Matthew 15:21-28

One day a Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus’ response was the natural response of a Jew. He said, "I can’t give the food of children to dogs." Jews considered Gentiles as dogs. But here the faith and determination of that woman was strong enough to take the ministry of Jesus beyond the boundaries of ethnic race. This attitude of Jesus has enabled all of us to be Christians because according to Jews all those who are not Jews are Gentiles. If Jesus did not take this step Christianity would have been a tribal religion of Jews and probably by now, it would have vanished from the earth. In other words, Jesus’ attitude facilitated the process of Christianity to become a universal religion.

What are the main characteristics of a universal religion? A universal religion is not confined to a particular ethnic group, a geographical area or a particular culture. A universal religion can accommodate any ethnic, geographical or cultural division which is not against its basic faith.

Although Christianity is a universal religion, when we live in a particular ethnic group, geographical area or culture we begin to think that our form of Christianity is the right or best form and we unconsciously exclude others. When God took human form in Jesus Christ he blessed all humanity. He blessed all the cultures and ethnic groups of the world. Therefore the Christian gospel accepts all cultural and ethnic differences which are in tune with it and purifies those which are not in tune with the gospel. This is very well affirmed in St. John’s gospel. According to St. John’s gospel, God so loved the world – the cosmos - that he gave his son to redeem the world.

I would like to tell you a few things we have been doing in our ethnic groups, cultures and geographical areas so as to be part of the global family of Christians without neglecting local needs. This is one of the main challenges for Christians today in Sri Lanka and in many other Asian countries. Some people in our country think that we Christians are stooges of the former colonial rulers and that we don’t love our country and our culture. We know this is not true. Jesus was not a colonial master. He was a poor carpenter from Galilee.

I’ll tell you a few things we do in our theological college where we train ministers for Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian denominations in Sri Lanka. To keep the balance and tension between both global and local realities we do our teaching in three languages - English, which is now becoming a world language, and the two main local languages Sinhala and Tamil. You may be thinking that we have three language streams which separate people from each other. Not at all. We teach the students in all three languages in the same class and allow them to work in the language they prefer. We even conduct our worship in all three languages. At the same time, we use our music and cultural idioms to proclaim the Christian gospel.

We also teach all the religions of Sri Lanka - Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. As teachers, we invite the leaders of each of those religions. In the process, we have realised that some half-forgotten Christian principles are still preserved in our traditional religions. Let me give you a few examples.

The principle of renunciation is very well preserved in Buddhism, which is the religion of the majority in Sri Lanka. They teach how to love without having unnecessary attachments towards anything and anybody. You remember what Jesus told his disciples.

He said to leave your father, mother, brother and sister and follow me. Jesus was speaking of unnecessary attachments. Meditation is another half-forgotten legacy of the Christian faith. Do you remember how Jesus went to isolated places to be with God? Today we rediscover these half-forgotten important aspects of the Christian faith.

Here we are reminded of the words of our master to his disciples that those who are not against us are for us. These things are gradually helping us to tell our neighbours that the Christian gospel is not in any way connected or related to colonial oppression though it was brought to us under the protection of the colonial power.

Therefore I hope you understand that a main mission for Christians in Asia today is to redeem Jesus and his Gospel from past colonial memories.

The challenge for us today is how to become local or contextual without losing sight of the universality of the Christian faith. Or in other words, how to think globally and act locally. I believe this is not only for us in Sri Lanka but also for you in England in the context of an increasing population of immigrants. In this country today there are many Christians who are not English. How can we all live together as brothers and sisters in Christ? Let us think about this and ask God to help us to have a Christian understanding in order to work for the extension of his kingdom in our world.

(A sermon preached in the Diocese of Canterbury)