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The Christian Mission in a Pluralistic World

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. The following sermon was presented at the International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan, in 1995.  Used by permission of the author.


            Thank you for this chance to preach here in the ICU church.   I have watched this school with great interest from a distance  through the years.   It has struggled in a unique way to understand the role of a Christian university specifically in Japan.  Although I cannot speak with much confidence about what that role is today, I am convinced that in general the importance of the Christian university in our world is growing.  I will speak more directly about that tomorrow.

            Today I have been asked to speak on the significance of Christian mission in a pluralistic society and in a period of interreligious dialogue.  Accordingly I have taken as my text the story in Acts of the commissioning of believers by Jesus just  before the ascension.  In verse 8 of the first chapter we read: "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth."

            The Christian mission, then, both in the first generation of believers and now at the end of the second millenium, is to witness to Christ.  This is to be done always and everywhere.  But the mode of witness changes from place to place and time to time. 

            For much of Christian history believers affirmed that apart from Christ there is no salvation, and they understood this to mean that those who did not have faith in Christ were condemned to eternal torments.  This provided powerful incentive to share the gospel with people all around the world.  It also led to failure to appreciate the positive contributions of other religious communities.  Today we are all too aware of the many crimes to which our exclusivist views gave rise.  We have much of which to repent.

            It is a great gain that today we have friendly and appreciative relations with representatives of other religious traditions.  We affirm their wisdom and learn from it.  We work with them when we can.  We wish them well.  The world needs these traditions, and we need them.  We repent of many of the ways we have dealt with them in the past.

            But though this is a great gain, it is too often accompanied by a great loss.  We become almost apologetic about our witness to Christ.  We are afraid this will be interpreted as depreciation of the value of what others are doing.  Accordingly, we lose clarity and conviction about our own message. We are often not clear that we have good news to preach.  Our Christian faith ceases to seem to us to be a matter of supreme importance.  We become lukewarm.

            How can we be saved at once both from our present luke warmness and from the negative relations to other traditions that too often accompanied our past fervor?  The answer is authentic faith in Christ.  But since faith in Christ was just the cause of our previous condemnation of those who did not affirm Christ, we have to think through afresh who Christ is.

            Christ is the incarnation of God.  The fullness of that incarnation we see in Jesus.  But it is not limited to him.  Because of Jesus we know that God is present in the world now as well as then.  Indeed, following the prologue of John's gospel, we find Christ as the presence or incarnation of God in everything, especially where there is life, and still more importantly in the light that enlightens every human being.

            Christ is then the divine reality that enlivens all that lives and enlightens the human mind.  Christ is also God's love effective in our lives, freeing us to love one another.  It is Christ who enables us both to recognize our sin and to confess it before God and one another in the confidence that we are accepted and forgiven. 

            In addition, Christ is the one who gives us freedom.  This freedom is, in the first instance, the power to decide among real options.  It is also the power to choose the better over against the worse.  It is because of Christ that spiritual growth is possible.

            My point is that our positive appreciation of Buddha in no way should deter us from witnessing to Christ.  Our focus on Christ did not lead us to appreciate the liberation and enlightenment that can come from realizing our Buddha-nature.  Their focus on Buddha did not lead them to appreciation the liberation and empowerment that can come from joyfully receiving God's gracious gift moment by moment.  Our admiration of Buddhism should not reduce our confident confession of Christ.

            It is important to see also that it is Christ who leads us to affirm Buddha as well.  To have faith in Christ is to be  open to wisdom and reality wherever they may be found.  It does not involve the claim that we already know all that needs to be known.  The fullness of truth lies in the future.  Buddha contributes profoundly to that truth.  To resist the wisdom of Buddha is not an expression of faith in Christ -- just the contrary.

            Our deepest concern in our witness to Christ is salvation.  That term has many meanings in the Bible.  A great loss in parts of Christian history was the narrowing of the term to refer to slavation from Hell to Heaven.  The question of life after death is important, but it is not primary in the Bible.  For Jesus, salvation is the coming of a time when God's will is done on Earth.  Today the salvation that concerns me most is the salvation of the Earth and its inhabitants from the destructive actions of human beings who threaten to destroy its habitability for future generations.  Positively, salvation means the emergence of a healthy Earth in which human beings live in communities that meet the needs of all.  These communities will be not human only but will include other creatures as well.  They will live sustainably in relation to the physical context.

            Can we witness to Christ as savior of the world?  I think we can.  Our hope lies in the resilience of life, which is Christ.  It lies also in the emergence of new understanding, which is possible only as Christ brings it to pass.  It lies in the extension of love to all human beings and to other species as well, a love which  is Christ within us.  And it requires breaking with past habits in ways that only Christ's gift of freedom makes possible.  That may well entail that many Christians find in Buddha a truer realization of what and who they are, so that our assertive selves can be freed from self-concern.

            It is meaningless to witness to Christ as Savior except as we open ourselves to be transformed in all these ways.  Christ does not save the world by acting supernaturally upon it from without.  Christ saves the world by acting in each creature,

freeing and empowering the creature to think and love and act.  Without Christ we can do nothing, but, equally, apart from us Christ cannot save the world.  It is Christ in us, working through us and through all other creatures, who is the hope of the world.  Although witnessing to Christ with our voices has its place, it is finally allowing Christ to transform us and becoming Christs one to another that truly witnesses to Christ.

            Our world needs Christ more urgently than ever before.  It hastens to a destruction from which only Christ can save it.  Let us not, in such a time, hold back in hesitation and lukewarmness.  Christ gives all, and claims all.  Christ's service is perfect freedom.  In such free service let us all witness to Christ.


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