A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 10 April 2005, the Third Sunday of Easter, by David Gill. Scripture readings heard during the service, which was broadcast by RTHK, were from Acts of the Apostles 2:14a,36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23 and St Luke 24:13-35.
Today’s readings from the bible take us back into the joy-filled heart searching of the early Christians. They introduce us to a church still coming to terms with the implications of its staggering conviction that Christ is risen.
Each of today’s readings has a different literary style. The first was part of a sermon by the apostle Peter– a remarkably effective sermon, apparently, for it led to the mass baptism of thousands. The second was part of a letter to scattered Christians who were facing persecution. The third, which we’ve just heard, was a story about two friends of the executed Jesus who encountered him as they broke bread with a stranger on the Emmaus road.
So -- a sermon, a letter, and a story. Each in its own way shows the early church wrestling with its new identity as the community of the resurrection. In each we see Christians trying to figure out what it means, for them, to believe and to live as people shaped not by defeat, not by fear, not by the pressures of governments or religious authorities or public opinion generally, but by Christ’s history-bending victory over the power of sin and death.
Buried deep in the second reading – the passage from the First Letter of Peter, in the 1st chapter – there is a profound observation. Brief but profound: you can miss it easily, but you shouldn’t because it has some powerful implications.
The author is writing, somewhere around the year 64 AD, to encourage believers scattered around the northern part of Asia Minor who face persecution for their faith. Remember what God has done for us in Christ, he says. Fix your hope there. Let your lives be shaped accordingly. Then, in the middle of it all, he introduces a cryptic reference to God as “the one who judges all people impartially”.
Think about that. This letter is on its way not to Jewish Christians but to Gentiles. It is saying: sisters, brothers, regardless of what others may suggest, regardless of the mutterings you still hear about how only Jews belong in the church, regardless of the prejudice you have encountered, regardless of all that, in the eyes of God you are not second rate citizens. God has no favourites. The Eternal does not discriminate.
Sink your teeth into that, my friend. God has no favourites. Not white people. Not religious people. Not male people. Not “successful” people or rich people or clever people or physically fit people or middle aged people. Not heterosexual people. Not Christian people. God just sees people, fullstop. And every last one of them matters. Infinitely. And equally. All those adjectives we mortals love to use to categorise one another, to put each other in boxes, are of no interest whatsoever to God.
Now, that is not just a pious thought. It has far reaching consequences.
For one thing it means that, in the community of the resurrection, the church, there can be no second rate citizens. I liked the comment, cited in yesterday’s South China Morning Post, from one of the vast throng present in Rome for the Pope’s funeral: “This is what heaven is going to be like,” she said. “People from every nation, rich and poor. The Pope knew that and started to live it on earth.” In our small way congregations like this one at Kowloon Union Church try to live it too. Such inclusiveness, we know from experience, is not always easy. But it is always the way of God.
A second implication is that we Christians can never rest content with a world in which, again and again, in so many different ways, human beings find themselves discriminated against because of their gender, race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, age or disability. Standing in defense of people’s human rights is not an optional extra for church people who happen to like that sort of thing. It is an integral part of our Christian response to what we believe is in the heart of God.
Ultimately, of course, the cure for discrimination rests with each and every one of us. What is in the heart of God requires a conversion of what is in the hearts of men and women, and you can’t achieve that by force of law. However, legislation is important. While the law cannot make people love one another, it can at least restrain the hurtful things people do to each other. That’s why Hong Kong needs good anti-discrimination legislation covering all the categories I have just mentioned.
Some Hong Kongers, sadly, seem not to recognize this yet, at least as far as the proposed sexual orientation discrimination legislation is concerned. Some Christians have been outspoken in opposing such legislation, even creating the impression that their opposition represents the Christian position. Well, it isn’t. Many of us in the churches, I suspect an increasing number, find such opposition unpersuasive. Indeed, we see it as a tragic misrepresentation of the divine purpose. It is to be hoped that the authorities will not allow prejudice, including prejudice propagated in the name of religion, to get in the way of making Hong Kong a more just and compassionate community for all.
God does not discriminate. And we cannot rest content with a world where people do.
But turn that affirmation upside down. Change the negative – God has no favourites – into a gospel positive – we’re all God’s favourites. The love of God is for everyone. That’s what the gospel is saying to you, to me, to every last one of us. Nobody is outside the circle of God’s saving love -- except perhaps, Jesus seems to suggest, people who put themselves outside by imagining they have no need for repentance.
No matter who you are, who I am, there is a special place in the heart of God for each and every one of us. “For God so loved the world” – all of it – “that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have life eternal”.
Last week someone emailed me a rather nice “Thought for the Day”. It went like this.
If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.
If God had a wallet, your photograph would be in it.
God sends you flowers every spring.
God sends you a sunrise every morning.
Face it, friend – God is crazy about you!
God, crazy about me? That’s easy to say, I hear you cry. But God so often seems to have gone into hiding. How can I find this tantalizingly elusive God?
The answer, my friend, is that you don’t have to. The question is not how to find God, but how to recognize the God who long ago found you.
Remember today’s gospel reading. Two sad, confused, disillusioned travelers on the Emmaus road. The stranger who walked with them, talked with them, helped them understand the scriptures, broke bread with them. Then, the moment of recognition, when everything came together, it all made sense, and their hearts burned with joy.
Now as then, the divine stranger already walks with you on your life’s journey. Perhaps your moment of recognition and acknowledgement still lies ahead. But be assured that you too are offered God’s mercy and acceptance through a love that has been broken, like bread, and a life that was poured out, like wine.
For so great a gift, so great a victory, thanks be to God.