Over the past few weeks, I have been leading two separate Bible Studies. At St. Timothy, we have just concluded a six-week series entitled, “The Roots of our Faith: History of Christianity in the United States”. At Morehead, we have just finished our second week of “Jonah and Calling”. The teacher in any class never knows for sure how any series will go or be received- and folks who attend a Bible Study also hold their breathe that it won’t turn into a waste of time. I have been terribly thankful for the folks who have attended these studies. It has given me the opportunity to know folks more deeply, for which I am grateful. In addition, I have grown and benefited from the wisdom, insight, and experience, that folks have brought to the table in our conversations. I love group studies because little pieces of the Divine are revealed through the contributions of each individual.
In leading two studies at once, you can’t help but compare and contrast, often times finding similarities between the two topics. I have seen several moments of overlap; the story of
Jonah is so relevant and human it can’t help but tie into modern realities. We had a brief conversation on the nature of God’s universality in Jonah. Jonah, upon hearing a call from God to go to Nineveh to tell them to repent from the evil ways, decides to avoid this call and hop a ship for the other side of the world. Jonah’s motives are not quite clear. Nineveh had been the enemy of the Hebrew people for centuries. Some scholars have compared Jonah’s call to a Jewish Rabbi being told to ask the Nazi’s to repent in 1930’s Germany. It was a challenging call to say the least. Perhaps this is why Jonah fled. Perhaps it was fear or anger, it may have even been self-doubt.
But this call from God asks a question about the nature of God, doesn’t it? Up to this point in the Old Testament, God had only been for the Hebrew people. But now, explicitly, God is calling Jonah to save those in Nineveh- people who were not only “not-Hebrew” but enemies of the Hebrews. To add dimension to the story, Jonah is on a ship with a crew that represent many different religions, who pay homage to the Hebrew God upon seeing the storm and waves crash on their boat. I’m struck by the fact that in the scriptures God does not ask Jonah to “convert” Nineveh- but only for them to repent and stop doing evil. Perhaps even more interestingly, historically, the city of Nineveh worshiped a “Fish God”. It should not go unnoticed then that Jonah is delivered like a package to Nineveh via…a big fish.
There is a grace and mercy in God that we get from this story. A God who is not just focused on those that claim to follow, but a deep love for all of creation. This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising when we remember we are ALL created in the image of the Divine. But this is a reality that is sometimes difficult to believe when we look at human behavior. Its easy to judge, question, and doubt others whose beliefs do not align with our own. In the historical series at St. Timothy, we spent some time discussing Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island Colony. Roger Williams was raised in England and witnessed years of bloody religious conflict between the Catholics and Protestants. When he arrived at the Puritan Colony, as a Puritan minister, he was disgusted by the treatment he saw towards the Native Americans. The English crown had declared them “savages” and so killings against them were sanctioned in order to take their land and property. The Puritans of the period gladly lived into this decree, after all…they were not Christian…so the Puritan leaders stated.
Roger Williams reflected on this bloodshed and killing of innocence he saw around him. He could not reconcile those acts with the Lord he knew from the Gospels. If God calls us to love, to take care of one another, to uplift, then certainly killing based on religious views was not permitted. He wrote in a letter to the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that, “Our God is too big to fit under one roof.” That is a mighty statement in a short sentence. But we see this sentiment reflected in the actions of God at Nineveh. They did not believe in the Hebrew God, but God cared about them- and cared about the people they were harming.
I think about the wisdom and experience each person brings to a Bible Study. No one person, despite reading the same Bible, has exact interpretations or beliefs. That is the beauty of studies. A God that is too large to fit under one roof will look differently to different people. But this represents the beauty of diversity in the creator, not a flaw. According to a Lifeway research poll that came out in September, for the first time in the Evangelical community, most see God working in the lives of people with different faith traditions and religions, than those who say God does not. This is a major shift in theological thinking, one in which I welcome. When we open ourselves to see God’s working in people who believe differently than ourselves, we see a larger image of God. We also see a world in which peace becomes a stronger reality. We see a God who truly is larger than ourselves. It also allows us the ability to more freely love all of good creation, to seek the welfare of the whole community, and to repent and allow others to repent from harmful ways. This does not require an abandonment of religious conviction but an honoring of others.
The story ends with Jonah, having led Nineveh to repent. Something that he, even after being the most successful of the prophets, grieved. His anger towards Nineveh shaded him from seeing the beauty of what had transpired. It is God who has the last line of the story, an opportunity God uses to advocate for the value of human life. For Roger Williams, he formed his colony as a place for Native Americans to find refuge and inclusion. He also welcomed exiled members from the Puritan Colony and advocated for women’s rights and inclusion in the church. The US Government which would form over a century later would use much of his work as a basis for its formation. And so, that leaves us. In what direction will our story go? Towards the horizon of light where God shines over all, away from the hills in intolerance and small mindedness? Or do we seek to fruitlessly box God into a smaller and smaller understanding, understandings that might make us feel safer, but ultimately leave us in the dark? Just like in the time of Jonah and Williams, the world needs a good answer, and an answer that look like that God of love. I will leave you with one final quote from Roger Williams, “When we seek to persecute, we kill many Jesus Christs along the way.”
May God be with you always,
Paul M. Freeman, MDiv