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Christmas Message of the Bishop, Right Reverend Professor Dr William Peter Stephens of Methodist Church The Gambia

Dec 27, 2010, 12:06 PM

In June I came to lead the Methodist Church as Bishop for the Gambia. It is my privilege therefore to greet you this Christmas on behalf of the Church – and to pray God, the Giver of Peace, to grant you His peace and joy this Christmas time.

We are all familiar with the word ‘peace’. We even use it as a word of greeting – in Hebrew the word ‘shalom’, in Arabic  ‘salaam’.

But what is peace? Is it the opposite of war, so that peace is simply the end of war or conflict. That is part of what we mean by peace.  This Christmas we think of countries, especially in Africa and Asia where there is conflict – and we pray for peace.  Remember North and South Korea.  Remember Afghanistan. Come nearer to The Gambia and remember the Ivory Coast.  We pray for the end of conflict in those lands. 

But does peace mean simply the end of fighting? That is not what the Nobel Peace Committee thought when they awarded the Nobel  Peace  Prize  two weeks ago to a Chinese human rights campaigner. They were thinking not just of the absence of war, but of a world which has justice and human rights for everyone, that is, just and right relations between people and between the government and the people they govern.

Peace in the bible is even bigger than the right relations between people – it is that flourishing of human life when people are in the right relationship  with God and with each other. This peace is at the centre of the Christian faith, as it is at the centre of Christmas itself. We see this in the words with which the heavenly host greeted the birth of Jesus, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom God has chosen.’  

The conviction that Jesus  would be the bringer of peace, did not begin with his birth. Centuries before his birth, God prepared people for the coming of Jesus  through prophets, such as Isaiah. Isaiah foretold the coming of the Prince of Peace. Indeed he gave a wonderful image of how there would be  peace even in the animal kingdom, with the wolf lying down with the lamb, and the leopard lying down with the goat – and all being led by a little child. Is it any surprise that, when that little child was born in Bethlehem as the prince of peace, they sang ‘on earth peace among those whom God has chosen’.

Peace among those whom God has chosen is exactly what we see in the life of Jesus. You see conflict (and ultimately war itself) come because people exploit our differences – differences, for example, of race or nation, of tribe or ideology. Jesus, however, called very different people into his company and in an amazing way, despite all the differences between them, he held them together in an acceptance of each other.

Think of those he called. Think, for example, of people like Matthew and Simon the Zealot. Matthew as a tax collector was a collaborator with the Roman forces who occupied the land and Simon the Zealot was a nationalist sworn to overthrow the occupying Roman forces. They were political opponents.   But Jesus called them together into his company and enabled them to accept and live with each other.

Think of Zacchaeus a man of wealth, and Bar Timaeus, a beggar. Socially they were poles apart. But Jesus called them together into his company and enabled them to accept and live with each other.

Think of the two women who anointed Jesus in public. The first woman is not even named, yet she was known to be a prostitute, the second was Mary, the devout sister of Martha. Yet he accepted them both. This is the sign of true peace, as people whose lives are completely different from each other, even opposed to each other, are brought into a loving acceptance of each other in the company of Jesus. Jesus brought peace between them by bringing them into his company and sharing his forgiveness and love with them.

If you read the New Testament you will find that that is exactly how it describes the early Christians. The apostle Paul had once persecuted Christians. But then he saw in the church an amazingly diverse group of people united by Jesus and sharing in His Spirit. He saw all the social, racial, and other differences which normally divide people,  and said, that in the church whether they were Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female they were all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians3:28). It is difficult for us to realise the full force of the division between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female -  divisions of race, class, and sex.

Thus the division between Jews and non-Jews was the apartheid of the first century. A Jew would not enter a non-Jewish home or even eat with a non-Jew, but Jesus established peace between them, so that they ate together at His Table.

There was the division between slaves and slave owners who had the right of life and death over their slaves.  In the bible, however,  we have an amazing letter sent by Paul to Philemon about Onesimus his slave. Onesimus had run away from his master, Philemon, and perhaps stolen from him. But Onesimus had become a Christian.  Paul, therefore, sent him back to his master, telling Philemon that he was to receive Onesimus back not as a slave, but as a beloved brother. 

There was the division between men and women.  Men were seen as superior to women, so that for example a Jewish man thanked God every day that he was not born a woman. Jesus, however, had changed that so that Paul could say that men and women, Jews and non-Jews, slaves and free men are all one in Christ.

When you think of Christmas, do you think of Christmas cards, Christmas presents, and Christmas parties, which are, of course all good fun? Or, do you think of the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace?

When you think of Jesus, do you think of the carols, the crib, and the services? Or, do you think of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, breaking down the barriers of race and class and education, uniting men and women in spite of all that divides them - uniting in his company black and white, rich and poor, young and old, men and women.

It is easy to prepare to celebrate Christmas. All you have to do is to spend money,  and you can have parties and presents galore.

It is easy to prepare to celebrate the Christmas story. All you have to do is go to church for an hour – or even turn on the radio or television and listen to the carols.

It is not so easy, however, to prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace. It is not about spending time or spending money or going here or going there. It’s about letting Jesus take hold of your life and change it. That’s true, even if you’ve been a Christian for twenty, fifty, or a hundred years. He has each day afresh, as we turn to Him, to work on our lives. He will enable us to see where selfishness or greed or arrogance or whatever it may be mars our relations with God and with other people. He will turn our lives afresh to God in trust and obedience, and he will turn them afresh to other people in generous love.

If you are prepared for such a transformation of your life, then you are prepared for the coming of Jesus the Prince of Peace. Then you can truly sing the words of the Christmas hymn, ‘O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, There is room in my heart for you.’   If not, then I fear that there will hang round your neck, the sign, ‘No room in the inn.’