The Primate of the Church of the Province of West Africa, the Most Rev. Tilewa Johnson, Bishop of the Gambia, has urged Christians to emulate their savior and respond to persecution with love. “True forgiveness does not come easily, and does not even recall past wrongs – however awful these may be. I firmly believe it comes only as a gift from God. This in turn allows the peace and joy only God can give.”
MiLord Archbishops and Bishops, Clergy and Laity of our beloved CPWA, Friends and Partners-in-Mission,
The birth of Christ Jesus was, on the one hand, our almighty and all-knowing God choosing to come into our world as a small and defenceless baby. The gospel according to Matthew recalls the prophecy,
“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, “God with us”.” (Matthew 1: 23)
On the other hand, the event is of cosmic significance. The gospel according to Luke recalls the message of the birth being brought by an angel to shepherds tending their flock,
“Suddenly a great company of heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’.” (Luke 2: 13 and 14)
Both events reflect the nature of Jesus – who is both God and human. Jesus had all the human traits that we experience – these including, love, sadness, anger, and so on. Yet he was God made man – God with us – Immanuel.
The birth of the Messiah – Jesus – was foretold by the prophets. The prophet Micah foretold “the virgin will be with child …” and so on, as we heard earlier.
The prophet Isaiah foretold “… to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end”.
The Messiah promised by God, through the prophets, is to rule in wisdom and peace. His kingdom is to be a place where God’s will is done.
We so often hear of the peace to be found through Jesus. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. This is a wonderful thing in our world where we so often hear of conflict. The peace Jesus offers is of God – it is a peace beyond our understanding. It is a peace of body, mind and spirit. It is a peace that we can hold on to even during troubled times. It is a peace that comes when we become aware of the presence of God in our lives.
The gift of Jesus is what we celebrate at Christmas – the Feast of the Nativity – the birth of Christ Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of God for Christians. He not only teaches us the right way to live, but reveals to us the nature of God. In the same way, Jesus reveals the nature of the Spirit of God, who is alive today and can shape our lives and guide us in all we do and are. We have not been promised a trouble free life, but we have been promised the strength to cope and live a fruitful life, no matter what may happen. Another name for the Holy Spirit is the Comforter. Jesus said,
“In the world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16: 33)
Our confidence in the ultimate protection offered to us by God enables us to know the peace only God can give. This, in turn, gives a joy that, again, only God can give. It can be seen in the faces of those who know God. It is not a superficial happiness, but a joyful peace from the depth of our being that cannot be taken away. It cannot be acquired in any other way than knowing the presence of God in our lives. This can happen through prayer and regular quiet times alone with God.
Such peace and joy invariably come at a cost. It is not that suffering brings peace and joy; but suffering can lead to a depth of relationship with God, whom we turn to in time of trouble. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples. The gospel according to John tells us, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with doors locked ….. , Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” (John 20: 19 and 20)
Jesus’ greeting of peace is associated with him showing them his wounds. Peace invariably comes at a great cost. Despite the appalling cruelty he had experienced, Jesus was able to forgive his torturers and executioners. Indeed, he was able to plead with God for their forgiveness. Such forgiveness is exceptional. True forgiveness does not come easily, and does not even recall past wrongs – however awful these may be. I firmly believe it comes only as a gift from God. This in turn allows the peace and joy only God can give.
Such is the nature of the Jesus whose birth we celebrate today. Through the Spirit of God we too can experience something of this nature. Occasionally, in our world, we hear remarkable stories of people who are able to find the grace to forgive terrible wrongs. We will look more into this in the New Year.
It is my prayer that you, and those whom you love, will come to experience the peace and joy that come from God.
On behalf of the Anglican Church of The Gambia, and the Church of the Province of West Africa, I wish you a happy Christmas. May God bless you all.
++Tilewa West Africa