20 May 2012, 7th Sunday of Easter
I wonder if you have watched the series “Rev” – about Alan, a Church of England vicar in London. Alan has an interesting “nickname” given to him by heavy-drinking conspiracy theorist Colin. Colin always greets him with a hearty “Hello Vicarage”, and Alan’s wife is duly addressed as Mrs Vicarage. Nicknames! We all have either had them or given them to someone. For instance when I met Paul he was clean shaven. He has since then grown a beard and is now referred to as “Fuzzband”, even by some of his friends.
Nicknames often mark distinctiveness and difference. And they stick. Like the name “Christians” given to followers of Christ in the 1st century. The early followers were nicknamed the People of the Way, the Nazarenes, and eventually Christians. These terms were not particularly complimentary, and often marked people out for persecution. For instance in Acts we find St Paul being called a “a pestilent fellow, a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes”. These malicious nicknames also indicate that their allegiance is to Christ and His Kingdom, not to Caesar and Rome.
As we affirm every Sunday in the creeds, Christ lived, suffered, died, rose again and ascended into heaven. The early Christians greeted each other with the words “He is risen,” and replied “He is risen indeed”. There was a sense of excitement in the greeting. We all believe this truth – in varying degrees of certainty or uncertainty, with or without that excitement. But what does all of this mean for us today?
What it means is encapsulated in Jesus’ hopes and expectations for his followers, especially since he knew he would soon be leaving them. In the passage which we read from John’s gospel, Jesus was thinking about the time after his Ascension and praying for his disciples, and for those who would come to follow him later. In this prayer we see what Jesus wanted for his disciples – and for us: to be “sanctified”, and to be “sent out into the world”.
Sanctified is a pious sort of word, one we might hear or use without really understanding it. I recently discovered it does not mean – as I had assumed – “holiness” or piety or purity. It means “separation” – separation for God’s purposes, being set apart to serve God. It is to be different or distinctive because we belong to God. As Jesus puts it, “to be in the world but not of the world.” Like Him.
The reading from Exodus has an evocative description of how a priest was set apart in Old Testament times. Aaron’s sacred vestments and adornments were made of fine linen, precious stone, and gold. They were colourful, beautiful and distinctive. They symbolised his priestly role and function, and demonstrated that he was consecrated to God. As an Old Testament priest, Aaron was to be separate and, as the conclusion of Exodus 28 says, he was to be sanctified as God’s representative to serve God and the people. But how is this relevant to us if we are not part of the priesthood?
The Jews in the Old Testament were the chosen people of God. There were those like Aaron who were sanctified for the priesthood, to serve God and the people. But the Jews themselves were called by God to be a holy nation, to demonstrate God to the rest of the world. In the New Testament – in 1 Peter, Christians – non-Jewish Christians like us – are described as a chosen people, a royal priesthood and a holy nation. Christ proclaimed a new Kingdom. Those who follow him are now the “chosen” people. We are a new royal priesthood, serving God and the world. We are a holy nation – God’s Kingdom with Christ as King – to demonstrate God to the world.
We declare our allegiance to this different Kingdom and King every Sunday – perhaps every day – when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We acknowledge that we are people of this Kingdom when we call God “Our Father in Heaven” and pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. We conclude by affirming “Thine is the Kingdom the power and the glory”.
The early followers declared their allegiance to the Kingdom too and because they were so distinctive and countercultural, they were nicknamed “Christians” after the Christ they followed. Politically – they refused to acknowledge the Emperor’s claim to be the “Son of God”, giving the title to Jesus instead. This meant persecution from the Empire. They refused to live as others did and defied the norms of the day. One story in Acts shows how startlingly different the Christians were. In a deeply patriarchal and divided society, Hebrew men from the Church distributed food and ministered to Greek widows who were not only women, not just culturally different, but also, as widows, much lower down the social ladder. This was not just men serving food, and serving it to women – which is unusual enough even today – it was in its time profoundly shocking on many levels.
Are we today identified as different to the norm? Christians didn’t fit into the norm back then, but today, I sometimes think we do. If the term Christian hadn’t already been established would we have earned the nickname today for our distinctive Christ-likeness?
Richard Dawkins recently commissioned a survey of Christians today, which showed that many who call themselves Christian are almost exactly the same as those who don’t. Sadly, today, people are sometimes identified as Christians because they are judgemental, paying more attention to a speck of sin in others’ eyes, than the plank of hypocrisy in their own. Too often we are not recognised as Christians because we are distinctive in our love, kindness, or humility, as sanctified people of God.
So how shall we live sanctified lives, as those Christ sends into the world?
Recently I was moved to hear about Crossfire, an organisation in South Armagh that is attempting to do something shocking and countercultural. Ian Bothwell, the visionary behind the organisation, spoke about bringing healing to the wounded and vulnerable across the sectarian divide, through the power of Christ’s love.
We may not all be called to such a task – although some of us may be – but we are called to be sanctified and sent in our daily lives. So what does that look like in an everyday context?
Today’s culture and world is subtly coercive. I often find myself gently sucked into the culture around me and drifting happily downstream in the current. I often think that Shakespeare’s words “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” have a new meaning for our culture today. We live in an image-based world – everything depends on the image we present, how we play the part we want to portray. It’s all about presentation and making an impression. Can this really be good for us or the world?
Our culture can be an overwhelmingly consumerist one – we are constantly encouraged by the media to buy. Apparently if I buy the right shampoo, flowers will fall out of the sky and I will suddenly become ravishingly beautiful. We are encouraged to get more, not give away, to desire the new, and be dissatisfied with the old. As followers of Christ how should we respond?
Our culture in Northern Ireland, like most cultures, is divided in many ways: between social classes, between Catholic and Protestant, between denominations, between North Belfast and South Belfast, above the Lisburn Road and below it, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, young and old, Professionals and Big-Issue sellers. The early church cut right across the divides of their time. Should we do the same and if so how?
I am reminded of a phrase from the Harry Potter books where Dumbledore, the great wizard, tells Harry something quite powerful: “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” I have often thought about that choice. It is relatively straightforward to tell the difference between right and wrong, but it is far more difficult to make the choice between what is easy and what is right.
There are simple choices that can make a big difference in God’s world. For instance, if we can afford it, buying goods that are fairly traded – where the producers thousands of miles away are paid a fair wage so that they can afford education, medicine, even food and shelter. A friend of ours is a challenge to us. He shops at the farmer’s market – to support small local enterprises. When he got engaged, he and his fiancée took time and care to find a ring that had been crafted out of gold that was ethically mined and produced. More important than the exact design they wanted – the easy choice – was getting the ring they felt was right.
It costs us nothing to extend friendship and dignity to people no matter where they come from, because we are all created in God’s image. In Sri Lanka, we were blessed by friendship with a woman – Daya – who was a coconut seller from a very poor background. The friendship began when this woman, who was standing on the road in the blazing sun, with a pile of coconuts on her head, asked my mother for a glass of water. My mother invited her in, offered her a seat and gave her a cup of tea. This was not the done thing, but it led to a long friendship that still continues. Daya even calls us from Sri Lanka, even though it probably costs her half a day’s earnings.
I remember a vicar long ago asked if we ever smiled at the sellers of the Big Issue, let alone looked them in the eye, even if we refused the purchase. He said the greatest tragedy for people is to be “invisible”. Jesus reached out to the untouchables, ate with social outcasts, and talked to the morally dubious. He was called, as Luke describes it, a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” It is easy to stay in my comfort zone, but it might not be right.
The ethics of how we live are just as important as our worship, if not more so. It is the choices that we make in everyday life that count. In the 1st century church these choices broke down barriers between the rich and the poor, between Jew and Greek, between slave and free, even between male and female. Their sanctified lives earned them the nickname Christians.
We have just sung “quickened by the Spirit’s power, rise up and serve the Lord”.
Christ sends us out into the world, but he reminds us that we are not of the world. St Paul puts it this way in the epistle to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. To be Christian is to be transformed. To be distinctive. To earn a nickname and identity by the way we live. To be in the world, but yet, not of the world. To be sanctified and sent.
Let me leave you with a question that I ask myself very often: “how then should we live?”