A sermon on Ephesians 1: 15-23 & Matthew 25: 31-46 by Nathan Nettleton
The other day I received one of those little half-baked insights into the world that float endlessly around the internet. This particular one was apparently written by a former Muslim who had converted to Christianity, and it was a point form summary of why it is not possible to be a faithful Muslim and a patriotic citizen of a western democratic nation like ours. I suspect that many of its points would be considered unfair and inflammatory by many faithful Muslim people, but the thing that struck me about it was how easy it would be to construct a similar list to argue that it is not possible to be a faithful Christian and a patriotic citizen of a western democratic nation like ours.
You see, this statement made its points by proposing that on various issues, religious claims and nationalistic claims were in conflict, and that therefore a person had to choose one allegiance over the other. And that is exactly the position Christianity has found itself in since its inception. Indeed Jesus was crucified because he refused to subordinate his God-given agenda to the claims of the religious and political powers of his day. Many early Christians were executed because they recognised that to say “Jesus is Lord” meant saying “Caesar is not Lord”, and that allegiance to Jesus therefore took priority over allegiance to Caesar. And while modern western democratic nations usually advocate religious freedom, they generally do so on the assumption that religious convictions are confined to certain areas of our life and do not spill over into behaviours that might come into conflict with the political, economic and social aspirations of our society. And that is a very dubious proposition.
There are many many situations in which our allegiance to Christ can put us in conflict with the cultural norms and aspirations of the society we live in, and even, on occasion, with its laws. When our nation says that we must protect our borders against those who come seeking refuge, and Jesus says that when we turn our backs on those seeking refuge, we are turning our backs on him, we are faced with a conflict. Is our allegiance to our nation, or to Christ? When our nation is saying that the way to respond to terrorist threats is by refusing to give an inch on their demands and using military might to crush them, and Jesus is telling us that we must love our enemies and that if we turn our backs on the cries of hungry and displaced peoples for just access to resources then we are turning our backs on him, we are faced with a conflict. Is our allegiance to our nation, or to Christ?
Our endeavours to try to negotiate our way with integrity in the midst of such dilemmas and conflicts will never be easy. It will often seem as though there are perfectly valid claims on both sides. Living with that degree of uncertainty can be very uncomfortable. There will be times when seeking to live as we believe Christ is calling us to live will require us to take a counter-cultural stance – that is to consciously live at odds with the aspirations of the world around us. Living at odds with the world around us is uncomfortable. At times it can be quite painful.
There are two things that will be very important to us if we are to make a real go of living a radically Christian alternative in the midst of the competing claims for allegiance that we are surrounded by. The first is the support of one another. Very few people can survive as lone rangers. Most of us are pretty dependent on the support and encouragement of others when we seek to live outside the mainstream. We need to find ourselves in synch with a few, if we are to cope with being out of synch with the many.
The other thing that will be very important is a vision of why; a vision that enables us to see beyond the discomfort of life in the present tension, to the glory of life in the reign of Christ. It is for such a vision that we hear the apostle Paul praying in tonight’s reading from the letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He prays that they will have the eyes of their hearts enlightened so that they may know what is the hope to which God has called them. That is to say, he wants them to have a vision of what the following of this call is leading up to.
He then launches into a vision of the sovereign rule of Christ over the entire universe and everything in it. The way he describes this contains one of the usual complexities of discussing the vision of the reign of Christ over all things, and that is that it is described as being both a present and a future reality, without any real attempt to solve the riddles that that creates. I could attempt to unpack and explain that difficulty now, but I’m not going to, partly because we will wrestle with that question a bit over the coming weeks as we journey through the season of Advent; and partly because it may be more valuable to hear and live with the tension than it is to be able to explain it. All I want to say about it now is that, as Paul affirms, God has given Christ absolute authority over everything, and while we who follow Christ have recognised and placed ourselves under that authority, most of the world has not, and Christ has not yet stepped back onto centre stage to bring his reign to its fulfilment.
As yet the world is full of competing claims for our ultimate allegiance. Powers and authorities; religious hierarchies and military regimes; legal jurisdictions and people-power movements; economic imperatives and moral principles; all of them frequently claim to have the answers and to be able to set the agendas that will bring about the satisfaction of the worlds hungers and desires. But says Paul, although all of them may have a legitimate place in the world and all of them may serve valuable ends; God has put them all under the feet of the Messiah and we can honour and submit to them only in so far as they honour and submit to Jesus the Messiah.
Now, for us Australians, this vision may cause us as much discomfort as it gives us encouragement. We Australians are not usually very enthused by visions about someone taking and exercising absolute power. We are a people who tend to be suspicious of authority figures and who promote an egalitarian view of the world. Our vision of paradise is not likely to have kings lording it over anybody. We respond much more eagerly to visions of tall-poppy tyrants being pulled from their thrones and the humble lifted up. So, as we approach this season of Advent and begin to stand on tippy toes and crane our necks to catch a vision of the coming reign of Christ, what are we to do with these images of sovereign rule and absolute authority?
Well, I don’t think Paul was an Australian and I think I can say fairly confidently that it is unlikely he never met one, but if he’d been trying to answer our concerns, I think he’d have done so by emphasising another aspect of the vision. I think he’d have been stressing to us that we must never forget that the one to whom God is giving all authority on earth and in heaven is the crucified Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. To whatever extent Jesus could be called a tall-poppy, he is a tall poppy who volunteers to be cut down for the sake of others. This is not a tall poppy who needs to be cut down, but one who readily accepts the humiliation of execution as a common criminal rather than compromise his commitment to lifting up the humble and enabling them to share the inheritance that has been prepared for them since the foundation of the world. He may be the holder of absolute power, but Jesus Christ has proven his willingness to be cut down by our hatred and hostility and to respond in gracious love and mercy, rather than to pull rank and ride roughshod over our freedom.
If we are to live with integrity as disciples of Jesus amidst the competing claims for our allegiance that are slickly marketed to us around the clock, then we will need to hold fast to such a vision and to lean into it and live under it as fully as we can in the here and now. We will need to envisage our lives and our world being reshaped by the loving wounded hands of the suffering servant king. We will need to envisage it, and hunger for it, and work and pray for it. And over the coming weeks of the Advent season, we will seek to nourish that vision and that passion within our shared life and prayer. Come, Lord Jesus, come!