Who Is Jesus Christ?

Philippians 2: 1-11

Who is Jesus Christ? Of all the questions that might be posed to modern men and women, none is more important than this. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the central question of history and the most important issue anyone will ever face. Who is Jesus Christ? Where did he come from? Why did he come? And what difference does his coming make in my life?

In the end, every person must deal with Jesus Christ. No one can escape him. You can avoid the question, or delay it, or postpone it, or stonewall it, or pretend you didn’t hear it. But sooner or later you must answer it, whether it be now while on earth or later after death.

It’s certainly not a new question. It’s as old as the coming of Christ to earth. Once when Jesus took his disciples on a retreat to a place called Caesarea Philippi, he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” They offered four responses: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets (see Matthew 16:13-16).

Across the centuries the discussion has continued. Visit any Internet religious chat room and you’ll find a bewildering array of opinions regarding Jesus. Here are some contemporary answers to the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” A good man … The Son of God … A Prophet … A Galilean rabbi … A teacher of God’s Law … The Embodiment of God’s Love … A Reincarnated Spirit Master … The Ultimate Revolutionary … The Messiah of Israel … Saviour … A first-century wise man … A man just like any other man … King of Kings … A misunderstood teacher … Lord of the Universe … A deluded religious leader … Son of Man … A fabrication of the early church.

 

It is said that in the days before Elvis Presley died, he had been reading a book called The Many Faces of Jesus. That title stands as a fitting symbol of the confusion surrounding Jesus in our time. Two thousand years have passed and still we wonder about the man called Jesus.

That takes us back to Caesarea Philippi. After Jesus asked for the opinions of others, he turned to his men and asked for their answer: “But you, who do you say that I am?” In the end, each of us faces the same question. We can’t get away with quoting the opinions of others. You have to make up your own mind.

So let’s go back to the original question. Who is Jesus Christ? Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder what the Bible says about Jesus. Our text contains a remarkably clear answer to the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” Verses 6-11 are a short course in Christology. Nearly all the truth about Christ is found in these verses—his eternal pre-existence as God, his voluntary taking on of human flesh, his coming to earth as a servant, his humiliating death on the cross, and his exaltation in heaven.

So let’s look at these verses and see who Paul tells us Jesus was and what he did.

  1. Verse 6 – What He Was

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” Paul begins by stressing the eternal pre-existence of Jesus as God. Before Jesus came to the earth he existed as God in heaven. This is Paul’s version of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The phrase “being in the form of God” is nothing less than a direct assertion of Deity. In Greek philosophy the word translated “form” means “the real essence of a thing.” In this context it means that Jesus possessed “the specific character of God.” Whatever it is that makes God God, Jesus possessed that same essence. Whatever you can say about God, you can also say about Jesus. He was all that God is and possessed all that God had. He was 100% God and nothing less. God’s omnipotence was his, God’s sovereignty was his, God’s holiness was his, God’s eternity was his, God’s wisdom was his, and God’s justice was his.

He was truly “equal” with God, which makes the next statement all the more remarkable. He did not regard his position as God as something “to be grasped.” He didn’t try to hold on to his glory but willingly laid it aside. He did not assert his rights although he had the right to claim his rights. This forms the foundation for everything else Paul will say about him. It also tells us what Jesus was thinking before he was born in Bethlehem. There was no compulsion, no argument, no claiming his prerogatives, no pleading with the Father to “send someone else.” He voluntarily travelled the distance between heaven and the bloody cross. He did it willingly and without hesitation.

  1. Verses 7-8a – What He Became

“But made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man” (vv. 7-8a).

This is concerned with the “Incarnation”—God coming to the earth in human flesh. Four phrases tell us how it happened. First, Christ “made himself nothing.” Some translations say, “He emptied himself.” In contemporary terms the eternal Son of God “became a nobody.” When Christ came to the earth, he laid aside his “divine insignia.” Imagine a general taking off his uniform and dressing as a man on the street. You wouldn’t know the difference. Is he still a general? Yes. Is he in uniform? No. Christ came wearing the uniform of a common man while bearing within himself the high rank of Almighty God!

Second, he took “the very nature of a servant.” That is, he entered humanity at the lowest level—as a humble slave. Notice the word “form” again. He didn’t merely appear as a servant. He took on himself all that a servant is and does. He didn’t stop being God when he became a servant. He “put on” servanthood without “putting off” Godhood. He laid aside his outward glory without laying aside his deity.

Third, He appeared “in human likeness.” He became a man fully and truly without ceasing to be God. The word “likeness” means that to all outward appearances he was merely a man, but in reality he was more than a man. He was God in human flesh.

Fourth, he was “found in appearance as a man.” If you and I had seen him in the first century, we wouldn’t have said, “There goes the Son of God.” He didn’t look any different from anyone else. He was a man—but the rest of his identity was hidden from view.

Some years ago Josh McDowell wrote a fine little book called, “More than a Carpenter” I like that title because it sums up a huge spiritual truth. Jesus is always “more than.” He’s more than a teacher, more than a healer, more than a miracle-worker, more than a rabbi, more than Mary’s son, and more than a man. He is God in human flesh.

III.   Verse 8b – What He Chose

“He humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (v. 8).

We’ve forgotten what crucifixion was like in the first century. It was a punishment so barbaric that the Romans reserved it for the very worst criminals. No Roman citizen could be crucified except on direct order of the emperor.

Death on a cross is hard for us to understand. We’ve sanitized the cross and domesticated it. We gold-plate it and wear it around our necks. We put it on earrings and on our stationery. We hang ornate crosses in our sanctuaries and on our steeples. We build churches in the shape of the cross. All of this would have been unthinkable in the first century. So terrible was a crucifixion that the word was not even spoken in polite company. If we want a modern counterpart, we should hang a picture of a gas chamber at Auschwitz in front of our sanctuary. The very thought sickens us. But that’s what the cross meant for Jesus.

Why did he do it? Why did he shed his blood on the cross? This week I learned where the vaccine for yellow fever comes from. In 1927 a man named Asibi, a West African native, came down with yellow fever. Unlike so many others, he did not die. Because his system had conquered the disease, Asibi’s blood contained the antibodies which the doctors used to develop a successful vaccine. That vaccine has saved the lives of untold numbers of people around the world. Each dose of vaccine can be traced back to Asibi’s original blood sample. One man’s blood has saved the lives of millions of people.

In a mysterious way we cannot understand, that is exactly what the blood of Jesus Christ did for us. His blood saves the lives of untold millions of people. His blood is the perfect “vaccine” against the disease called sin.

  1. Verses 9-11 – What He Gained

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (vv. 9-11).

Here is the final stage in the “career” of the Son of God. Having returned to heaven in triumph, God “highly exalted him.” The phrase means that God gave him back all that he relinquished when he left heaven to come to earth. In this case it means that he gained something he didn’t have before. He gained something because he came back to heaven with something he didn’t have before: his humanity. He left the Son of God and returned the Son of God and the Son of Man. We now have a man in heaven, Christ Jesus, who is our Advocate and Friend.

Verse 9 also tells us that God gave him “the name that is above every name.” What did God give him that he didn’t have before? He couldn’t give him supreme glory—he already had that. He couldn’t give him deity―he already had that? But there is one thing he didn’t have that he now has by virtue of his triumphant return to heaven. God has ordained that eventually he will be universally recognized as the Lord of heaven and earth. Many people didn’t recognize him when he walked on the earth. People today still don’t recognise him, but a day is coming when that will change forever.

When that day finally arrives, “every knee will bow” and “every tongue confess” that Jesus Christ is Lord. I think we should understand this as not merely figurative, but as sober and literal reality. All creation will physically bow before the Son of God and acknowledge his lordship. Note how universal this will be. It will include all creatures “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” No one will be left out—all will be included in the universal declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Recently a friend said to me in all seriousness, “If you ever mention Jesus to me again, I will never speak to you again.” When such moments come, we need to respond with these verses in mind, I said “I don’t want to lose your friendship but I must tell you the truth. You were made by Jesus Christ. You owe your life to him. One day you will stand before him as your Judge. Sooner or later every knee will bow before him and confess that he is the Lord. You can bow before him today as your Saviour or you can face him one day as your Judge. But you cannot escape him. The choice is yours.”

Let’s summarize what this passage is telling us about Jesus Christ.

1)   What He Was — Fully and Completely God!

2)   What He Became — A man while retaining his deity.

3)   What He Chose — To die a humiliating death on the cross.

4)   What He Gained — The highest place/the greatest name/universal honour.

This is the Christ of the Bible. This is the Jesus we worship. This is the true Christ of the Christian faith. This is the One in whom we have believed. He and He alone is our Lord and Saviour. Millions of Christians unite in worshipping him in every nation on every continent. He and He alone is the Lord.

Amen.

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God Has His Reasons

Amos 3: 1-8

Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher, mathematician and physicist – to him we owe the modern theory of probability, and the invention of an early calculating machine. Yet this supremely logical thinker wrote in his book of “Thoughts”, “The heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of”.  He recognised that there are areas where logic cannot probe, and love is above reason’s power to describe.  He was also a deep Christian thinker, who believed that the God of love has his reasons for doing what He does, which feeble human minds can never entirely grasp.  This is not to say that God behaves illogically; only that mere logic can seldom discover what God’s purpose is in anything that happens, until God Himself reveals why he allowed it.

The prophet Amos was saying something like this when he wrote, “Does disaster befall a city, unless the Lord has done it? Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.”  This isn’t to say that God wants to destroy the places where people live.  Amos has just written about all the cities, enemies of Israel and Judah, which in his time had been notorious for sin and dissolute living.  He lists them one by one, and then describes how they were destroyed, by natural accident or an invading army.  His Jewish readers must have been preening themselves when they heard this, imagining that God would never let disaster befall his own chosen people.  No such luck, says Amos. God has his reasons, and he tells the prophet what they are, even of nobody else can understand.

Now some Christian preachers and alleged followers of Christ have taken this too far – they’ve pronounced that HIV/AIDS is a punishment on the world for homosexuality; that the Haiti earthquake showed God’s wrath against their devotion to voodoo; the wild fires in Australia were God’s punishment for the Government allowing too many immigrants into the country; even as recently as last week, a UKIP councillor claimed that the floods were a result of the UK Government passing the equal marriage law.  All of this paints a very unattractive picture of a petty and spiteful God.  It would be more trusting to say that God, who can do anything, wanted a world where people could learn to love.  So he allowed an apparently random process of earthquake, wind and rain to produce a planet where life could emerge and evolve into humans with the power to reason, and the ability to choose.  Without the earthquakes there would be no mountains, and without mountains there would be no rivers, and without rivers there would be no life on our planet.  Without the changeable climate, the plants wouldn’t grow; without giving humans the freedom to hate and to hurt one another, they’d never learn to love.  So God doesn’t want pain and suffering, but he has his reasons for allowing it, in fulfilment of his plan to bring us to faith in him and to eternal life.  We may not fully understand those reasons, but we must believe they exist.

Try explaining that to someone who is in pain, who has just lost a loved one, or whose house is flooded with no end in sight.  The emotions are almost too raw to bear at that moment, and it becomes easy to blame God for what has happened, or blame those people in society we don’t like for bringing God’s wrath down upon the world.  Later, however, they may become more objective.  It is better still, however, if we think about it before the suffering comes.  So God reveals his secret reasons to his prophets that we may learn from them to trust God to bring good out of evil.  What Amos calls God’s punishment is really an inevitable process of cause and effect – if A happens then B will inevitably follow.  “Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment? Does a lion roar in the forest when it has no prey? Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it?”  Or as we’d say today, selfish behaviour is self-destructive.  Those who disobey God’s command to love their enemies will inevitable bring suffering on others, and ultimately on themselves.  Those who do not listen when God tells us to take care of the planet; those who do nothing to halt global warming are adding to the likelihood of further earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, bringing misery to millions.  Unless the sin is dealt with, this may lead to the destruction of cities and even civilizations, as history has shown us.  This perspective may encourage those who are suffering to be patient and trusting; and it encourages us to listen to the words of the prophets, and deal, before it’s too late, with the sin in our oppressive society and in our own selfish hearts. Listen to God’s word, take care of the planet and above all, make peace with your enemies here and now because you may have to share eternity with them hereafter.

We Are All “Foreign” Before God

Isaiah 56

As part of my daily routine, I receive and read an e-mail newsletter called Heartlight.  I was struck this past week by the heartfelt confession of a member of the Anglican Church in Canada called Joe. He was recounting a tale from earlier years in his life, one that he wasn’t all that proud of now, but one he valued for the lessons it taught him and the change of attitude that it worked in his life.
It happened while he was a student at university.  He was involved in lots of different societies so had lots of separate groups of friends.  Amongst his friends from the politics society was an openly gay young man with whom he had a lot in common and they became good friends.  Unfortunately not everyone was as welcoming and inclusive, especially the president of the Christian Union, who was also amongst Joe’s friends albeit in a totally separate group.  But being a small campus, one day the inevitable happened.  Joe was walking along when he spotted his gay friend walking towards him; their eyes met, recognition was made and the young man characteristically raised his hand in greeting. But just as Joe was raising his own, the familiar voice of his friend the Christian Union president called out from across the quad.  It’s in shame that Joe remembers what happened next. He halted his greeting before it reached shoulder height, dropped it quick as a flash, and turned to cross the street to shake the esteemed president’s hand. Basking in the glow of attention from the president, he wrote off the dignity and significance of another whom he had called “friend.” It’s embarrassing for Joe to remember now, but imagine how dehumanizing to the other young man. Imagine how it must have felt.

I don’t think it’s hard for us to imagine because we’ve been there – befriended only to be dumped when our acquaintance’s circumstances changed or when their good fortune returns or when someone they conclude to be more “acceptable” arrives.
That is the fear on the part of foreigners and God’s concern for them that we heard about in our Isaiah reading this evening. Israel’s circumstances were about to change. God was promising release. Their time of bondage would end. He is going to restore them, but He doesn’t want the foreigners who have joined themselves to His people, who have turned away from their false gods and embraced Him as their saviour and king to think that they’ll now be forgotten, written off as after thoughts. Nor were these concerns misplaced.
Again and again God warned his people not to compromise the practice of their faith by associating with foreigners or creating alliances with other nationalities. They were to remain God’s chosen, rather “unique” people.

Nevertheless, they were God’s chosen “unique” people in order to be a “light to the Gentiles.” Just a few chapters before this Isaiah had spelled out His plan. From the 49th chapter verse 6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” From the 14th chapter we also hear: “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. Aliens will join them and unite with the house of Jacob.” They were God’s people, separated; but with a purpose – to prepare a way by which God’s saviour would be brought to the whole world.

Unfortunately, they often missed this. They would miss it again in the days to come. Think of the Samaritan woman at the well. The idea that Jesus, a Jew, would be talking to her – why she’s beside herself. She can’t imagine such a thing happening because, Gentiles, especially Samaritans, were despised in those days. That’s what makes the story of the Good Samaritan such a powerful one. The fact that one of the Pharisees Jesus was talking to had to admit that the Samaritan who took pity on the man beaten by the road was more of a neighbour than his fellow Jew was hard to admit, though the circumstances Jesus drew in that story left no other choice.

And I suppose some might point to the meeting of Jesus and the Canaanite woman and say, “Heh, doesn’t Jesus do the same? And at first glance it may appear so, after all he does say, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But look again. Jesus acts the way he does not to belittle her, but to encourage her to greater faith; a faith which he commends to her in the end.

The point of all this is that God’s people missed this part of God’s word of promise. They grew to ignore their God-given mission to be lights to the world, missionaries of God’s grace. Instead they grew to think of themselves as the sole object of God’s love and refused to associate with foreigners at all.
I find it disturbing that still today that some groups in society still feel that they are not welcome in the Church (and I don’t mean our church but the Church as a whole), or maybe they just feel that they are not welcome because the Church communicates that they’re “not good enough” to fit in. Let me tell you another story from the diary of the young man Joe that we heard about earlier.   Much later in his life he became a minister of the church and went to live in the United States with his wife Carolyn.  One day he was talking to some members of his new church and describing a wedding that he had been asked to perform while still in Canada. The “wedding chapel” was an old cabin on the side of a mountain in the sagebrush just beyond the timberline. The bride was twenty-seven years old, and the groom was forty-seven. They already had two children, and the bride was seven months pregnant. But they were getting married because, as brand-new Christians, they had come to believe that the Lord wanted them to quit living “common law.” Of the handful of wedding guests, five or six were alcoholics, some were drug addicts, and one woman was a prostitute who had often sold herself for a case of beer. Another man was on parole – attempted murder. At the end of the ceremony, instead of kissing the groom, the bride shouted, “Where’s my rolling pin? I’ve got a license now!” A sordid bunch; Not respected by many. Yet, all except two had recently come to Christ and it was one of Joe’s favourite weddings.
But in Indiana when he and his wife described those mountain nuptials, one man stood rather defiantly and asked, “Don’t you ever bring any good Canadian people to Christ?”

It’s the kind of question that’s been asked in many ways, in many churches around the world. “Why are you marrying that couple in church when they’ve been living together for years?” “Why is that fellow getting a Christian burial? He never crossed the threshold of the church until a week before He died.” “Why should we allow two people of the same gender to get married?” “Why should I forgive someone like that? Look at what they’ve done.” “Why should we baptise that child, their family never come to church?” They’re the kind of questions that say, “No foreigners welcome.” “If you’re not someone like us, then you’re not someone at all.” But the truth is none of us really are, at least not in God’s book.

Look at us by nature. R. Scott Richards has got it right when says in his book, “Myths the World Taught Me” – “every one of us starts life as a little savage, completely selfish and self-centered. We want what we want when we want it. Deny us these once, and we seethe with rage which would be murderous were we not so helpless. We are, in fact, dirty; no morals, no knowledge, no skills; children born delinquent. And if permitted to continue every one of us would grow up a criminal – a thief, a swindler, or worse.” That’s what we all are except that God, quite often with the help of family and friends, intervenes in our life by the power of His word for positive change. When we exclude others, when we cut them off, when we fail to let go of our prejudices, we’re actually in jeopardy of cutting ourselves off. We’re in jeopardy because we are not acknowledging that we too were foreign until our faith in Christ brought us to God.
So we must remember that God alone is righteous and holy, and that we are all “foreign” before Him, and thus we would remain if not for the grace of God which has made us righteous by faith in Christ and His cross and gathers us together in His love. On the cross Jesus bore away our “foreign-ness” before God, He himself taking our place that all might be given the right to become God’s children. He took every one of our sins, even our exclusive attitudes towards others, and made us clean. He made us righteous in His sight, and this not only to save us for eternity, but in the hope that we will live this out ourselves by welcoming everyone into the family of God.
It’s part of the joy of the Gospel. None of us are excluded – not for our past, not for our family history, not because we are physically weak, not because our names aren’t among the socially elite, not for who we love, or where we come from, nor for the colour of our skin. God’s promise is that we’re all welcome, that we all belong, by virtue of our faith in Christ, the one who has welcomed us through baptism and bids us to his table to share in his sacrificing love. Sinners all, made righteous in Christ’s blood; and in this gracious righteousness we look at others in new ways. We see them as we are, another sinner for whom Christ died, another one lost who needs God’s grace, a potential brother or sister in God’s house forever.

God’s plan is to gather still more besides us whom he already has gathered. And the joy of it is that he would use you, once foreign yourselves, now brought near; once lost but now found and fashioned into tools of the Spirit to gather even more – people of every walk in life, peoples of every nation in the world – He would use us to gather them all to the joys of knowing Christ Jesus and the eternal blessings that spill forth from His Church.

Amen.

Warnings From History

1 Corinthians 10: 1-13

Two pals are sitting in a pub watching the eleven-o’clock news. A report comes on about a man threatening to jump from the 20th floor of a downtown building. One friend turns to the other and says, “I’ll bet you a tenner that the guy doesn’t jump.”

“It’s a bet,” agrees his buddy.

A few minutes later, the man on the ledge jumps, so the loser hands his pal a £10 note.

“I can’t take your money,” his friend admits. “I saw him jump earlier on the six-o’clock news.”

“Me, too,” says the other buddy. “But I didn’t think he’d do it again!”

Joking aside, one of the human race’s biggest failings is that we seldom seem to learn from history.  Hegel, a German philosopher, wrote that the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history, and anyone looking at the world around us right now would probably say very much the same thing.  The world is in a place where we see a rise in racism, a rise in violence, and a rise in the nationalistic, far-right doctrines that led the world into a catastrophic world war 70 years ago.

However, Oliver Cromwell, when planning his son’s education, said “I would have him learn a little history”, and despite what would seem to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I think that Cromwell was right: by studying honestly the mistakes that our ancestors made in years gone by, we can try and prepare ourselves to avoid similar mistakes if we find ourselves in a similar situation. The key word there though, is “honestly” – not with rose tinted glasses and excuses, we must first be prepared to recognise their mistakes. To admit their errors is not to deny that they also did much that was good.  And guilt cannot be inherited. In the past people of other nations did bad things too, but we cannot blame their descendants, any more that they can blame us.  The study of history is the best cure for any sense of exaggerated pride.

St Paul was a Jew, and he was understandably proud of the history of his people. But he saw also their faults, and said “that these things happened as an example to us” – not examples to imitate and copy, but ghastly warnings of the dangers of arrogant complacency. In particular, he quotes the history of the Exodus, when the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, and crossed howling wilderness into the Promised Land. They were given the blessings of God’s protection, and the privilege of escaping from slavery, he writes in the letter to the Corinthians we heard this evening. But they began to take these things for granted, and gave way to temptation, which should be a warning to us all. We hear of the sins committed by the Israelites:

  • They lost courage when most of the spies came back with negative reports, and began to doubt whether God would keep His promises.
  • When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the Israelites gave into temptation and began to worship a golden calf.
  • They committed fornication – just a quick word here about the meaning of that word, as it is quite often misused. The word fornication is derived from the same root word as pornography, and means prostitution, so when the bible condemns fornication it is referring to paying for sex.
  • They grumbled about the appalling conditions of their journey.

They would have done none of these things, writes St Paul if they hadn’t taken for granted the great blessings god had given them.

Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians as he believed that they were at risk in a similar way.  Just as the Israelites had passed through the Red Sea, so the Christians had passed through the waters of baptism and been united with Christ.  Most of the meat they ate came from animals that had been sacrificed to an idol in a heathen temple. No harm in that but then their Pagan neighbours invited them to a party in the temple and demanded that the Christians accept their idols as equal to God, becoming one with the idol by eating the food dedicated to it.  The Christians of Corinth went along with it so as not to offend their neighbours – this is certainly taking Love Your Neighbour a little bit too far.

We too, like the Corinthians, need to learn from history. We have had many blessings as a nation, including democracy, a justice system, freedom of religion, and a standard of living much higher than many other nations in the world, largely due to wealth formed by trading with those poorer nations and extracting their natural resources.  Yet, like the Israelites, we have become complacent, assuming that we deserve these things, they are somehow our birthright because we are better than other people. So like them:

  • We lose courage, and doubt whether God will keep His promises to those who love Him. Thus many people in our country have stopped going to church, and those of us that do are frightened to point out to them what they are missing.
  • The worship which should be God’s alone we have transferred to the golden idol of seeking to become wealthier and more successful.
  • We have compromised over sex. Sex is a good thing when it is an expression of love between two people in a lifelong committed relationship, but temptations are all around us and people demean themselves by using sex in other ways – to gain power, influence, and for instant gratification.
  • We grumble because our lives are not perfect, even though we have received many blessings.

These are the temptations which come with success, and any successful nation is vulnerable. We must learn from history what happens to nations which yield to these temptations, and get a grip on ourselves before it is too late.

The Joys of Multiculturalism

Acts 2: 1-21

There has been a lot of heated discussion and debate in recent years in this country about “multiculturalism”. As usual, the reason for many of the disagreements is that each side is arguing about a different idea, as it all depends on what you mean by multicultural.   The arguments stem from one set of people thinking that a multicultural society means one thing, and others imagine it means something completely different.  I think the readings for Pentecost Sunday have something to say about that.

The first thing to say on the subject is that Britain has been a multicultural society for at least a couple of millennia.  The Roman Empire was made up of many races, any of whom could aspire to citizenship, and the towns called colonies contained retired soldiers married to local women, whose children joined the army. When they invaded Britain, they found a mix of tribes called Celts.  Once again, the local women and the soldiers produced offspring, known as Romano-British, following much of the Roman culture but speaking Celtic, the most famous of which was King Arthur.  The Anglo-Saxons invaded, and most of the Celts were driven into the north and west of these islands.  Around the northern coasts, the Vikings invaded bringing their own language with them, a lot of which pervades the English language today.  Everywhere there were mixed race children.  When St Augustine brought Christianity to Canterbury, he found that many of the Celts were already Christians, and after St Hilda had metaphorically knocked the heads together of the two churches at Whitby, some sort of compromise between Saxon and Celtic cultures was reached.  After the Norman Conquest, the French enslaved the Saxons, but very quickly the languages and legends of each became mixed together.  Since then we have welcomed to our shores the Huguenot Protestants from France, Jews fleeing Hitler, Caribbean people whom we begged to fill our labour shortage, Ugandan Asians driven out by Idi Amin, members of many nations from across the Commonwealth nations and the EU, refugees from war torn parts of the world, and doctors and nurses from all parts of the globe without whose help many of us would be dead.  Each brought their unique blend of culture, language, insights and skills.  Our language has absorbed words from a hundred different tongues.  The study of genetics has shown that none us can claim to be pure-blooded anything.

When new arrivals come into our country, we either welcome them, learn a smattering of their language and teach them ours, then learn about their customs whilst retaining our own, and finally learn some of the wisdom that their ancestors passed on  to them.   Alternatively, we can shut them into ghettoes, shun them and leave them to sink or swim on their own.  In the worst case scenario, we can demonise all immigrants, making them scapegoats for all that is wrong with our society.  This is particularly prevalent during times of national crisis – when Germany was left without hope following World War I, Hitler and his Nazi party came to power by demonising all minorities and blaming them for the misery that the ordinary people were feeling.  The same can be said across Europe during the recent elections. Far-right parties have been victorious right across Europe, all of which have created their success off the back of blaming immigrants for the austerity being imposed on the people of Europe.  In the end though it all comes down to communication – stereotypes and scapegoats are all propagated without communication between ordinary people.

The Acts of the Apostles says that on the Day of Pentecost the apostles spoke in other languages, and the crowd, coming from all corners of the Roman Empire asked, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” That suggests that the Greeks heard them speaking Greek, the Romans heard Latin etc. etc.  Personally, I doubt whether that was really the case, such a miracle has never been attested either before or since. Much more common, even today, is what we call “speaking in tongues”, which is what happens when your mouth can’t keep up with your brain and you utter a sort of inspired babbling.  What St Luke was trying to say in this passage of Acts is that people speaking many different languages were so caught up in the enthusiasm and so moved by the power of the Spirit, that communication was established from heart to heart despite the disparity of languages and cultures.

That, surely, is Christian multiculturalism: when people with different backgrounds make the effort to get to know each other, seek to imagine what it’s like to be the other, and try to share, learn and love across the boundaries.  The British have never been good at that when we went abroad, so we mustn’t expect it to happen overnight here.  But if we work at it, eventually communication will come, and we shall enjoy the rich mix of cultures.  Sharing our Christian love and compassion, demanding nothing in return, our own faith will be deepened by the faith of others, and they will want to know what Jesus has given us.

With that in mind I’d like to finish with a prayer that comes from a different culture, from the culture of the North American Indians. It is still relevant to our own Christian life and particularly today on Pentecost Sunday:

Oh, Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind, whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me, as I call for your strength and wisdom.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
Help me seek pure thoughts and act with the intention of helping others.
Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy – Myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes.
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame

Amen.

Good Nostalgia vs Bad Nostalgia

Jeremiah 6: 16

Last weekend I met up with a group of my oldest friends, we were at school together, and as you can imagine, through the course of the evening, we reminisced for the good old days, and lamented how it was so much better when we were younger. Then as we reflected upon our lives now we realised that actually we probably only really remember the good bits and there were some awful things going on too that as children we wouldn’t have been aware, and that our children have just as much fun and freedom as we ever did.  As the American humourist, Peter de Vries wrote, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”.  As you think about that, remember that it is a mistake to live entirely in the past. We pity the Grumpy Old Men and Women (a group to which I seem to be growing increasingly like), always regretting that everything now is worse than it was in the good old days when they were young.  Yet Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. God’s way is to reveal his will gradually, step by step, giving the human race time to get used to one truth before he reveals the next one to us.  So year on year the world is becoming a better place, in some respects at least.  The reason that progress isn’t faster is that people who live in the past won’t accept the new blessings when God reveals them to us. To change our ways means to admit that some of them were wrong, and nobody likes doing that.

It was Georg Wilhelm Hegel, a German philosopher, who wrote, “The only thing one learns from history is that nobody learns anything from history”. As well as the bad nostalgia I have just mentioned, there is also a good nostalgia which tries to learn important lessons from the past, and how to avoid making the same ones again. This is what the prophet Jeremiah was talking about when he wrote:

“Thus say the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”

Jeremiah reminded the people of Judah that they had a great history, in which they had learnt the importance of worshipping the one true God and obeying His commands, but they wouldn’t listen.  The result was their 70 year exile in Babylon. We must never lose sight of the important lessons which were learnt in the past.

But how does this fit with a world and society that is always changing. What was appropriate for a tribe of wandering nomads may not be right for a settled agricultural community.  Marriage laws that were right when many children died young may be quite wrong in a world which is rapidly becoming overpopulated.  A Latin proverb says, “Times change, and we change with them”, I think today we would add, “we must change or we shall be left behind”. It is an insult to Holy Scripture to read it on a merely superficial, literal level, and apply its laws unchanged to the different society of today.  And it is a good thing to be proud of the traditions of your nation, but not if it makes you rigid and inflexible. The Christian church has many wonderful traditions, in its architecture, music, the ways in which it is governed, and the way it worships, but if these traditions prevent us from adapting to new ways of thinking, they become “false idols”.  According to St Mark:

“The Pharisees and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; So the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’. He said to them ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of god in order to keep tradition”.

As people get older, me included, it becomes increasingly important to sort through memories of the past and to hold on to traditions that make us who we are. Yet we must not try to control the way the Church and the world develop by resisting change just because it is not “how it used to be” or “how we’ve always done it”.  We must live in the present whilst not forgetting the lessons of the past.

So I will finish with another quotation, attributed to the 19th century American author Alice Morse Earle. It has been quoted and misquoted many times, most recently as the concluding line of the animated film King Fu Panda – “The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is God’s gift. That’s why it is called the present”.

Amen.

Who Are We To Judge?

Romans 14: 1-12

There was a Bishop sailing for America on one of the great transatlantic ocean liners. When he went on board, he found that another passenger was to share the cabin with him. After going to see the accommodations, he came up to the purser’s desk and inquired if he could leave his gold watch and other valuables in the ship’s safe. He explained that ordinarily he never availed himself of that privilege, but he had been to his cabin and had met the man who was to occupy the other berth. Judging from his appearance, he was afraid that he might not be a very trustworthy person. The purser accepted the responsibility for the valuables and remarked, ‘It’s all right, bishop, I’ll be very glad to take care of them for you. The other man has been up here and left his for the same reason!'”

The letter to the Romans that we heard part of this evening was written in around AD55 but what he writes is very important for the Church of today.  The problems which Paul confronted in the life of the Church in Rome are exactly the problems that face the contemporary Church.  Of course, society is different, but the fundamental facts of human nature never change, and they cause the same problems today as they did in Paul’s time.

One regrettable but universal fact is that we all have a tendency to pass judgement on other people, in our minds and in what we say about them – from minor issues such as a person’s choice in footwear, to the more fundamental and deep-rooted beliefs and behaviours.  Christians are often tempted to say about somebody else, “What he or she is doing and what she or he says is wrong – thank God I am a better person than him or her”.  In Rome, the Church was divided into what we might loosely call liberal and conservative factions, very much like the worldwide church of the 21st Century.  Conservatives said, “God gave us laws in the Old Testament as to what is right and wrong; you can’t change that; whoever does what is forbidden in Scripture is a sinner and can never go to heaven”.  But those who were more liberally minded said, “Jesus has changed all that; he set the law of love above every other law, and we are free to choose what we do, so long as it doesn’t harm anybody.”  The trouble is, both are right and both are wrong, in different circumstances.

St Paul reveals that he is clearly on the side of freedom. Like Jesus, he says that God is not interested in whether we eat some foods and abstain from others. But he recognises that some Christians haven’t yet understood that, and we must be patient with them.  He calls them “weak in faith”, which at first reading sounds a little harsh; however, he is not saying that their belief in God is any less fervent or committed but he is saying that they don’t trust God to give us freedom to choose which are the most loving actions; and they don’t trust God enough to admit people into heaven on the basis of repentance and love in their hearts, even though this was the message that Jesus brought to the world.  They imagine that God is tied to the rules he made centuries ago.

The conservative Christians of Rome were judging others who ate “unclean” foods which are forbidden in the book of Leviticus, not because they were unhealthy, but because they had been traditionally forbidden.  Paul speaks directly to the liberals who have accepted that Jesus came to show us that these laws are no longer valid, and that loving and trusting God, and loving your neighbour is all that is required to be a good Christian. He says to them that they should not flaunt their freedoms in such a way as to irritate the conservative Christians, or ridicule them, or show contempt.  Try to be positive.  G K Chesterton wrote, “We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we stopped looking for questions and started looking for answers”.

If I go into a shop and complain about a member of staff to their face, they would be entitled to ask me to take my complaints to the manager, as they work for their boss and not for me.  So St Paul asks, “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?”  God employs each of us, so we must leave the judging to him, and not assume that we are in all respects better than our fellow Christians.

The modern worldwide Anglican Communion, and in particular the Church of England, has been wrestling with some very thorny and divisive issues during the last 25 years – the ordination of women, women bishops, and, of course, equal marriage.  In a church in which people have different beliefs, we must learn to tolerate other people’s beliefs, even if we disagree with them, even if we believe they go against everything that Jesus taught us and for which he died.  If it is on a really important issue, we are right to speak up and say why we believe that some actions or beliefs are harmful to others, though courteously and respectfully and without naming names.  But then, if we haven’t persuaded those who differ from us, we must leave them free to do what they think is right, at their own risk.  The church of a particular tradition, or the church in a particular country, has no right to impose its views on another section of the church. It is God, after all, that will judge us, not our fellow Christians.