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A Voice in the Wilderness
The nations and the kingdom of God

The sermon delivered at the Ninth Assembly of the Conference of European Churches, in the church of the Holy Rude, Stirling, 6th September 1986.

And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it; for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it; and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there. Any they shall bring the glory and the honour of the nations into it. Revelation 2l, v. 23-26

Forty years ago, it would not have been possible to have chosen such a text for a sermon for fear of being misunderstood, as Europe slowly extricated itself from its embroilment in virulent nationalism. Such nationalisms, however, owed much to the imperialism inspired by the forged Donation of Constantine, coronation liturgies, the sixteenth century papal Bulls of demarcation in favour of Portugal and Spain, the English counter-claim that Elizabeth Tudor was the protestant Constantine, and much else.

Thus, many of the evils of ideological and political nationalism were the bitter harvest of Christian thought and practice. In this, we Europeans have erred more than the rest of the world and a great repentance is needed.

Nevertheless, as early as 1947, the Anglican scholar, I. P. Shaw, was discussing 'Nationality and the Western Church before the Reformation'. Thereafter, in many places, nationhood and nationality were being gradually reconsidered as positive manifestations of community and were being helpfully differentiated from concepts of state, government, power, rule and authority.

This has, to a certain extent, cleared the ground. As the misuse of family has often led to nepotism and much worse, so the distortion of the concept of nation, which has been abused by malignant nationalism, has been finally diagnosed. Merely to have the potential of such perversion does not nullify the providential provision of family and nation as valid nurseries for spiritual growth, within which God has given us our native guardians and guides.

We meet one another in Europe not only as Christians from other churches, but also as Christians from different nations. Although this is tacitly recognised, we often attempt to theorise about common humanity and in the process turn our thoughts unconsciously from the real situation. Joseph de Maistre was more than half right when he said, 'I have seen, in my time, Frenchmen, Italians, and Russians; I even know, that to Montesquieu, that one may be a Persian: but as for man, I declare that I have never met him in my life; if he exists, it is without my knowledge'.

As the existence of other nations is acknowledged, a new dimension in thought appears, removing introverted perspectives and a realisation that no relationship can be built up on mere intellectual musings on humanity. A meeting with the other who brings gifts differing from one's own must be appreciated. A growing awareness of the complementary inherited treasures which enrich each common sharing.

The providential shaping of every nation, which relates God's benevolences to the aspiration of the people, can be understood in the Hebrew apperception of God's guidance of each nation as part of the whole people of God discovering the identical destiny in the final consummation of all things.

Yet there is a dark shadow cast from the past, in which the churches have been involved, as much as other human arrogant interests, which menaced many by their power of obliteration.

In the long history of Europe, many examples can be cited of nations undermining the contributions of others to the wholeness of humanity and distorted its participation in the fullness and richness of the human inheritance of the children of God. Mention need not be made of the more heinous manifestations of these sinful stains on Europe's history but there is still a tendency to overlook much which remains branded on the recollections of many fellow Europeans.

One of the saddest features of Europe's past has been the awesome inhumanity which produced what Friedrich Engels described as 'peoples without a history', caused by the exterior powers which destroyed or forced into exile those capable of leadership in religious, cultural and social fields. Yet it is noteworthy that such 'peoples without a history', and therefore without a corporate memory, have been called into the community of nations by the efforts of those who proclaimed the gospel and God's concern for all that contributes to the recreation of an interdependent community. This is not surprising as their predecessors in the faith had contributed to the silent continuation of silenced national existence.

These peoples without a history are by no means a feature exclusive to Eastern Europe, the Celtic nations are an obvious example. Their recovery from cultural submergence has owed much to the Christian conviction that such heritages were worthy of sustained study and committed support.

As a Western European, it is appropriate to pay tribute to sensitive Christians of the past who have made contributions to such nations of the East: Dobrovsky for the Czech language, the Vilna Jesuit school for Lithuanian and Latvian, and protestant pastors in the Baltic states who were among the first to study Estonian and Latvian, while the Serbian nation owes much to the orthodox theologians Rajich and Obrdovich, the Czechoslovakians to the protestant Kollar, and the many orthodox bishops and clergy in Romania and Bulgaria. The list is endless.

The chorus of those who resound through history describing a new day for the family of nations has pointed to the potentials in the nations of today.

A new and healthy understanding of national differences which is accepted by each other and never denigrated, is a recognition of what Akenside has called 'the fair variety of things'. In a world where so many monolithic structures promote banality, it is mere blindness not to see in this vast providential enrichment of the sources of delight in living. Such diversity is powerfully and sensitively described by Lovejoy in his epoch-making The Great Chain of Being. Appreciation of such heterogeneousness is 'nothing less than an enlargement of human nature itself - to an increase of men's and nation's understanding an appreciation of one another, not as a multitude of samples of an identical model, but as representatives of a legitimate and welcome diversity of cultures and of individual reactions to the world which we have in common. ... The God whose attribute of reasonableness was expressed in the principle of plentitude was not selective; he gave reality to all the essences. But there is in man a reason which demands selection, preference, and negation, in conduct and in art. To say 'yes' to everything and everybody is manifestly to have no character at all. The delicate and difficult art of life is to find, in each turn of experience, the via media between two extremes: to be catholic without being characterless; to have and apply standards, and yet to be on guard against their desensitising and stupefying influence, their tendency to blind us to the diversities of concrete situations and to previously unrecognised values'.

Thus, a sensitivity is required. A modest openness and a wise appreciation of the other nations' contributions to our multiform world are aesthetic attributes which must be fostered by the churches.

We must never forget the variations of apperception, appreciation and application of the faith manifest in the European churches. This too is one of the grace gifts of the contribution which each makes to the rich heritage we share. Our common faith is no berserk or maverick spirit which requires the restraint of a spiritual straitjacket. There is a diversity of gifts but the same spirit, the fruits of which are love, joy and peace. The multitudinous diversity of grace gifts are never displayed simultaneously in one people nor in one place. Yet these varied charisma join together amid the family of nations to produce the glorious manifestation of what Bonhoeffer has described as the polyphony of life.

The re-emergence of an awareness of the dignity and the desires of nations has recalled the churches to a realism in their role within their indigenous societies not only in relation to cultural, community and social needs but has guided them to rediscover that mission and evangelism much be seriously undertaken, as the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary have said, 'finding opportunities to bear an authentic testimony to their environment'. Such a responsible undertaking is often much more difficult to achieve effectively and to maintain momentum than in the days of ecclesiastical imperialism when enthusiasm for the conversion of the pagan savage was the sentimental motive while the soulless existence of those in dark satanic mills at home were often written off as hopeless.

It is only with a recognisable national identity and with self-confidence in the providential guidance of Almighty God that national humility is possible. An openness to those outside become meaningful. Conversations without suspicion or prejudice are assuredly fruitful. The Babel of clamant strident voices is not heard.

Freedom from defensiveness, free from the erection of demarcations, unimpressed by the lure of a retreat into prefabricated positions, uninspired by the false security of preconceived notions: these are the themes of this passage of scripture. 'And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there'.

Thus, in this everlasting brightness, there can be no sinister nor sombre shadows, no hidden darkness nor uncertain greyness. Here is to be seen only the clarity, the effulgence, the glory and the honour of the nations.

This is no dream. This is a divine expectation which inspires us to pray and work and to await that final moment when this brilliance of Christ's presence will dispel for ever the darkness of the mind and the dullness of the sight and clarity of thought and vision will come upon all nations.

With thoughts inevitably turned towards the expressions of faith within the nations and the role of the church as seen from inside, it should not be forgotten that recognition of the dynamic of faith deep down in the lives of the nations is widely acknowledged. Such recognition is not confined to England with bishops in the House of Lords or to the status given to national churches in many western European countries. Fifty years ago in the Soviet Union, the arts committee of the Council of People's Commissars stated that it is well known that the Christianising of Russia was one of the principal factors in the rapprochement of the backward Russian people with the people of Byzantium and later with the people of the West, namely, with peoples of a higher culture. The continuing attention paid by most national civil authorities, in both Eastern and Western Europe, to the message and ministry of the church is a strong testimony to their awareness of the perpetual formative role in the life of the nation. This awesome calling to the quiet, unobserved, often unarticulated influence on the spiritual direction of the nation towards its destiny in God and its final fulfilment of its purpose in that city of God must never be undertaken lightly, aggressively, dogmatically nor bombastically. The final inheritance is with the meek.

As representative of most of the churches and the nations of Europe, we rejoice before God in our participation in the polyphony of life. We are profoundly grateful to God for the particular natural and grace gifts that each of us brings. Our fellowship is enriched by the variety of faith, tradition and culture. This communion of heart, mind, and soul would be debilitated by the absence of even one. As our Hungarian brethren have said, 'What the outsiders see is the variety of those praising God, and yet they may also perceive evidence of concord and joint service among them'.

With our varying gifts, we show forth the glory of God, we are challenged and inspired by the vision of each one of our nations being transformed on its way to that final city.

We, born within the nations of Europe, with all their shame, yet with all their glories, pray God that, in our communion with him and our compatriots, we may experience an unfolding of that glory which each nation will bring.

May the nations walk in the light of the Lamb and, at the last, bring their honour and glory at the final consummation.

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