Category Archives: Galations

The fullness of time

English: Jerusalem, Dome of the rock, in the b...

English: Jerusalem, Dome of the rock, in the background the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Deutsch: Jerusalem, Felsendom, im Hintergrund die Grabeskirche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have never been to the Holy Land on holiday or pilgrimage. For some strange reason, there has been no ambition on my part to visit the land on which Christianity was born or to walk where Jesus walked. Am I a peculiar brand of Jesus follower? Am I deprived at all? Is my discipleship impaired by not having visited the sites and places that are part of the Jesus story? Has it made the slightest difference that Nazareth, Bethlehem, Calvary and Jerusalem, recognised as the cradle of the Christian faith, have never featured in my travelogue? Questions I cannot answer for myself, others must do that. One site I probably would have visited, had I ventured to such exotic places, is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Legend has it that there is one spot there which is actually the centre of the world. If this is fact, and not legend, it must occupy a large and significant chapter in the history of Christianity. The centre of the world – there could be no better place for the launching of a world religion. No better place and no better time!

St Paul in his letter to the Church in Galatia writes, “When the fullness of time came God sent forth His Son” (RV). It is interesting to take a look at how some other New Testament writers begin the verse – it adds to the picture.

  • When the right time finally came (GNB)
  • When the appointed time came (REB)
  • When the time arrived that was set by God (The Message).

“The fullness of time” – that is to say, it was when world conditions were exactly ripe for it that God’s supreme revelation of himself came. It was when all the factors were absolutely right – social, economic, moral, religious – that the early Christians heard “The glad tidings of great joy to all mankind, to whom is born a Saviour – Christ the Lord.” Shakespeare says “There is a tide in the affairs of men.” The Christian can cap that and say there is a tide in the affairs of God, when all is done, waiting, getting ready for the prophets’ dream to come true. When that tide reaches the flood, God will act in a new way and the sound of a new name will be heard, the name of Jesus. The Bible of this God tells us that He had done His homework and got it right. Jesus came to the world at the exact time in history where all the conditions signalled “now is the hour.” Someone describes it as the one psychological moment.

When Jesus came, it was the fullness of time politically. Caesar’s legacy must credit the Emperor with the nigh impossible task of establishing the unification of the world: he did it! And alongside it the world benefitted from the Roman Peace. Jesus came to our planet when the Roman Peace held the world together; the barriers were down, the frontiers open; the Roman Empire described as one big friendly neighbourhood. An achievement, so far, still beyond the capabilities of the United Nations and European Union. Another factor that contributed to the unity of the world and the fullness of time was the roads. From one end of the Empire to the other was the great highway that made it possible to travel across the land easily and swiftly. The movement of the military, the logistics of trade, the spread of the Gospel, each benefitted from the vision, the ambition, the skills of the Romans. For six years I lived within the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall and marvelled at the expertise of Roman engineering. Then there was the fact of a common language, a great blessing to the missionaries who travelled along those roads. Unlike those who went out from this country to save souls and win them for Christ, the early evangelists in Roman times did not have to learn a new language. Everywhere the people were bilingual and knew Greek. No need to labour the point!

Furthermore, it was the fullness of time economically and morally. I make no comment, merely draw attention to the fact that in their own way they had a part in preparing the way for the birth of Jesus. My final point – when Jesus first came, it was the right time religiously. The old gods had had their day and were either dead or dying. To fill the gap, two expedients were tried. On the one hand they imported a whole plethora of deities, principally from the East, many of them a bit of a joke. They failed! The next bit of farce was the elevation of Caesar himself to be god and every citizen required to worship him. Give him his due, he saw to it that it was not too difficult to fulfil that requisite; a small pinch of incense annually might do the trick. It also failed! The emperor-god had nothing to say to a man or woman with a broken heart.

“When everything was done that could be done, the hungry hearts of women and men, were hungry still!” But there was an intense and exciting expectation that God was about to do something better, something new; hope was alive and reasonably well. Indeed, they were approaching a time when God was to send his only Son into the world, that the world through Him might be saved. When John the Baptist came folk were hopefully asking, “Is this the Messiah now?” No! But he helped to clear the way for their prayers to be answered, their hope to mature, their dream to come true: the Redeemer came. So, we can sing with Charles Wesley:

Our God contracted to a span; Incomprehensively made man.

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Second fiddle

Eastern Orthodox icon John the Baptist — the A...

Eastern Orthodox icon: John the Baptist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The picture the New Testament gives of John the Baptist is very much about someone happily accepting the role of Second Fiddle. (Acts of the Apostles 13:25 REB) “I am not the one you think I am. No, after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to unfasten”. And the way John the Evangelist tells the story in the 4th Gospel suggests there were probably contemporaries who thought John the Baptist to be mistaken in the role he undertook for himself; avid supporters of the Baptist. Possibly they campaigned to secure a greater prominence in the Jesus “set-up”. And part of the purpose of John, the writer of the Gospel, it would seem, was to ensure that John the Baptist is kept in his rightful place. The Evangelist keeps rubbing it in that John the Baptist is only a witness; he is not the light that shines in the darkness, only a witness to it. (John 1: 6 & 8) The Evangelist tells us more than once that the Baptist makes no claim to be the Christ; that he saw himself simply as a prophet, a voice calling in the desert preparing the way for one still to come, whose shoes he is not worthy to tie! All the time the 4th Gospel is saying, make no mistake the role of John the Baptist is that of Second Fiddle.

From a human standpoint this may not have been easy to accept. Country and people looked forward hopefully and expectantly for Messiah to come and deliver them. And maybe as the Baptist became more aware of a special destiny for himself, and discerned within himself the feeling of being somebody special, he would have wondered if the golden crown was for him. J.B’s message was not a popular one but there were those who warmed to him, gathered to him, elevated him to a position of prominence, people for whom baptism into faith by John was paramount. Luke reports even Jesus submitted to baptism by him. Perhaps there was some greater future for him than making do with clothes made of camel’s hair. But if he held any such notion, it was not to be.

It would have been easy to resent his subordinate role, to rebel against God’s wishes for him. The great thing is – John resisted whatever temptation came his way, to claim for himself more than he was due. For want of anything better to do in a relaxed moment I watched on TV a repeat of Keeping up Appearances – the episode in which Mrs Bucket was upset and furious because she only came second in a Cookery competition. “I will not be outdone by that Mrs So & So” (the one who got 1st prize), she tells her poor long-suffering husband, Richard, and immediately sets about to redress the situation in a most ridiculous way, having Richard drive her around in a borrowed Rolls Royce! Only an entertaining sit-com, yet not entirely unreal. I’m reminded of a boyhood friend – he had a real football and was very popular in the park! But when he was not made captain of the team or allowed to play centre forward (a striker to those younger than I am) he would pick up his ball and go home: “It’s ma baw!” Not so John the Baptist: although Jesus is junior to him in age and in spite of being first on the field, he is more than ready to step aside, listen to the voice of God and respond to it – more than ready to step aside and give Jesus centre stage; even if it is second fiddle, I’m not worthy to untie his shoes.

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does this make of discipleship? Does not submission, subservience, subordination, second fiddle create a situation of Upstairs Downstairs – not just servants but slaves? Who remembers the early 50s? Harry Belafonte’s good looks and silky vocal style helped popularise calypso music. My favourite was Island in the sun. Those attributes and charisma led him to the brink of a major movie. His pleasure at making such a break turned to anger when he realised that as a black man he would be expected for ever to play Second Fiddle to his white co-stars. Times have changed – thank God; the doors of opportunity open to those who in my early days would have found it difficult to rise even to the heights of Second Fiddle. Much as I enjoy following the antics in Downton Abbey, it rankles with me to think that to a lesser degree the attitude of “upstairs” to “downstairs” is bred of discrimination: certainly not First Fiddle; scarcely Second Fiddle. But, hold on! Second Fiddle in an orchestra is no less important than that of the leading violinist. It is crucial for Second Fiddle to play in harmony with the leader of the orchestra, the one enhances the other. To play Second Fiddle to Jesus requires us to be in a close, personal and dependent relationship with Him, reflecting the light that He brings as it shines on us and through us. Alas, sometimes Christians are more concerned with their own image and direct the spotlight on themselves rather than on Jesus. In the words of Paul, they are the ones who think too highly of themselves. Consigned to playing Second Fiddle is not good enough for them, so they set about lobbying for status and positions of power; their ambition – the mantle of star performer. There was a time when I operated close to a form of ecclesiastical politicking – fortunately I did not have to be part of it. The ambition of discipleship is eloquently summed up by St. Paul when he says, “For me to live is Christ, so that it is not I but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Advent is upon us once again and John the Baptist is part of the scene – John the forerunner, committed and content to be Second Fiddle. And it is part of his story that Jesus pays him a tremendous tribute. “I tell you,” He says, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” And then He says, “Yet, the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)

If there is time

English: Cross

A group of us were invited to supper by an ecumenical colleague to meet his visitor, a bishop in the Church of South India with whom he worked when he was also a bishop in the CSI. When we left the dining room we made ourselves comfortable in the lounge and listened to our CSI guest who spoke of the opportunities and difficulties that faced the Church in India. In the ensuing conversation someone asked a question. He wanted to know how many people were being converted and how difficult it was to make new Christians. Hindus, the bishop explained, were inherently a tolerant people and did not persecute so long as the church did not convert. Nevertheless, the church did baptise people from other Faiths but not in large numbers.

The bishop had some difficulty in saying how he thought the church impressed and influenced sufficiently to persuade people to change their religion and subscribe to a new view that God’s supreme revelation Himself is given in Jesus. In a multi-faith society like India, the bishop explained, there is not all that much to choose between the religion of the many and the religion of the few. All the more difficult where Christianity is a tiny minority religion. One thing the Church of South India must do if it is to make any impact, we were told, is to learn how to preach Christ and the Gospel. The bishop thought that would take a long time. Not the prognosis some might have expected who belong to a church which sent missionaries to the four corners of the earth to convert “the heathen.”

It would be difficult to argue that we are any more successful. Are we prepared to be as honest? The church in our country is set amidst an ever-growing secular society where Christian values are challenged; where Christians are not seen to be much different from the majority of unbelievers. And we spend much of our time arguing about structures, maintaining property, planning cosy church programs, conversation on the Work of God relegated to the last item on the Agenda – Any Other Business – in the hope there will not be time for it! What of the Gospel?

Galatians 1: 6–9