BIBLE READINGS: Romans 6:1-5 Luke 24:36b-48

SERMON

Dr. Dan Clendenin, a worker for InterVarsity Christian fellowship wrote in his blog... A few weeks ago I bought a plane ticket to Liberia to attend an HIV workshop with Global Strategies for HIV Prevention. From a human perspective Liberia is a failed state that the Economist identified as one of the worst places in the world to live in. Life expectancy at birth is 39 years, literacy hovers at 50% (40% for women), and unemployment is 80%. Since 1980, civil wars under the despotic regimes of Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor slaughtered over 200,000 citizens and displaced another one million (out of a population of 3 million). In January 2006 Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated as the first freely elected woman head of state in the history of Africa, bringing at least a glimmer of hope to a dispossessed people.

What struck me about this comment was the human tragedy and grief hidden in the statistics. That's the world's perspective. But according to the Scriptures for this week Liberia is as important to God, as loved by God, and as central to his purposes as any place on earth, despite what the Economist says. We don't actually believe that, of course, but that's the Christian perspective. And if you believe that God's favour bends toward the oppressed, the marginal, and the exploited, then, paradoxically, Liberia is high on God's list even though it is low on ours: "The last will be first, and the first will be last" (Matthew 20:16).

After his resurrection Jesus told his followers to spread his message "to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:48). Mark reports this more powerfully by writing "all creation" (Mark 16:15). In Acts, Luke writes that Jesus told his timid followers, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Two chapters later, Peter concludes his sermon at Pentecost by proclaiming that in Jesus "all peoples on earth will be blessed" by God (Acts 3:25), a global promise which was first made to Abraham 4,000 years ago (Genesis 12:3).

A few decades later John wrote from the Greek island of Patmos where he had been banished to political exile. He wrote about his dream in which he saw a global gathering which would be fulfilled beyond history. In his vision he saw heaven populated with people from "every nation, tribe, people, and language" (Revelation 7:9). Today, John's vision of a globalised heaven beyond history has already been fulfilled on earth in history. Starting with a few uneducated and timid disciples, today about a third of the world identifies itself as Christian, nearly twice as many as those who follow Islam or Hinduism (roughly one billion each).

There are two radical and important points which come out of this Christian global vision - the decentralization of your geography and the reorientation of your politics.

First, Christians don't worry about geography, culture, national or ethnic background; for them there is no geographic centre of the world, but only a constellation of points equidistant from the heart of God. Proclaiming that God loves all the world, each person, and every place, the Gospel does not privilege any country as exceptional. For example, much has been written about America's place in the world. Listen to their new President, it is obvious that what he is saying is in the mind of those he leads that America is exceptional and powerful. In terms of economic, political, military, scientific and cultural dominance, America is unrivalled, and in that sense is "exceptional" (although there is no reason to think that will last forever). But from a theological or Christian point of view America is no more "exceptional" in God's eyes than any other country.

Take Australian national pride - while allowing for a natural and wholesome love, even pride, in our own country ("there's no place like home"), ultimately Christianity's understanding that God loves and cares for all humanity subverts the claim of absolute allegiance to any one nation. Your ultimate citizenship, said Paul, is a spiritual one (Philippians 3:20).

Second, because of this, Christian global vision asks that you care as much about any and every country and its people as you do your own. Christians grieve the deaths of 100,000s of Afghani's and Iraqi's as much as the 41 killed and 256 wounded Australians in the wars of this century; we lament the human tragedy of the natural disasters whether they are a Tsunami killing 100,000s in Asia, an earthquake in Europe which kills hundreds or the many who die in Autralia's bushfires. This implies that your politics become reoriented, non-aligned, and unpredictable by what our society considers normal. There is no such thing as a "Christian" political position, and that efforts by politicians to co-opt Jesus for their side badly distorts what Jesus teaches in the Gospels. The Jesus of the Gospels proposes no political program, but something far more strenuous, something scary, dark and demanding. No state or political party would promote the self-sacrifice that Jesus demands when he asks his followers to lovingly serve the least and the last wherever they live.

About a generation after John wrote, an early work called the Letter to Diognetus (c. 130 AD) captured this relationship between the believer's national identity and Christian confession .

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners [or resident aliens]. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.

Like all people, Christians reflect whatever time and place they live. We support and enjoy our various countries, but as if we are resident aliens. We experience an ambivalent and divided loyalty - ultimate loyalty only to God and the "politics" of self-sacrificing love, and only secondly, loyalty to a nation or political party and to what Diognetus called its "merely human doctrines." We honour "every foreign land" as if it were our own, and experience our own countries as a "foreign land." By some miracle of grace I hope we find ourselves at home in places where we were not born and ill at ease in our birthplace, not because either is better or worse than the other, but because both are equally loved by God.

Our church is a sign of God's bringing together the nations, where people of all races, and languages will worship the one true God. May our church, our worship and our lives reflect God's all encompassing love.