Christian Life: A Reflection of God’s Righteousness

by Bishop George Ninan

 

Introduction

Greetings to you brothers and sisters in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Among the indigenous peoples of the world, there is a custom that when they formally meet and greet each other they will first pay tribute to the land - Mother Earth -and then they will call to remembrance their ancestors. This custom of paying tribute to a particular local area of the earth and linking up the present with the past by remembering the ancestors is one of the ways that they keep their identity and culture as a people - rooted in the past, living in the present and moving toward the future.

In that great tradition, I also would like to remember the greatness of our country with its varied religions, cultures, languages, etc., yet united together as the children of mother India.

I also at this time recognize this vast state of Maharashtra with which my association started 33 years ago. This, our state, is one of the leading states of India and has played a significant role in the history of our land and continues to do so even today. I also pay homage to the great leaders of our country and especially of this state: Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Phule and others.

If you look at the history of the Church in India, Maharashtra has played an important role. From the time of the Thane martyrs, Maharashtra has produced several men and women who stand out in church history, like Narayan-Vamen Tilak, Pandita Ramabai and others. They lived out the Gospel in their very lives. In the recent history of the Church in India, we can be proud of the fact that the Church of North India (CNI) was inaugurated in Nagpur, a leading city in the state. We also at this time remember those who gave leadership to this diocese, particularly I would like to mention Bishop Arther Luther, whom I visited at Bishop’s House in Ahmednagar in 1961 and later had the privilege to work under in youth ministry and as a presbyter in the diocese of Bombay. We also remember at this time Bishop D. J. Vairagar, whom I have known and respected and who entered into eternal rest in February this year. As we gather together today, let us remember that we are linked to the past and should be grateful to those men and women whose labors brought us to where we are today. Let us give thanks to the Lord for their lives and work. Let us also remind ourselves that we are stewards of this diocese today and are accountable to future generations. It, indeed, is a great responsibility.

I would also like to add a personal note on this occasion. A number of people have played important roles in preparing me to take up this great responsibility today. Bishop John W. Sadiq, former bishop of Nagpur Diocese; Bishop Aurbindo Mukerjee, former metropolitan of CIPBC [the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon]; and Bishop Laxman Wickramasinghe, former bishop of Kurnakula Diocese of Sri Lanka, are a few among them who have finished their race and have entered into eternal glory. I also remember my own parents, George and Mariam; my wife Rachel’s parents, the Rev, and Mrs. K. J. Chacko; and our brothers and sisters who have all made their contribution in our life’s journey.

Rachel, my wife, was with me when I stepped into Bishop’s House in Ahmednagar in 1961 immediately after our marriage to meet Bishop Luther. Since then, we have traveled together sharing life’s sorrows and joys - she always staying behind and supporting me. Today we together once again enter Bishop’s House in Ahmednagar; this time to make it a base to serve and minister to all of you. Our children and granddaughters are unable to be with us today, but they in their own way carry on the concerns of our life and work.

It is important that I mention my association with Christian social action during the past 25 years. I am grateful to the urban rural mission (URM) movement of the Church, both in this country and elsewhere; to the ecumenical movement; and to the several social action groups, like BUILD [Bombay Urban Industrial League for Development], which influenced my thinking and life to a great extent, and I grew within their fellowship. I believe that my association with the social action movement made me actively involved in the mission of the Church.

Reflecting on Paul’s Letter to Rome’s Christians

For our meditation today, I have chosen the very well-known Biblical passage, Romans 12:1-5:

"So then, my brothers [and sisters], because of God’s great mercy to us, I appeal to you: offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to His service and pleasing to Him. This is the true worship that you should offer. Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God - what is good and is pleasing to Him and is perfect. And because of God’s gracious gift to me, I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you should. Instead, be modest in your thinking, and judge yourself according to the amount of faith that God has given you. We have many parts in one body, and all these parts have different functions. In the same way, though we are many, we are one body in union with Christ, and we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body."

St. Paul’s letter to the Romans stands out as a concise handbook of Christian beliefs. I am sure many of us have found this to be an important guidebook for our Christian life. I wish every Christian would take time to read and meditate on this letter as often as possible so that our life will be patterned according to the teachings of Christ.

In Chapter 12, St. Paul reminds us of the way in which Christians ought to behave. His theme for this particular chapter is the "Righteousness of God in Christian Living" or, in other words, how a Christian and the Church as a community ought to order their lives so that they will reflect in their everyday life and action the teachings of Christ. We live in a world where freedom is disassociated with responsibility and is understood as permission to do whatever one wants to do. A nation, a society, a community, will not be able to survive unless each member recognizes the ultimate goal and disciplines himself or herself to live for the total welfare of all members and to also attain this goal.

St. Paul felt it necessary to remind the early Church of its mission and the discipline it needs to achieve that mission. Though he spoke in the middle of the first century, even today his words are as relevant as in that era. Down through the centuries, the Church has been able to add to its membership millions and millions of people, to establish institutions of various kinds, to influence the course of world politics and to become the most powerful religion in the world; but if one looks at the inner life of the Church, we find that we are far from what we ought to be. We are a house divided within itself and would fall unless we pay heed to what St. Paul reminds us of about Christian behavior. Let me point out briefly three areas where we should ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us every moment of our life.

First, St. Paul says, "...[O]ffer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to His service and pleasing to Him. This is the true worship that you should offer."

In the center of our Christian life is our worship. St. Paul reminds us that the sacrifice in Jewish practice is the center of worship, but he goes on to remind us that worship and sacrifice are not confined to any ritual or rite we perform periodically in the house of God. They are, in fact, the very offering of ourselves throughout our life wholly and fully to reflect God’s righteousness.

The Christian person is "called to be a saint," (Rom. 1:7) "called to belong to Jesus Christ"; (Rom. 1:6) they "belong to Christ and Christ to God"; (I Cor. 3:23) they are to regard their body as "temples of the Holy Spirit." (I Cor 3:16) We Christians should be aware of the danger of attributing to ourselves a "holy" status and considering others as "profane." We may think that we are better than other people or that we are worshiping a God who is more powerful than other gods. In fact, God is one, and there is only one God. All peoples of the world, including all persons of our own land, worship the same God. Hence, we have unity with all people irrespective of caste, color, creed, sex or age. We are children of the same God and enjoy the resources God has given to us.

The difference is that Christians are people who consciously commit themselves to serve others, even at the cost of their lives. This is what Jesus Christ showed on the cross, dying for the sake of others, fully making Himself available for God’s purpose. St. Paul too reminds us that Christians ought to have a self-understanding that they have to consider their lives as a living sacrifice for the sake of others to God. That is why the Church and the Christian community cannot claim more privileges than those possessed by other communities, but rather we have to inculcate in ourselves a willingness to be the servants of the suffering Lord.

The code of conduct or basis for Christian ethics or morality is not a set of rules or rites or values based on traditions or customs nor is Christian spirituality based on keeping away from an "unholy’ world and leading an ascetic life, working only for the world to come. Christian spirituality is fully surrendering oneself to God and emanating in one’s own life values of the righteousness of God, following the examples of Jesus Christ as he ministered to people in crowded streets, at the wedding feast, at the burial ground, at the tax collector’s seat, on an adulterer’s path, at the sick bed, at the temple entrance, before Pilate’s court, on Calvary and in the closed upper room - all areas of life and work, ministering to the total person and all people irrespective of their social status, position in the community, trade or profession - a holistic mission in action.

A friend of mine, a former missionary to the diocese of Nagpur, John Gilbert, wrote to me a few days ago; and knowing my overenthusiasm to get things done, he reminded me that "being" is as important as "doing." We must ask the Holy Spirit to help us to offer ourselves to God in such a way that our very being will be a testimony and will reflect God’s righteousness more than what we attempt to do. The members of Nasik Diocese are called to surrender their lives as a living sacrifice to God so that He will use us as a community placed in rural Maharashtra to serve the poor, the dalits [lowest caste], the oppressed and the marginalized people around us.

Secondly, "Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind."

Christians are referred to as people not of this world but as people who are placed in the world. Unless this is understood in the proper context, this could lead to a belief that we are not to take this world seriously but to prepare ourselves for the world hereafter. Such an "other worldly" attitude will not be in line with the teachings of the Gospel: "For God so loved the world..."; (John 3:16) "the whole universe groans for redemption"; (Rom. 8:22) "go forth, therefore, and make all nations my disciples." (Matt. 28:19) Jesus Christ as well as His apostles, including St. Paul, firmly affirm life in this world, and all of their teachings, including this portion of the letter to the Romans (Chapter 12), speak of how a person ought to behave in leading a Christian life here and now.

The expression "not to conform to this world" refers to a value system, a culture, a behavioral pattern that Christians ought to reflect as opposed to the values, cultures and behavioral patterns of other people in the world. The values predominant in the world today are an undue pursuit of money, power, pleasure and possessions - values of a consumerist culture. While two-thirds of the world population is hungry, one-third dies of overconsumption. While we use all the means at our disposal to advance our own interests, we are not bothered that many are pushed down to the ghettoes of poverty and exploitation. Corruption is rampant in all walks of life, and those who resist or do not partake are "fools" in the eyes of the world.

It is in this context that we are reminded that Jesus came into the world to establish a new covenant, a new testament based on love, suffering and relinquishing power. "I tell you that, unless you show yourself far better men than the Pharisees and the doctors of law, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:20) "This is my commandment: love one another as I have loyed you’ (John 15:12).

Thus, we have in this world the domination of a value system based on self-interest and self-centered-ness, and Jesus proposes a counterculture based on love, equality, sharing, caring and considering the other person as important, or more important, than oneself. This might seem foolishness to many as St. Paul says that the Cross has been a stumbling block to the Greeks and Jews, but you and I know that the pursuit of a self-centered life will always end in self-destruction. Where there has been willingness to accommodate others and to sacrifice for the sake of the community, there we find God’s shalom: peace with justice.

Brothers and sisters, I have already pointed out that Christian morality and spirituality are based on our relationship to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus stood as a challenge to the values of the world; He posed a threat to the power elite of both the State and religion because there was utter corruption and ruthless exploitation in these institutions. He was, therefore, killed on the cross. Was it foolishness? Was it the result of an immature and uncompromising posture by Jesus? But the cross was followed by an "empty tomb" and later on by the "closed upper room." The power of the Risen Christ and the advent of the Holy Spirit made the timid men and women go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our faith ought to help us believe that justice and truth will ultimately win. We must believe in it. If not, we have no reason or right to preach the Gospel of Christ. I hope and pray that the members of Nasik Diocese will rise up in the power of the Holy Spirit and will affirm their participation in the fight against the power structures of self-centered-ness and will evolve for themselves a culture, a value system, a behavioral pattern and moral standards on the model of the Cross, which ensures ultimate victory.

Finally, "...Do not think of yourself more highly than you should. We have many parts in one body, and all these parts have different functions. In the same way, though we are many, we are one body in union with Christ, and we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body."

St. Paul reminds us of our unity with Christ as members of one body. In the verses that follow, Rom. 12:5, he elaborates the point and reminds us Christians that we should be humble in our self-assessment and should consider ourselves as part and parcel of Christ’s own body.

In this analogy, there is affirmation of equality between members; mutuality in suffering, as any hurt on any part of the body would make the entire body feel the pain; and unity in action, each part complementing the other though having different functions, all tuned to perform the holistic mission to which the body is committed. This analogy is a very, powerful one, and even any feeble attempt to realize this message would change the entire self-consciousness of Christians and would prompt coordinated and integrated action on the part of the Church, which would have a tremendous effect on the inner life and mission of our diocese.

The Church today, particularly in our country and maybe in this diocese as well, is comprised primarily of ordinary people like you and me socially marginalized, economically poor, politically powerless - and if we are more involved in our own petty quarrels, efforts to satisfy ourl own ego and in self-centered actions we will continue to remain divided and powerless. If we are able to rises above these problems, the spirit of God will be able to knit us together as a body mutually supporting, sustaining, strengthening, enabling, sol that we will be able to fulfill Gods expectations for us to further His Kingdom on earth.

Some of us may be economically better off than others; others may be politically influential; and yet others may be highly educated and experienced. The Church of Christ needs. all of us, provided we can offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God as St. Paul demands. Most of us in this diocese are poor, but God in Jesus Christ has a special place for us. We are the children of God who will usher in a New Heaven and a New Earth. (Isa. 65:17) God needs each one of us. Let us unite ourselves as one body so that we will be able to continue to serve society as Jesus did.

As we have seen, God in His plan has raised up several men and women who have faithfully served the Lord in this diocese; we have a’ history behind us. We also have so many resources in terms of property buildings, institutions and, more than anything else, people. Let us rise up as the Body of Christ place in this context with each member recognizing his or her strengths and weaknesses; all unitedly engaged in holistic mission standing against the value system of this world and promoting a countervalue system. This is the worship and sacrifice that God demands from us. Let us as one body affirm our unity and rise up to build this diocese in the areas of spiritual renewal and social and economic improvement and strengthen our ties with other denominations in this diocesan area, develop in-depth relationships with people of other faiths, promote social justice and peace, revitalize our institutions to serve the poor and needy and find ways and means to be engaged in holistic mission.

We may have to start by retraining ourselves to cope with the demands of the 21st century. Nasik Diocese is not at Bishop’s House nor is it at the diocesan office. It is where the people are; they and the presbyters who serve them should get the primary attention, support and care. We have to modernize (of course, within the limits of our resources) our operations to meaningfully and creatively mobilize local congregations in their mission. The Christian community should not be isolated and mission-compound centered. We should participate with others in issues related to the entire society and to our community as a whole. We are in no way less patriotic than any other community. As citizens of this state, we have a history of service to society. That is very central to our faith, and we should continue such involvements.

I am conscious that we are a weak and powerless community. Our resources when compared to the task ahead may be little, but yet our history has proved that, like the mustard seed which became a haven for birds (Mark 4:30-32), any small beginning for God’s Kingdom will grow beyond our expectations. Let me close my words by quoting the very well-known Baptist missionary to India who spent years in West Bengal, William Carey: "Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God." Amen.


(Ed note: This sermon was delivered at the installation of the Rev. Dr. George Ninan as the bishop of Nasik Diocese of the Church of North India [GNu in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, on July 24, 1994. Bishop Ninan served as the associate general secretary of the Christian Conference ofAsia [CCA]from 1985 to 1990 and as the CCA-Urban Rural Mission [CCA-URM] secretary from 1981 to 1985.)