A little while back I wrote a post entitled “When Jesus Is Present Where Jesus Isn’t Present.”
It stemmed from a National Geographic program I watched about the Dhavari slum in Mumbai, the same slum from the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
In that post I talked about a group serving the people of that community which, though not Christian, sure seemed a lot like what we would expect Jesus to be like if he lived in the Dhavari slum. As I said in the post, it seems to me that this is one of the great questions facing the Church in an ever increasingly connected 21st century global society. What are we do to when we encounter the kingdom of God being lived out among people who have either never heard of or choose to ignore the Church’s gospel?
Well, as it so happens I’ve been watching more television since then and that question continues to ramble about in my mind.
This time I was watching a BBC series called Himalaya, hosted by the one and only Michael Palin. If you have Netflix, you need to do yourself a favor and watch every single one of the Michael Palin BBC specials because, well, they’re awesome. Anyway, in this particular episode he was visiting Harmandir Sahib, The Golden Temple in India.
That’s it in the picture above.
The Golden Temple is an especially holy site for those of the Sikh faith for it contains their holy scripture. Covered in gold, as the name implies, The Golden Temple welcomes some 100,000 visitors a day. But, as beautiful and impressive as the building was, what struck me was what goes on inside.
Every day of the year a free meal is served to the poor, the hungry, the pilgrim, or whoever else may happen to stop by. Tens of thousands of people are fed each and every day. The meal itself is prepared and served by volunteers. Donations cover the cost of the food and more volunteers, many of whom who just fed, help clean up.
But this isn’t just a meal for the poor.
According to the guide who was showing Michael Palin around, the meal is for the rich as much as it is for the poor because it is, in part, intended as an act of equality wherein all can join together around one table and share one meal together.
The familiarities don’t stop there.
Here’s where this meal, called “langar” got started….
When the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev, attained manhood, his father gave him 20 rupees and sent him on a trading expedition, impressing upon him that a good bargain makes for a good profit. On his way to buy merchandise, he met a group of sadhus living in a jungle. Nanak noticed the emaciated condition of the naked holy men and decided that the most profitable transaction he could make with his father’s money would be to feed and clothe them. When he returned home empty handed, his father punished him. Insisting that true profit is to be had in selfless service, Guru Nanak established the principal of langar.
I don’t know about you, but as I read that brief history and watched the BBC special I couldn’t help but think of the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, words that seem to be Jesus’ own summary of what being a disciple of Jesus is really all about….
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Isn’t that what the Sikhs are doing?
Oh, and did I mention that Sikhs worship only one God?
And that they practice baptism?
And that they reject blind spirituality, materialism, and worldly living?
Now, don’t hear me wrong. I’m not a universalist. Sikhs are Sikhs and Christians are Christians. I get that. I don’t want to take away from the distinctive beauty of either or any other faith for that matter.
But I have to confess, when I see moments like this, when I see people acting and thinking in the ways I am told Christians are supposed to act and think, I’m finding it harder and harder to see them as “pagans” and easier to see them as “Samaritans.”
You remember Samaritans, right?
Jesus told a famous parable about a good Samaritan. He also visited with a Samaritan women by a well – something he wasn’t “supposed” to do. In both, cases Jesus made it pretty clear that A) Samaritans were not the evil people Israel made them out to be and B) God was at work in their lives just as God was in the lives of the people of Israel.
If we switch out Samaritans for Sikhs (or whatever other faith for that matter) and Israel for Christians, then perhaps you can see the conundrum I’m in.
I get that repentance is important. I know being part of a church is important. I know that believing Jesus is Lord is important.
But even the devil and his demons believe that last bit and Sikhs do both of the former things even if they look a bit different and have different names.
So, as compassionate, loving, grace filled people what do we do with non-Christians who act like Christians?
To be honest, I’m not completely sure.
I do know that the writer of James says that faith without works is dead.
Which got me wondering, if faith without works is dead, does that mean works without faith is dead? I’m not so sure. Because the reply of the “sheep” in Matthew 25 seems to be one of surprise in which they were doing the “works” without any particular confession of faith.
Now, once again, don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying you can earn your way to heaven. What I’m saying is that God extends all of us grace and apparently expects us to further extend that grace to the world. If Jesus was being honest in Matthew 25, and Jesus had the tendency to be honest about things, then our extending of God’s grace to others seems to be pretty darn important.
Maybe even more important than the formal confession of faith we as evangelicals seem to think is required for salvation – even though we also say salvation is a gift that cannot be earned.
Quite the conundrum if you ask me.
The space of a blog post doesn’t allow for the sort of thorough treatment this subject deserves. I can’t fully explore the depths of “no one comes to the Father except through me” here and wonder if that statement simply means Jesus is the means of our salvation or if our salvation requires our explicit confession of Jesus as the means of our salvation. Such a treatment would require the space of a book.
And who knows, maybe I’ll write that book one day.
But for now, I only want to suggest that perhaps as Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, we need to not be so legalistic with the grace we have been given. We need to do a better job of extending it to others regardless of their confession of faith.
And perhaps we also need to do a better job of recognizing when God has already extended that grace to others.
Grace and peace,