather in God’s name can have God’s presence in that community, and for others to copy this is pathetic.
Jesus was Jewish, but he never limited his contacts to people who were Jewish. In fact, it was often the non-Jewish people who became some of his closest associates, who carried forth his message, who even changed his mind about the nature of God (as in the Canaanite woman). If Jesus himself did not believe God’s presence could only be limited to his particular brand of religion, how can we make such statements today?
The past couple years of my life have been some of the most difficult I have encountered. And some people I know who claim to be Christian have been the most hurtful. And some of my most powerful encounters with the spirit of Christ have been through people who are athiests. Who are we to limit where God is in this world, how the Divine works, where true community and love and support can be found?
Our society and world are so incredibly divided, filled with hate and mistrust of “the other,” and lacking in the ability to engage in respectful dialogue. For those who claim to follow the spirit of Christ, we should be the last ones to pass judgment where the Divine is present or is not present. I give thanks that the Divine is present throughout all of creation and in each person I encounter.