The Very Rev. Stephen Askew St. Matthew’s Cathedral
“The people who walked in a land of deep darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
These words of the prophet Isaiah were words of hope and joy for the Israelites who had been ruled and oppressed by the Assyrian Empire. These words rung true for the disciples whom Jesus called to follow him, in hope for liberation from the Roman Empire and restoration of their own king. They rung true for the Christians of the first 300 years after Jesus’ death, who sought hope from persecution. These words rung true for those living in slavery in this country and longed for emancipation. And they likely ring true for many people of the 3rd world today who live in poverty, oppression, and persecution still.
It may seem hard to comprehend, but the vast majority of people throughout history have been poor. I recently read that just eight people (Bill Gates heading the list) possess as much wealth as one half of the world’s population. That’s over 3 billion people! Typically, those who have written history are those on the top, writing from a perspective of freedom, wealth, and leisure. The Bible is the exception – it represents history written from the bottom, from the point of view of those without. The Old Testament is the story of the Jews held in captivity in Egypt, later overrun and scattered by the Assyrians, and then kept in exile by the Babylonians. The New Testament is the continuation of their story as they are dominated by the Roman Empire.
We may not recognize or appreciate their perspective today, unless we are oppressed, enslaved, or living in poverty. By the year 400, under the Rule of the emperor Constantine, Christians and gentiles changed places. The followers of Christ went from worshiping secretly in the dark catacombs to worshiping openly in public basilicas. The Bible became the literature of the establishment. The prophetic words of the poor and oppressed became the words that justified the powerful and elite. The words of Isaiah and other prophets largely lost their intended audience and the message of hope they were meant to convey.
So from our modern 1st world perspective, how do we hear the gospels, the good news? How do we respond to the call of Jesus who sought to fulfill the words of Isaiah, and proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” How do we respond to a call to leave everything and follow a stranger, as did Peter, Andrew, James and John? How do we respond to one who not only proclaims good news, but manifests good news by “curing every disease and every sickness among the people!”
Just recently, someone told me that she was thrilled to find out she could still do a headstand after many years. I occasionally like to stand on my head as well; it does give you a different perspective of things. But there are many ways we can gain a new perspective – by visiting a 3rd world country as my wife and I did recently in Africa, eating or volunteering at the Soup Kitchen or Clothing Cottage, taking a moment to converse with the homeless, or visiting those in prison. Our perspective may also be turned on its head by changes in personal circumstances such as a serious illness, a death, a change in personal resources or income.
This past week has certainly provided opportunities for turning our perspective upside down. It began with the day on which we honor one of our nation’s prophets, Martin Luther King, Jr., and were reminded that oppression and poverty still exist in our country. It ended with the inauguration of our 45th president, Donald Trump, one of our nation’s elite, who vows to turn things upside down in Washington D.C. and the country, bringing fear and uncertainty to the marginalized. In between these two events, the church quietly celebrated the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which each year begins with the Feast of the Confession of Peter on January 18th and ends with the Feast of the Conversion of Paul on January 25th. During this week the church all over the world is prayerfully mindful of the need to overcome our divisions.
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote: “Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no division among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” That would of course mean to be united in the same mind and purpose as Christ, which comes from a perspective from the bottom. Jesus tried to get the elite and powerful of his day to stand on their heads and see the world from a different point of view. That is why he eventually was crucified. There was then and is now a strongly perceived need to maintain the status quo.
What Paul knew, as one who had persecuted the followers of Jesus before being stood on his head on the way to Damascus, was that when there is division the message of the gospel gets lost. The focus is directed elsewhere – towards who’s right and who’s wrong, who is the winner and who is the loser, who is the correct leader to stand behind – Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ. As Paul goes on to write, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross might not be emptied of its power.” That is, Paul did not wish to be a distraction from the message he was called to proclaim.
As modern day followers of Christ, we begin our call to follow by confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, our Messiah, the one who points us toward the kingdom. Along the way, unless we are somehow stood on our heads and gain a new perspective, a perspective from the bottom, we will not hear the good news as it was intended to be understood. It will remain the literature of the establishment. And we may find that we are knowingly or unknowingly distracted, or distracting others, from hearing the true love of God in Christ for all.
All mission is carried out in a particular setting, a particular context, and at a particular time in history, which shape how the message of the gospel is heard. In the spirit of St. Francis, who gave up all his wealth to live simply as Christ lived, the current pope, Francis, strikes me as an example of one who has been able to maintain a perspective from both the top and the bottom, keeping the focus squarely on the message of Jesus Christ as good news for all, and encouraging others to do likewise.
As we finish out the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let us pray that we, as followers of Jesus Christ, may find the unity necessary to maintain a focus on what is truly important, and thereby establish unity not only throughout the church, but throughout our lives, throughout our country, and throughout the world, living as one in Christ.