A Reflection: Not in Our Name
The role of evangelical Christians in supporting the Presidency of Donald Trump, and their participation in the Capitol Hill insurrection, is disturbing. Christians need to speak out against what is being done in our name. This overshadows the contribution of progressive Christians and black church leaders in particular. This reflection on the call of Nicodemus explores what Christian discipleship really means in these dangerous times.
Human beings need timetables – for buses, trains, school curriculums. We need workplans and routines. We have a cycle of seasons and events. We redecorate our homes, either every few years or when you look up and realise things look a bit shabby.
Every organisation has a time when it sets its budgets and when it presents its accounts. We have elections every few years.
Next week, there will be a new American President. The world is inclined to pay more attention to this than elections in many other countries. That is simply because the President is often described as ‘the Leader of the Free World’. It is a title that came out of the Cold War, but the role remains highly influential and impacts on us all. It has a particular importance for us in the UK given our aspiration for more trade and what is often referred to as ‘the special relationship’.
But this year it has a different resonance, following the recent insurrection on Capitol Hill. I want to talk about this a little this morning because of one very disturbing aspect of those awful events. Those of us who believe in democracy have every right to be affronted and to ensure that proper measures are in place. If you are in the United States, then it is to make sure that the country’s institutions are robust enough to withstand attacks.
In the UK, though, we need to be sure that we are not vulnerable to the same process of lies enabling the sort of radicalisation on display in the USA. We know that Facebook and Twitter are as influential here as they are there. So yes, we are vulnerable.
But that is not why I raise this. Each of us can make our own political judgements and we should.
I want to talk about it because I have seen the insurrection being described as a failed Christian revolution. Reports and photographs of the event show crosses, people in prayer, quotes from the Bible on placards.
One slogan was ‘God, guns and guts’.
It was preceded by what they called the Jericho march when Christians marched to the demonstration with the intention of engaging into battle as Joshua battled in Jericho.
Not exclusively, but to a large extent, it was a radical Christian fundamentalist revolt.
Something awful has happened to our faith and we need to acknowledge it.
If the insurrection had been inspired by quotes from the Qur’an and with a demand for Sharia law, we could predict that the newspapers and politicians would ask why Moslem leaders had not spoken out.
Actually, Moslem leaders have consistently spoken out and Christians should do the same.
Mainstream members of a religion are embarrassed by the outer fringes. They simply don’t reflect everyday life in the community.
But they damage the faith. They poison what should be a peaceful contribution to humankind with vindictiveness and violence.
Christianity has been blighted. Our faith has been hi-jacked by populist political forces and we cannot sit on the fringe and not say anything about it.
Union Chapel comes from a Congregationalist tradition. As you are probably aware, we have a tiny bit of Plymouth rock in our Chapel. It is an acknowledgement that what is now called the ‘American Experiment’ in democracy has its roots in our tradition. We are a tradition that is prone to fundamentalism, so we need to be on our guard.
A New Type of Leader
Today’s Gospel reading tells of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus in John’s Gospel.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
Jesus has undergone his baptism with John in the river Jordan. He already has some followers, but has called two especially, Andrew and his brother Simon who Jesus has given the new name of Peter.
Then we read that he finds Philip and says, ‘follow me!’ And he does. Jesus finds Philip and Philip finds Nathaniel. Philip has already concluded who Jesus is. He is the prophet who Moses had said would come. He is also the one spoken of in the prophets – the messiah, the liberator.
Then Philip names him – Jesus of Nazareth.
Can any good come from Nazareth?
It is a witty comment but ignorant as well. I was trying to think of an equivalent.
Can any good come from Croydon?
Can any good come from Hartlepool?
Witty but ever so slightly offensive – especially if you are one of the wonderful people who come from Croydon or Hartlepool.
Maybe Nathaniel was being a bit snobbish. If God is going to set people free at least find someone respectable to do it.
‘Come and see!’
The invitation to all sceptics – come and see!
So off trots Philip with Nathaniel in tow.
Jesus sees Nathaniel and see who he is. ‘Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.’
‘How do you know me?’
Jesus’s reply is enigmatic. I saw you sitting under the fig tree.
I saw you in the bus shelter and reckoned you were ok!
The fig tree as we know is highly symbolic.
The prophet said: ‘And everyone beneath their vine and fig tree will live in peace and unafraid’.
Nathaniel belongs to those people who seek righteousness, peace.
Nathaniel’s answer is a string of titles – Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel.
They are extraordinary and subversive. Jesus was not about to be sworn in as King of Israel. He wasn’t going to be extolled as a son of God as Caesar was. But we are being told who Jesus truly is. Not the ‘Leader of the Free World’ or President or King in any sense that we might understand that.
Rather he is being recognised as a new leader and a new type of leader.
Jesus responds by calling himself the Son of Man – the human one. He is the revelation of God in human form – a God who sheds light and judgement on human affairs.
Jesus promises that there is much more for Nathaniel to see – the sky opening and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
It is a reminder of the story of Jacob who rested his head and was given a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending. You may recall that Jacob then placed a stone on the spot where the vision had occurred and called it Bethel – the house of God.
The Gospel then is reminding us that just as God revealed himself in a vision to Jacob, God is once again revealed in Jesus. Yes – this time in the flesh – not a stone monument to a vision but a living presence – the Word made flesh dwelling among us. We are told that Jesus himself is the gateway to heaven.
The Place where Heaven and Earth Meet
So how do these two stories hold up – in the contemporary event, we witness a power grab which included violence, in the name of Jesus.
On the other hand we have Jesus, revealing himself as the presence of God, the link we have to the living God.
To be a follower of Jesus – a disciple - is to come to the place where heaven and earth meet. It is to be willing to know God as a living presence.
The titles that were given to Jesus and the one he chose for himself were provocative – radical. They were a challenge to the prevailing order. They aligned with the prophetic hope for a restored people rooted in justice, peace, and harmony with creation.
Nathaniel was offered an opening into a new and better world. Nathaniel was not just an individual who was loitering under the fig tree. He was the goodness that had been showed repeatedly in the history of Israel. The name Nathaniel means God’s gift. Nathaniel was one more person who was a recipient of God’s gift to Israel. Albeit the greatest gift of all.
Later in John’s Gospel, in the last chapter, we read that Nathaniel was one of those disciples who was present as a witness to the resurrection when the space between and heaven and earth was truly opened.
God’s gift was / is the way, the truth and the life. God’s gift to Nathaniel was God incarnate – God present for ever in the resurrection of Jesus.
And here is the disconnect.
A religious practice, no matter how often it uses the name of Jesus as a mantra which is not rooted in truth, in the compassionate, forgiving, healing way of Jesus or the life Christ offers to all – is not a practice rooted in true discipleship.
The passion which was generated in Washington was based on falsehood. The lies which are propagated openly and clandestinely on social media and from some politicians created anger, disillusionment, and orchestrated violence. We all have a responsibility to discern the truth from falsehood.
We read in 1 John chapter 4: ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world’.
We all need to be careful, and none of us are excused from this, that our actions, our commitments, our decisions reflect the way of Jesus. Anything which brings death and chaos is not the truth of Jesus, whether it is conducted in God’s name or not.
You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain is a basic tenet of Israel’s experience of God. It seems that God’s name is being taken in vain by what is called the radical right.
As disciples of Jesus, we must be bold enough to say – Not in my name! And certainly not in Jesus’ name!
It would be the normal ending of a sermon like this, to say we need to come together for healing. And this is the easy talk of too many people at the moment. The world needs to heal. But we need the festering wounds to be lanced before there can be true healing. We need to be honest about how deep our differences are and expose them to the scrutiny of the Gospel.
Ironically, tomorrow is the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A unity which papers over the cracks of our honest disagreements is not unity.
But unity is what we strive for.
As disciples of Jesus, we need to be wholesome in our quest to live in God’s kingdom and to serve the world as Jesus would have us truly be.
We can pray that these shocking events will have brought some people back from the brink and awakened us to what is happening in our name.
There are times when our duty as disciples is to speak uncomfortable truths. Let us hope that they will be heard.