By Marshall Scott
A few years ago I was asked to preach and celebrate at the local United Methodist seminary. The occasion was a worship planning class. This was to be the demonstration of an Episcopal student in the seminary of his skill in planning a service. He had chosen the date carefully: October 31, the Eve of All Saints; and, of course, had chosen to use the lessons for Feast.
As I began my sermon that day, I looked out at the congregation. I paused and looked intently from face to face. Then I opened by saying, “I’m looking for Jesus.”
The point I sought to make that day – a point I continue to seek to make – is that the recognition of all the Saints and all the saints is about looking for Jesus, not only incarnate once so many years ago, but also “incarnate” by the indwelling of the Spirit, again and again down to our own day, into our own midst. We are, after all, a people who claim with Paul that the Body of Christ continues in all the baptized. We look at his descriptions of the Body, its various “organs” endowed with various gifts, and then quote Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
It’s not that we always know Jesus when we see him. That’s part of what we recognize in Matthew’s image of the last judgment. All will ask the king, “Lord, when? When? When did we do that?” “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did [or did not do] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me.’” (Matthew 25:40) We won’t always know him immediately. But we are, I think, still called to look.
That is integral to how I understand my ministry as a hospital chaplain. When I’m at my best, that’s part of what I take into the room with me. Somewhere in that room, somewhere in that suffering soul, I need to look for Jesus looking back.
Understand that it’s not a matter of the patient’s faith. I commit as a chaplain to respect the faith, or decision not to have faith, of each patient. We pray often enough in the Episcopal Church for “those whose faith is known to [God] alone” that I’m not worried that a non-Christian’s faith will get in the way of the Spirit. Christians have long argued about whether and/or how the Spirit might be working in non-Christians. In my work, I would never assert that there was someplace, some set of circumstances where the Spirit could not go. So I continue looking for Jesus, even – especially – where I might least expect Jesus to be.
We live these days, both within the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion and without, in polarized times. At times the rhetoric gets bitter, even vicious. Sometimes it even gets to the point of, “That person, that group, is surely lost. That person, that group, has departed from Christ.” Such language is, I think, to say, “I can’t imagine how I might see Jesus in you.”
Now, there’s nothing really new about that language. I remember the oral portion of my canonical exams, long ago now. The examiner in Scripture started one part of the discussion with, “What do you say when a stranger comes up to you and asks, ‘Are you a Christian?’” The follow-up question from this hypothetical stranger was, “So, are you born again?” Being young and foolish and thinking I had to come up with something, I kept responding; but to each response there was another follow-up question, reflecting a very narrow view, doctrinal, liturgical, and behavioral, of what it meant to be a Christian. Finally I sighed, and said, “I guess I can’t convince you; but God bless you;” which was, of course, exactly what the examiner wanted me to realize. Go back through the history of the Church. Go back to the earliest days (Galatians, anyone?). One group has wanted to say to another, “I can’t imagine how I might see Jesus in you.”
I think it significant, though, that such contemporary groups are not groups that would meaningfully celebrate All Saints. There are certainly not the type to worry about leaving someone out and hedging their bets by celebrating All Souls.
We, on the other hand, do celebrate All Saints, and celebrate All Souls, just to be sure. We do pray regularly for “those whose faith is known to [God] alone,” and for “all the faithful departed.” We provide in The Book of Occasional Services a service for “Burial of One Who Does Not Profess the Christian Faith.” The rite includes this collect for the deceased:
Almighty God, we entrust all who are dear to us to your never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come, knowing that you are doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
“For this life” as well as for “the life to come,” we trust that God is indeed working in those around us. Whether or not they are Christian by our understanding, we believe that if we look at them we might well see Jesus. If we serve them, we might well serve Jesus. If we better know them, we may well better know Jesus.
I pray we can continue to hold to that, even in difficult times. Around us we see in the world, and in our own midst, claims that this leader or that, this institution or that, better shows the truth of the Gospel. Sometimes those visions are narrow. Sometimes those voices are strident. So it goes; so it has gone before. We, however, have committed to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self. And how shall we serve, much less actually love, someone we haven’t seen? So, we must keep looking, looking carefully from face to face, and discovering him again and again and again. For that’s how living and sharing the Gospel begins: by looking for Jesus.
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.