Readings: Acts 3 12-19; Ps 4; 1 John 3, 1-17; Luke 24, 36b-48
Hymns: Loves redeeming work is done; Jesus good above all other; We have a gospel to proclaim; Come ye faith raise the anthem
What are the implications of the Epistle saying ‘we are all children of God?’ Are there any, or is it just a phrase? It is easy assume those who are ‘children of God’ differ qualitatively from those who are not: one in the light, the other in the dark. Yet at the Creation, all humans were made in the light, all of God. Yes, the Garden of Eden made humans responsible and reflective: but they were still all made in the Image of God. Let‘s for the moment talk just of those in the world who identify in some way as Christian: 1/3 of the population of the globe. A lot of people. It is so easy with language, a blunt if not impious instrument especially when thinking of God, to speak as if we are dividing people up: if we are blessed, they are not. We try to play God and sort out who are in the light and who in the dark, who resemble murdering Cain and who the dead- and perhaps rather proud- Abel. A potentially divisive line in the Epistle might support such dividing: ‘no one who abides in him sins: no one who sins has seen him or known him.’ Christian history is littered with deluded self-satisfied groups who dispense with confession as, being in faith, they do not sin.
In a few minutes, when I add the water to the wine in preparing the chalice, I say silently: God baptise us afresh and be with us. Then I raise the elements, presenting all of us to God that all receive that of God from God, I know that at that moment, God is utterly with us. That is neither triumphal nor excluding: it just describes that moment. But all too often it, ‘God is with us’ excludes those who are not us, all those people outside our cluster, our sort, our kith and kin, leaving us as a happy band of look-alikes or act-alikes.
But the intention, the assumption, behind ’we are all children of God’ is that that governs our relations with all, for all are made in the image of God, you, me, him her, them. However, the practice, whether we are Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever, can look rather different. It is not inadequate faith which strangles this. Rather it is our socio-cultural-historical cultural patterns, especially as these become entangled with nationalism, as well as rank, gender and ethnicity: I should add here that I came back late last night from a conference in Lublin, overwhelmed by Fatherland and St John Paul 2 –replete with a capital H in a pronoun referring to him in the University booklet!
Imagine my flat left hand held horizontal is my ‘cultural way of being a person,’ and that is course the way everyone who is anyone in my eyes should also behave if they were fully human: such ethnocentrism is the implicit norm for all humans! Watch me part my straight fingers, and let faith slip up vertically through the cracks, perhaps challenging the nationalism which so often accompanies ‘my groups’ self-definition against and above that of other nations, classes, castes and gender. But now see what is happening: my horizontal country/culture/nationalism tentacles are bending round and strangling my faith. True, faith still stands up, but it is changed, lassoed, constricted. Thus does my group, really Children of God, speak from a faith strangled by my nationalism, my racism, sexism, elitism or whatever. Others then cease to be seen by me and treated by me as fully ‘God’s children,’ with all the demands and the benefits of sharing and being that entails. They become indeed ‘they:’ inferior, unimportant, and that is happening in all groups. It is a small step from there to others becoming not-quite-persons, the essential move to enable abuse and violence.
Look at some contexts where, relying to varying extents on strangled faith, groups imbued with national and religious fervour, as well as plain evil, have behaved and behave badly towards others they count as diminished or unimportant peoples. Anglican and Presbyterian England and Scotland have behaved badly to RC Ireland in the past; modern RC Ireland long-protected (important) clerical abusers of its (less important) children; Lublin RCs joined with incoming Nazis to eliminate the 40% of its population which was Jewish (and there are recurrent lines in Acts which assisted that): official Protestant and RC churches in the Nazi time adapted to if not adopted that evil ideology; Protestant United States largely eliminated Native Americans; ISIS and Boko Haram are eliminating mainly Muslims of a different group, as well as Christians and others: the Ottoman Empire murdered most Armenians. All worked from faith strangled with socio-cultural ideologies. Whether protecting the name of Catholicism in Ireland, exercising Manifest Destiny in the US, maintaining the state religion in England, expropriating the property of the murdered by evoking the killers of Christ. Christ died voluntarily once to show us through his resurrection that he lives: but he is strangled again and again!
Look again at my two hands, the horizontal of context and the vertical of faith, and reflect on faith as it pops up through our everyday lives, our assumptions about the world and our own place in it. Are those flames illuminating the words of God spoken by God? How does the strangling of faith in God mesh with Christ’s inclusion of Judas whom he knew would betray him, his gentle kindness to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room, ‘peace to you,’ his request that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins be preached to all,’ because all are God’s children? Does it feel a little uncomfortable, as I felt last night imaging it in that way?
Lethargic acceptance of the status quo is no answer! Let us rather witnesses to Christ in our lives, look for that of God in every person we meet, and polish the image of God in us. Then we can truly ‘lie down and sleep, for thou O Lord makest me dwell in safety.’
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg April 19th