One of the questions that was asked during the Sunday evening discussion was “how do we know when our fellow Christians are suffering for the sake of the Kingdom and when are they are suffering due to poor choices?” Another set of questions that arose during the discussion was “is it our place to judge who is a Christian and whether or not someone is suffering on behalf of the gospel?” Ultimately, it is God’s call regarding who is a Christian and who isn’t. While Karl Rahner makes a case for considering those of other world religions who serve the Kingdom of Heaven as “anonymous Christians,” practicing this gospel text needs to begin with how we engage those who self-identify as Christians and are actively participating in a Christian community.
Sometimes, the distinction between suffering from poor choices and suffering out of conviction about living out the gospel is easy to discern, other times, it is much more difficult (1 Peter 3:17 — sometimes we suffer for doing good, but we also suffer from doing evil). Donahue (cited above) states that the case of missionaries suffering for the sake of the gospel is a clear application of the gospel text. Discernment about living out the gospel call is made even more difficult when we consider the gospel reading from Proper 28 (the Parable of the Talents): while we have a common basic set of “insider information about the Kingdom of Heaven,” we are not all given exactly the same information with regards to some of the details. We have different “talents” but a common call to invest what we have been given for the profit of our King. Motives are always mixed, judgement about how to respond to our understanding of the gospel is limited by our finiteness and damage due to sin. Yet we are called to serve each other and we are called to exhort one another to the gospel life.
As theologian-in-residence for Deaconess Anne House, some of the protestors have faces that I know, love, and serve. Not only have the interns and priest in charge of Deaconess Anne House been actively involved in acts of social disobedience, the protestors also include my bishop, the dean of the cathedral, several priests as well as deacons and lay persons from the diocese. They have felt the call to stand physically with the disenfranchised, to protest with those whose voice has too long been unheard in St. Louis County. Some have been arrested (they have been prisoners and now face court hearings) for the sake of their conviction that standing with those who are treated as the least in our society is a gospel mandate. One of the interns said that he was going to the protests in order to learn and hopefully gain empathy for those who are suffering. He, and the others, go to hear Christ speaking through the voices of those who are in pain.
Because of my role at Deaconess Anne House and the openness of the interns on their intentions, I have listened to others–Christians and those who don’t identify as Christians–talk about the protestors with my heart tuned differently than it might have been. I have had the opportunity to share a little of the motives of the interns and their stories with those who have not felt the call to protest and those who say that they “just don’t get what all the fuss in Ferguson is about.”
Mostly, however, I have been sadly reminded of how we Christians treat each other over disagreements about doctrinal concerns and how we might best address social justice issues. When we disagree, too often we don’t listen with the ears of our hearts. Too often we villanize each other. At our worst, this has led to Christians of one tradition killing those of another tradition (the sacking of Constantinople and the Thirty Years War are but two examples of our sad history). In more “civil” moments, we become schismatics who do not consider each other to be sisters and brothers in Christ or we make fun of those we disagree with so that we don’t have to listen. Peace-makers, whether involved in ecumenical dialog to serve as a bridge between Christian traditions and denominations or between those who are on either side of the protests in St. Louis, are called to listen. We are called to listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks through Scripture. We are called to listen to how the Holy Spirit speaks to us through other Christians. If we don’t expectantly listen for the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture and our brothers and sisters in Christ, how can we hear God speaking through those who do not identify with Christ?
In order to participate in the merciful acts listed in Sunday’s gospel, listening to each other and seeking to see Christ in all who are called by his name (that is, those who self-identify as Christians) is a critical first step to living as members of the Kingdom of Heaven. How we Christians love each other is the way that those who are not Christians can see the truth of Jesus’ message (see John 17). Only when we learn to see the image of Christ in Christians with whom we disagree will we be able to learn how to see the image of God in all people. Caring for suffering Christians must be a priority (but not our only priority). It is by living out this gospel call of seeking unity within the Church that the Kingdom of Heaven will prosper. Unity includes caring for each other even when we disagree.
Our call as Christians is to seek and serve our King in each other, especially those who are in need. If you are looking for what we are going to be “graded on” at the end of life or the end of time, which ever comes first, this is it.