A great multitude from every nation
Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
First of all I want say thank you - on behalf of all of the Nelsons. Thank you to everyone who made it possible for us to go to Nepal and thank you to everyone who prayed for us. We had the most wonderful time, and we are grateful to you all from the bottom of our hearts.
I want to talk about our experience of going to church on the Sunday that we were in Nepal.
We didn’t understand any of the service at all until a familiar tune began to be played. As the congregation sang ‘How great thou art’ in Nepali, and we sang in English, I was overwhelmed by the majesty of God, who loves every one of his children wherever they live, whatever language they speak and however they worship.
That first reading, from the book of Revelation, describes that Nepal church experience perfectly. As we stood and sang, it was as if we were caught up in the great vision that it describes in which ‘There was a great multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out with loud voices.’
Right now (plus or minus a few hours) there are hundreds of millions of people, all round the world, gathered together - in buildings like this, in megachurches, thatched huts, meeting rooms, living rooms and under the open sky, doing what we’re doing - opening the Scriptures, singing praise, sharing communion. Maybe a billion people - today - from every culture, tribe, race and country standing before the throne of heaven, giving praise.
God, it turns out, is not an Englishman. God is beyond any culture. He is simply God. He is not bound by language or history, he isn’t limited by country or ethnicity. He is beyond all that is human. But we’re not - we can only know God through culture. Our understanding of everything - including God - is shaped by our history, our language and the way that the world around us works.
In Britain, and the West, that culture has been shaped by faith in Jesus Christ to it’s very core. Our music, our language, our buildings, our education system, our values, the legal system, democracy itself - these are all built upon 2000 years of Christian influence. And yet God, here in the West, right now, is increasingly forgotten or ignored.
But things are very different in Nepal. Nepali culture is largely Hindu and Buddhist and Christianity is a recent arrival.
And we were powerfully moved by the culture of hospitality and kindness that we encountered in Nepal. On our last day, for instance, we had to find a taxi to get from the centre of Katmandu to the airport. It was really hot, Kathmandu is nuts, we had 7 bags to carry between 5 of us and Eli, who speaks very good Nepali, had gone off to get a bus home, leaving us with no way to communicate. I asked a man where we could find a taxi - because there weren’t any that we could see. He beckoned me to follow, hopped on his motorbike and patted the pillion seat. There I was, in the middle of this crazy city, with traffic everywhere, with a bloke I had never met and couldn’t communicate with, offering me a ride on his bike! Wondering whether he had misunderstood the ‘taxi’ thing, I got on, and off we went, weaving for a couple of blocks through the traffic…. to the taxi rank. There he spoke to a driver, who promptly started up and followed him as we swerved our way back to the family and our many bags. He didn’t have to do that for me. He could have shrugged and made it clear he couldn’t understand, or walked off, with other busy things to do, but he didn’t. He took time out and helped us find what we needed. The Nepalis we met were unfailingly kind. Their culture - of course - contains much that is beautiful and good.
Christianity was banned in Nepal until 1950, and it remains a minority religion, but it’s growing fast - by one count the Nepali church is the fastest growing in the world. And one reason is that Christianity challenges the Nepalese caste culture. In the caste system, everyone is born into a social structure which defines their status in life. Low caste Dalit people get the crummy, badly paid jobs and high caste, Brahmins, get the good ones. Low caste people can only marry other people from a low caste, while the higher castes get to marry at the top of the social hierarchy.
And Christianity, coming into this culture, says, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female - neither Brahmin nor Dalit, for all are one in Christ Jesus.
There is much that is good in Nepali culture, but there are also things that are being profoundly challenged by those who come to faith in Jesus Christ, and who see things that do not match the way of His gospel of love and grace.
And challenging your culture can be hard.
To become a Christian in Nepal means stepping out of the surrounding culture in significant ways. Everywhere you go, for instance, people greet each other by putting their hands together and saying ‘Namaste’. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘Good morning’ or ‘hi’. But literally it means ‘I greet the divine within you’ - it’s a Hindu prayer.. Nepali Christians don’t say Namaste - instead they say ‘Jaimasee’, which means ‘To Christ the Victory’. Imagine not saying ‘Good morning’ and instead choosing to say ‘To Christ the vicrory’. It would mark you out as different.
And Nepali Christians face more serious challenges by the choices they make. Open Doors, the organisation that tracks persecution of Christians, puts Nepal 32nd in their list of countries where it’s dangerous to be a Christian. While we were there 2 Christians who had been arrested for their faith a month earlier were released from custody. 3 others remain in jail.
Becoming a Christian means real sacrifice in Nepal. And yet the church is growing and growing very fast.
Nepal has no history of Christian influence and Jesus’ message of joy and freedom is new and powerful. And it’s clear to Nepali Christians where they can celebrate their culture and where they need to stand against it. The church is growing.
Here, we have a long and deep history of Christianity, but we struggle to live distinctively Christian lives, and the church is in decline.
So what challenge does the gospel make to our culture, here in the UK - and specifically here in the Weald of Kent? What are the good and godly things that need to be affirmed, and what is it about our culture, our way of doing things, that does not accord with the gospel? And how do we decide?
It would take a whole sermon series to really unpack that, but one thing is surely true, and it’s the message of the gospel reading that we heard just now. Fundamentally the answer lies in following Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Learning to discern what is of God and what needs to be challenged is not, primarily an academic exercise, it is a matter of choosing to follow Jesus in the midst of life, and to become more like him, so that we can see the world more and more fully as he does, through his eyes.
My sheep, says Jesus, know my voice. I know them, and they follow me. It is by placing our trust in Him, by spending time in His presence, by learning His ways, that we can learn to live well in our culture, a culture that is both suffused with God and which has forgotten God.
And another way of saying that is to say that we are called to be ‘disciples’. A disciple is a learner, an apprentice, one who follows the Master Craftsman around, watching every move and hanging on every word, so that they can become more like the one they are following. And we are called to be disciples like that. To allow Jesus to be the one that shapes our values, to let him be involved in our decision making, to ask him to help us grow in love and kindness. To be more like Jesus tomorrow than we are today.
Jesus never called anyone to be a church goer; he never gave anyone a list of rational beliefs and asked them to assent; he never set up an organisation and invited anyone to join. He set off on the road to the cross and the empty tomb and he said, if you want to know what life in all its fullness looks like, come and follow me. Pick up your cross, live distinctively, make the sacrifice, be my disciple.
It’s what the early disciples did when Christianity began to spread around the Mediterranean; it’s what Nepali Christians do, invigorated by their new faith. It’s our call too, here in the West. And maybe that’s what the new, young churches of the world have to teach us, we who have know Christ for so long.
You may have seen in the news this week that a man called Jean Vanier died. He started the L’Arche communities, communities for people with and without learning disabilities. He, and L’Arche, had a very profound impact on my life.
He was destined for great things, but gave up the ways of the world, and the ladder to success, to live a simple and humble life. He said this.
"I am always moved as I read the gospel and see how Jesus lives and acts, how he enters into relationship with each person: Will you come with me? I love you. Will you enter into communion with me?” He calls each one he meets into a personal, intimate relationship with himself. But as he invites people to follow him, he is also telling them that they must make a choice. If they choose one thing, it means refusing another. If they choose to follow Jesus, they receive a gift of love and communion, but at the same time they must say "no” to the ways of the world and accept the loss; they must own their choice.”
If we choose to follow Jesus, we receive a gift of love and communion, but at the same time we must say "no” to the ways of the world and accept the loss; we must own our choice.
Those Nepali Christians have owned their choice. They have received the gift of love and accepted the loss.
Are you willing to do the same?
Read Revelation 7:9-17. What does the passage say to you?
What elements of our culture in the UK are of God, and need to be upheld by Christians?
What elements of our culture stand against the gospel and need to be challenged?
Have you ever stood against something for your faith? What was the outcome?
How can we, as a church, support one another to make decisions that go against the prevailing culture?