Sunday, January 07, 2007

Changing the world with Jesus

What did Jesus think his Gospel message was really all about? Fortunately, we don't have to guess, because St Luke gives us Jesus' own manifesto – the text of the sermon which he preached in Nazareth and in which he set out the heart of the Good News that he had come back to proclaim.[1]

'The Spirit of the Lord ... has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.' So that's what Christianity is all about – bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and proclaiming the arrival of the year of Jubilee, the year when God's justice will roll down like a mighty torrent and sweep away all that obstructs God's mercy and love.

What does the Church do with this message? Often we spiritualise it. 'Yes,' we say, 'It's a message of liberation, but it's about liberating people from sin, saving them from poverty of spirit, opening their eyes to their spiritual blindness, rescuing them from a captivity of their own making.'

And there's a lot of truth in that spiritual version of the Gospel. There is a lot of poverty of spirit in the United Kingdom today and people do need rescuing from it. The truth is that most people never have a single spiritual thought from one week to the next – and that's a tragedy for them and for our nation. It explains so much of the mess we're in today – the mounting levels of debt as people try to spend their way to happiness, the mounting levels of anti-social behaviour as they decide that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks or feels, the mounting levels of relationship breakdown as they relentlessly put self first. Thinking profound thoughts once in a while, thinking about the other, thinking about God – rescues us from all these things.

There are a lot of people who are held captive in prisons of their own making – prisons of bigotry and prejudice, of addiction, of guilt or of hedonism. There are single mothers who have trapped themselves in poverty because they dared to imagine that having someone of their own to love would solve all their problems. There are rich people who have enslaved themselves to luxury and can't let it go. A good dose of spirituality would not be a cure-all, but it might begin to help people to get a better perspective on life.

And, of course, there is so much moral and ethical blindness in modern society. The other day I heard someone arguing passionately that researchers ought to be able to mix human genetic material with the genetic material of animals, to create new life forms to study in the test tube. And this wasn't a mad scientist, it was a Liberal MP. Public opinion is, thank God, totally opposed to this line of enquiry, and the Government has therefore decided to ban it, but the MP said governments shouldn't listen to public opinion when it comes to research. He said that we should allow totally free experimentation to enable scientists to explore new ideas. He compared mixing genetic material from humans and animals with injecting people with viruses. Two hundred years ago that would have seemed like total madness; now it's an accepted part of disease prevention. Yet it seems to me that he has lost his moral compass. He's blind, but he doesn't know it. The spiritual dimension is completely absent from his thinking. In fact, he believes that spirituality doesn't belong in his thinking. And he's one of the people who is responsible for making our country's laws.

And do I need to say anything about the oppression caused by sin? Well, just in case I do, let me remind you that 'sin' means falling short of the potential which God has given us. Aren't we all oppressed by sin, and don't we all need rescuing from it?

But, although there's a great spiritual message in Jesus' manifesto, I don't think he was just talking about spirituality. I think he was talking about politics and economics, about social problems, about people's health and welfare, and he was proclaiming the year of the Lord's favour, the year of Jubilee, the time when God would set out to rescue the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed.

When Martin Luther began to proclaim a new kind of Gospel message in medieval Germany, a message that money can't buy God's grace, that the Church doesn't hold the keys to heaven and hell, that salvation – a right relationship with God – comes through faith alone, and that everyone has the right to read the Bible in their own language and discover this truth for themselves, when he began to proclaim this message he became a hero, an overnight sensation. So much so, that an army of farmers and tradespeople rose up in revolt. They declared that – as they read the Gospel – they found in its pages a God who was on the side of the lowly and the hungry, the poor and the oppressed, a God who wanted the powerful to be brought down from their thrones, the rich to be sent away empty and the proud to be scattered. Luther was appalled and he immediately denounced the revolt and encouraged its suppression. Perhaps he was motivated not least by the fact that it was powerful princes who had protected him from danger and allowed him to proclaim his spiritual message. I think, also, he was genuinely horrified at the thought that the Gospel could have practical consequences for the way we run our nation's affairs, for the amount of taxes we pay and the way that we spend them, for the opportunities we give to our citizens to flourish. He didn't think that had anything to do with the Gospel and with Jesus, but I think he was wrong. The Gospel is spiritual, but it is also practical. It has implications for the whole of our lives. God's message is too big to be confined.

The Gospel is not just about spiritual things. It's also about justice, hope and dignity – for people of all faiths, for asylum seekers and refugees as well as for our own citizens, for people in Iraq, for people suffering from AIDS, for people in our own most disadvantaged communities. And, of course, that makes it a dangerous message, a threatening message even, a message which princes and prime ministers won't necessarily find convenient or to their liking, a message which we might not find convenient either.

St Luke doesn't tell us what Jesus went on to say in the sermon. He tells us only this. Jesus said, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'

What an incredible idea – that, in Jesus and his message we can find justice, hope and dignity for all the people of the world! No wonder those who heard him were amazed.

Jesus is not just offering us a spiritual ideal, or a political programme. He's offering us himself as the beginning of the solution to all the world's problems. In his life, death and resurrection every single person – and especially the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed – can find the justice, hope and dignity which they need to make the most of life now and hereafter. What a sweeping claim! What an incredible vision!

It's the radical and dynamic, Spirit-powered message of a righteous and compassionate God who has come, in this man Jesus, to begin the rescue of the human race. The people of Nazareth didn't believe it. Do we believe it, though, and will we commit yourselves anew, or for the first time even, to being part of this Gospel dynamic, working in the power and the Spirit of Jesus to change our world?

[1] Luke 4.14-21

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