This last Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day when we remember and celebrate our great leader for civil rights in these United States. And then Friday was the March for Life when we remember and advocate for the rights of the unborn.
There’s a connection between these two topics and the reading from the Old Testament book of Jonah for this Sunday. If you read the entire book in context – and it’s not long – you get the impression that Jonah and the other Israelites thought that God’s promises were only for them; that the purpose of the Church was to hoard God’s blessings for themselves and not to tell others about Him. They thought that perhaps the color of our skin, or our ancestry, or the language we speak, or the clothes we wear somehow determine our worth before God.
But, this is not how God views things. God’s Word of Salvation is meant for all people, for all are sinners in need of Christ. In the Old Testament, God called a people around this promise – the Church Israel – and they were to be his witnesses on earth so that people from all nations (that is to say, of all ethnicities) would come to faith in God’s promise of salvation and thus be incorporated into this Church.
So, in the book of Jonah, God’s plan is to call the people of Nineveh in Assyria to repentance and to point them to Him, Yahweh, as the one true God. He picks Jonah for this mission.
And what is Jonah’s response? He flees. For not only are the Assyrians the political enemies of Israel, but they also look different, they speak a different language, their culture is different. Why would God call them to repentance? Why would God care about them? Surely, the treasures of the Church are not meant for these people?
So, Jonah flees. Nineveh is to the East, but Jonah boards a ship headed to the West. However, God’s plans will not be thwarted. He causes a violent storm to brew up, and Jonah is cast into the sea, only to be swallowed up by a great fish which, after three days and nights, coughs him up on the coast, near Nineveh. Jonah cannot escape from the Lord. So, he resigns himself to his fate and goes to the city. Yet, he’s still half-hearted about the whole business. The city is three-days journey wide and Jonah only goes one day into it, declaring simply, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Despite this simple, half-hearted proclamation “the people of Nineveh believed God.” They repented and trusted in Yahweh (the Lord) and He saved them. After Jonah’s figurative death and resurrection, salvation comes to the nations as well, prefiguring what Christ would accomplish for all nations of all times and places.
What an odd thing for Jonah and the other people of Israel that this people – these Assyrians – who looked different, spoke different, and acted different would be loved enough by God to send His word to them through a prophet. Perhaps, though, rather than the fact that the Israelites were “worthy” and others were unworthy, the truth is that we are all unworthy before God and He saves us by His grace through faith. For the people of Nineveh believed and were therefore grafted onto the Church Israel, the same as Jonah and the same as the others. (In fact, the modern Christian Assyrians in Iraq trace the beginnings of their faith back to Jonah.) The point is that the color of their skin, the language they spoke, and their culture did not separate them from the rest of the Church, for they were all one in the Christ who was still yet to come.
Is this not what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to remind us of also? The fact that we are all creations of the one true God and that we in the Church are one in Christ, even though we may look different, speak different, or come from different places? We are all descended from Adam and Eve and our ancestors all disembarked from the same Ark of Noah after being saved across the waters by God’s grace through the faith of Noah who believed.
The truth is that there is only one human race, we are all sinners, and God’s Word is meant for us all. We have been tricked into speaking as if there are multiple races, but there is only one. Jonah was taught this truth. Ruth and Rahab illustrated it. Dr. King was sent to remind us of it. And we, the Church, need to constantly remember this.
For, we are constantly tempted to forget that we are all sinners before God, redeemed and saved only through the blood of Christ which was shed for all people. We are constantly tempted to forget that Christ is the Savior of all nations (that is to say, all ethne or enthnicities). God has formed numerous nations in the world as part of the rich tapestry of His human creation, and yet we are all called together as one body of Christ in the Church and our differences give a richness and texture to that tapestry. Indeed, who do we see Jesus calling in the Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14-20)? He calls Simon and Andrew, humble fishermen, promising them that he will make them “fishers of men.” Then, he also calls the brothers James and John, also fishermen. Indeed, much later he calls Saul – a Jewish pharisee – to be the apostle to the nations (i.e. the gentiles) so that all people may be caught up in the net of the Church.
After Jesus’ resurrection, in John 21, Jesus miraculously causes the disciples to catch 153 fish in their net. Some ancient sources held that there were 153 species of fish in the waters of the seas; the significance of the number in John 21 then being that the fish in the net represent people from all nations who are brought into the Church. It’s a visual lesson of the fact that Christ calls people from every nation into the Church. We may separate ourselves, in our sinful thoughts, by color, language, or culture, and yet it is Christ who unites us as one. And perhaps we can extend the same grace of his to those yet to be born.
So, we are all one now in the Church militant, united by Christ as his body, saved across the waters of Baptism. Each Sunday throughout the entire earth, the Church together praises Christ as one, together with all the saints at rest. We sing together, “Kyrie, Eleison!” – “Lord, have mercy!”
And ultimately, we will be reunited at the resurrection as this mercy comes to us in full. St. John the Apostle saw this day in the revelation given to him by Christ. He wrote:
“… I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. They cried with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)
Every tribe, people, and language – all united in Christ and singing His praises! This is what Jonah got a glimpse of. This is what Christ called the Apostles to go help bring about. This is the end we look forward to, and what we have already in the Church. Don’t let the fallen, dead people of the world divide you with their false talk or divisions. For you are all one nation of God, the Church. Christ died for you. Christ has reconciled you to each other and to your Heavenly Father. Christ is returning for you.
And the great beauty of God’s plan is that on the coming day of the resurrection you will look to your left and to your right and behold “a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages” all “dressed in white robes.” And you will sing together the song of salvation, crying out, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
(Note: The title of this post is from the hymn: In Christ There is No East or West)
(Image: Icon of Second Coming, Greece, ~ 1700, by Anonymous, Greece – http://ikona.orthodoxy.ru/icon.php?source=source36/53, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3229269 )