Family of God, Family of Humanity
By Rt. Rev, Rt. Hon. (Dr) Rowan Williams,
Fmr. Archbishop of Canterbury
Foundation Scripture: Ephesians 3:1-21
Sunday 10th May 2015
It is a great privilege to be with you today, sharing in worship and reflection on the good news that God has given to us to share with our world and families. Let’s begin by reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. I want to reflect with you on some of the themes from that letter. Here is chapter 3.
When I think of all this, I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the benefit of you Gentiles . . . assuming, by the way, that you know God gave me the special responsibility of extending his grace to you Gentiles. As I briefly wrote earlier, God himself revealed his mysterious plan to me. As you read what I have written, you will understand my insight into this plan regarding Christ. God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by his Spirit he has revealed it to his holy apostles and prophets. And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus. By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News. Though I am the least deserving of all God’s people, he graciously gave me the privilege of telling the Gentiles about the endless treasures available to them in Christ. I was chosen to explain to everyone this mysterious plan that God, the Creator of all things, had kept secret from the beginning. God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. So please don’t lose heart because of my trials here. I am suffering for you, so you should feel honored. When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen (NLT).
St. Paul’s thoughts in these verses about the mystery of God’s purpose hidden from the beginning of creation now revealed, as strangers are brought together in community. The cross of Jesus Christ has broken down the walls between the Jews (within the covenant) and Gentiles (outside the covenant) and as a result of this, Jews and Gentiles are now reconciled. Today, people of all races, backgrounds, languages and cultures are brought together as God’s children, to speak the language of Jesus.
Jesus’ language ‘Abba, Father’ is now reflected in all languages around the world. As St. Paul thinks about this, he summarises his thoughts by writing ‘For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name’ (V.14 NIV). In the original translation, the word ‘family’ refers to this truth that every pattern of fatherhood or parenting takes its origin from God.
Let’s take a look at God’s family – His ultimate desire is to bring all peoples together. As a church, I know you have been reflecting on family life. So then, what actually typifies God’s family? Firstly, by the power of God’s spirit, each one of us is made God’s minister to our neighbours. However, neighbours within this context is not so easily categorized or identified. This doesn’t just refer to those we like, agree with or understand. However, this includes everyone we meet – acquaintances and strangers, friends and enemies. The Holy Spirit has endowed each one of us with the gift needed to draw our neighbours to the life in God. Yes, it could be daunting sometimes, but I am reassured whenever I meet a stranger whom besides my ministering to them, have also been called to minister to me. Even if those encounters could be dismissed as inconspicuous, nevertheless between us, God’s transforming power is being revealed. In the family of God worldwide, we are ministering of God’s grace and good news to one another; God’s Spirit is bringing my neighbour alive through my ministering to them and vice versa. Ultimately, these encounters and ministrations in God’s family is building up the church to the full measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
When we think of this within the context of our nuclear families, it could be profound – Husband and wives, parents and children have this responsibility too, to minister to one another. Family relationships are relationships of grace to bring each one of us within our families alive in the Spirit. I daresay that members of our families may sometimes come across (to us) as strangers. Have you ever wondered, like I do sometimes (even though it may sound ridiculous) if it were possible to order the kind of children we want from God? Well-mannered, obedient, intelligent, obedient? However, God does not deal with us that way. God gives us members of our families, including our children with their own lives, souls, freedom and minds. We have to learn how to minister to them, nonetheless. Hence, we need the intervention of God’s Spirit for this task. As we teach our children new ideas daily, do they pick up the language of Jesus from our conversations with them? My prayer this morning is that our ministry to our family members will be effective in granting each family member freedom of access to God.
Secondly, besides our nuclear families, we also associate with and get to know other strangers who have, implanted within their hearts, a part of God’s mystery as members of God’s worldwide family. Sometimes, we experience sadness when we come across those who have turned away from God or who have not begun to experience God’s full abundant grace, but they nonetheless still reflect a bit of God’s image and have the potential, once they are released, to become fully expressive of God’s nature. As noted in the church’s confession this year, we all have the innate possibility to excel which directly points to the full image of God within us.
This image of God can also be found in our nuclear families – spouses and children and in our extended families. Each member of the family may have their misgivings about what God could be up to, but He is working even so within our siblings, parents and children.
As we commemorate Christian Aid Sunday today, two implications of our discussion so far is this: God’s family across the globe is characterized by the influx of people of all cultures, languages and race into the church. Our mandate as Christians is to keep playing our part in ensuring that others bearing God’s image outside, are drawn, renewed and adopted into the family of God. Besides this, our responsibility as God’s children doesn’t stop with our gathering with other believers in our local church. It also includes a global family of believers of people who we may never meet in this world. The Christian Aid short film we watched this morning introduced us to two of them – two women with different language, backgrounds and possibilities. Christian Aid’s work extends beyond the reach of fellow Christians to other people who may also be in need. The charity works with people whose humanity is diminished or insulted by poverty or oppression and disease. As a charity, we recognise that deep within each soul is the mystery of God’s purpose. For all of these people, we have a responsibility to draw out those treasures of God that are locked within, so that it can be restored and refreshed once again.
We are aware of how the image of God is defaced by sin and we are aware of the need to repent of this. However, the image of God is also defaced very often by poverty, sadness, lack of expectation and hope. This situation can be alleviated and possibly obliterated by our actions of compassion – by our prayers and giving to those in need.
We are aiming ultimately for the renewal of God’s image in the lives of our neighbours experiencing hardship. We aim to challenge one another during ‘Christian Aid’ week to think and pray more deeply about God’s image in human beings.
So how are we to respond to the image of God in one another? That deep mysterious dignity which makes us human beings. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 8:4-5: ‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? ’You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor’. How do we work with those who have been downtrodden by poverty and sadness, so that they can reflect once again the image of God within them? Just as we witnessed in that short Christian Aid film, these two women experienced a change in their situations as a result of the help given by Christian Aid. Consequently, their testimonies of that change ministered to us and uplifted our spirits. At Christian Aid, we are always working to create a family relationship, and a friendship, so that the flowering of the image of God within these our brothers and sisters going through a difficult time, begin to radiate towards us and bring us more alive as we help them. Altogether, each of us is being ministered to.
St Paul refers to this in the 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, as he writes about what generosity in God’s family means. It is a two-way exchange of the life of Jesus Christ between our fellow brothers and sisters experiencing difficulties and us. Here is Chapter 9:10-13: ‘Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness’. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. ‘A flood of thanksgiving’ results when we seek to uncover the image of God in our neighbours and minister the good news to them. As we learn to give thanksgiving to God, we are fulfilling His purpose for us.
So when we give to others, and we work to build the dignity and the Christian hope of those who need our help, whether those in our immediate community or those abroad, in essence we are aiding to unleash a flood of thanksgiving - as they experience our generosity and the heart of God. So when questions like ‘Where is God?’ is being asked, the immediate answer should be ‘look at Him in the person of Jesus Christ’ and in the generosity of his friends, that is believers, like us. As noted in Romans 14:17, God has not left Himself without witnesses; we are God’s witnesses and called to make God believable in the world by the way we live, and conform our acts, thoughts and relationships to the overflowing generosity of God. Hence, when God is at work and alive in us, we will always be rich enough to be generous, as highlighted by St. Paul and as a result our actions will lead to thanksgiving to God.
Christian Aid began exactly 70 years ago this weekend – the first Sunday after the war in Europe in 1945. Christian congregations around the UK were challenged to look with hope and generosity to those who were in desperate need. The greatest need then was refuge for displaced people in Europe. Christian Aid began as an exercise of practical reconciliation within a war-torn and ravaged continent. The vision has grown and deepened to include others in need around the world. Over the 70 years, Christian Aid has discovered new horizons every time – with new people to interact with: to be ministered to and to minister to us. This week, let’s remember those who are members of God’s family who desire our prayers, both far and near.
We had a general election last week, and you would have noticed during the campaign, just like it occurred to me, that everybody was clear about what they were afraid of and against, but nobody was really sure about what each party stood for. However, as God’s family, we know what we are standing for, and how godless it is to live people in despair. We are aware that God’s image lies hidden in the most unlikely places and people. We are aware of Jesus’ words after his resurrection that we should not fear, and we will live by those words.
As we think about our possibilities in our families, local communities and worldwide family of God, we must keep at the fore-front of our minds what we are aiming for – our desire is to see God’s children far and near, living flourishing, secure lives as a result of our generosity. In turn, their testimonies will encourage us to continue the good work of God.
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