A transcript of Bishop Jonathan Gibb's Bible Reading given at Erfurt, during the Kirchentag, May 26 2017
The Meeting of Elizabeth and Mary – Good News for our Times
It is a great pleasure and honour for me to be here and to deliver this Bible Study today. Thank you for coming to take part in this with me.
Before I start I think it would be helpful for me to say a little about myself and the perspective out of which I am speaking. I was born in Manchester, in the North of England, to where my father and mother had moved after they were married. They came from South Wales, from families who worked in Iron and Steel and in the Mining industry. They moved away from their home, like so many, in order to seek work and to start a new life. You could say perhaps that they were economic migrants. They always saw their identity as Welsh rather than English, though also naturally as British – and in a large part I see myself in the same way.
At school I had an interest in politics and philosophy, and I studied French and especially the writings of Albert Camus. I went on to study philosophy and politics at the University of Oxford. I then worked in Paris at an Anglican Church for two years, among young people of many nationalities. My wife and I also met in Paris, and then lived in another very international city, when I trained at seminary in Cambridge, where I did my doctoral research on Helmut Richard Niebuhr, a German American theologian. The topic of my research was the theology of work, and the theme was human responsibility under God for ourselves, for our fellow human beings and for creation. I mention this because it is relevant to what I will say later.
To complete the story, I served as a priest for three years in Manchester, before we moved to Switzerland, where I was priest of the Anglican Church in Basel, as well as priest of the Anglican Church in Freiburg-im-Breisgau. As perhaps you can hear, it was in Basel that I first learned German! After six years, we returned to England, and lived for seventeen years in a parish near Liverpool, before I was made Bishop of Huddersfield in the Diocese of Leeds in 2014.
So you will see that I come to this study as someone with quite a lot of international experience – I have also lived and studied for some time in the United States – and that shapes the way I look at the world and also the way in which I read and interpret the Bible. I see myself as British, but not fully English, but I also see myself as European, at home to some extent in each of the three other nations in which I have lived and worked. I have lived outside my own culture, I have had to learn new languages (and Basel-Deutsch especially is not so easy at first), and when living in those countries there have been times when I felt an outsider, in cultural and in political terms. These things matter as we read and interpret the Bible, especially in the context of Europe today and in the context of Brexit, of which I will speak a little later.
And now to the text we are examining today, from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter One, verses 39 to 56. Or perhaps I should rephrase that and say instead that this passage will also be examining us. We must remember that when we study the Bible, we must be ready for its words to question and challenge us – because in and through those words we hear the Word of God to us, not in the abstract but in our own concrete situation.
The Gospel of Luke is of course one of four Gospels, each of which was written from a particular perspective and also to a particular audience. Of all the Gospels, Luke was written most of all for a Gentile audience. It was designed to tell the story of Jesus Christ to people who were not familiar with the traditions and history of the Jewish people, or with what we now call the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible. The Gospel of Luke, along with its sequel book, The Acts of the Apostles, is addressed to someone known as “Theophilus”, which means “Lover of God”. This was not necessarily a particular person (though the Acts of the Apostles does speak of some high-ranking officials who took an interest in the message of the Gospel), but most likely refers to people who were enquiring about the Christian faith, or who were beginning to learn more about it as new believers.
Again the context here is important. Luke’s purpose was to commend the Christian faith to Gentile people across the Roman Empire. His message needed to be understood in the context of that diverse culture. This was a culture of many nations and languages (though Greek was spoken as a common language almost everywhere, rather as English is spoken today); it was a world of many religions – most of which believed in many gods. Only the Jewish faith was monotheistic – and the Jews were often viewed as irreligious because they did not honour the many gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons. And alongside all this was the power of Rome. The Roman Empire was everywhere and its power was clear for all to see.
There were Roman soldiers on the streets and they enforced their rule often with brutality, most obviously by the use of crucifixion to punish offenders and especially anyone who dared to challenge the authority of Caesar. On many occasions, rebels in different provinces tried to throw off Roman rule, but any such attempts were ruthlessly suppressed and the perpetrators and anyone associated with them were brutally punished. There were several such rebellions in Israel and all of them failed – with the last of these leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 69.
This is the context in which Luke wrote his Gospel. This is also the context in which Mary and Elisabeth met, and in which Mary sang the song that we know as the Magnificat. Perhaps you can begin to feel how radical and potentially dangerous these words were!
It is hard for us to imagine what this must have felt like for the first Christians and the people to whom they were speaking. For us the Christian faith is part of the fabric of our culture. To many people it seems old and tired. For them, the Christian message is yesterday’s news and seems to contain no word of challenge. But it was not always so! We need to remember that the first Christians owed their allegiance to a Messiah who had been crucified by the Roman authorities – supposedly for having claimed to be “The King of the Jews”. As far as the Romans were concerned, anyone calling Jesus “Lord” was following a failed rebel leader – and the term “Lord” was anyway meant to be used, especially by soldiers and government officials, to express loyalty to Caesar.
And then there is the question of Jesus’ central message, about the coming of “the kingdom of God”. That phrase occurs thirty-five times in Luke’s Gospel alone. In each of the Gospels, Jesus refers constantly to this idea of “the kingdom of God” (Matthew uses the term “the kingdom of heaven” but that is to avoid offending his Jewish audience). You could certainly argue that this is one of the main reasons he was crucified – because the Roman and Jewish authorities saw him as a threat to their position. And it is certainly a provocative term, especially in the context of its time.
So what exactly does it mean – and what does it tell us about what Jesus had come to do and also about the meaning of the meeting of Mary and Elisabeth, and of the song that Mary sang?
You will know of course that many books have been written and much blood has been spilt over the idea of “the kingdom of God”. For some Christians, the kingdom of God is about human beings learning to love each other as brothers and sisters under the fatherhood of God, and so transforming the world into what God intends it to be. At the other end of the spectrum, for people like Albert Schweitzer, the kingdom of God is entirely about the action of God in history, whereby God will decisively break into history and transform the world into his kingdom.
The way the term is used in the New Testament, suggest that Jesus thought of the kingdom of God as both something already present and something what was still to come in the future. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is near (for instance in Mark 1:15) but also that it was like a grain of mustard seed growing very slowly, and that it would come unexpectedly like a thief in the night. All of these things are found in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, which suggests that we should think of the kingdom of something that has already come in part, is still coming and will one day finally come. It is about the past, the present and the future.
I suggest that the best way to think about the kingdom of God is that it is about a new way of living right here in this world. This new way of living has been made possible by the action of God, in the sending of Jesus, in his death and resurrection, and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the coming of Jesus, God has acted decisively to inaugurate his kingdom, and as followers of Jesus we are called to live as citizens of that kingdom – here in the world in which we find ourselves, in which we are called to make a radical difference, as a sign and a foretaste of the coming of God’s kingdom.
This is very important for understanding the story that we read about the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, because the central theme of the story is that of the decisive action of God breaking into our world in the coming of his Son, Jesus. Everything in the story starts with the action of God. A barren old woman is suddenly expecting a child; and a young unmarried virgin is also now expecting a child. Both of these events are outside the normal order of things; something remarkable, something miraculous is happening – and God is the one who is making these things happen. On the other hand of course, we know also from the story of the Annunciation that Mary very much had a part to play. She chose to say Yes to God and to joining in with what he was doing. (We don’t know of course whether anyone else said No before Mary said Yes – but the point is that human choice and human response were part of the equation). And we need to note also that the two people whom God chose to partner with him in this new venture were both women – they were the ones to whom God entrusted the next stage of his plan – and by contrast Joseph in particular took some persuading to go along with the plan!
So what we see here is a decisive moment in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. This plan has been ready since before the creation of the world. It has been worked out in the life of the people of Israel since the call of Abraham. It has been foretold by the prophets, and now it is actually happening. God is about to come into the world in the person of his Son, and another is being made ready in the womb of Elisabeth to prepare the way for his coming. No wonder Mary and Elisabeth are so overjoyed – or indeed that Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb!
And now we turn to the words of Mary’s song of praise – the Magnificat – and hopefully we can see something of their meaning from the context that I have described. This is the climax of God’s eternal plan to enter into our world and to bring about our salvation – or to use the phrase we used earlier, to inaugurate his kingdom here on earth.
There is a wonderful child-like delight in the opening words of Mary’s song. She is exulting in the joy and wonder of the incredible and privileged role she has been given. She is a young teenager, maybe just thirteen or fourteen years old, because that was the customary age betrothal in her culture, and here she is indeed like the little child that Jesus said we must be if we were to enter his kingdom. To some ears, you could even say that there is a little pride or even immodesty in her words – and why not! She is bursting with joy at what God has done – and she cries out, “He has chosen ME – little me, from nowhere special – and from now on, everyone will know my name!” It’s beautiful!
And then in the middle of the song, the focus changes, as Mary no longer sings about herself but about the things God has done and is doing for the whole of humanity, and most especially for those who are forgotten by the rich and powerful of the world. Notice that Mary speaks as if these are things that God has already done. The tense in Greek is called the aorist, and it implies actions that have already been completed but whose effects still continue in the present. Notice also the radical and even revolutionary language that she uses: rulers have been brought down from their thrones, the rich have been sent empty away, and the proud have been scattered. At first sight, these would have made uncomfortable reading for the Roman authorities – was this another rebellion in the making and should the followers of Jesus be treated with suspicion or worse, as they often would be in the following centuries.
Mary’s words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, are of course meant to be seen as prophetic. She is describing the decisive action that God is doing in the sending of his Son, but she is also talking about the consequences of Jesus coming into the world, and the arrival of God’s kingdom in and through him. In the end we have to take these words seriously, and recognise that God’s plan includes a radical re-ordering of our world, whereby the rich and powerful are removed from their positions of privilege and the poor are raised up and the hungry are fed. There is in other words a political implication contained within these words – and we need to think now about what that might mean for us.
Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on what we have said already: God has a plan for the salvation of the world, which he prepared before creation itself. That plan was worked out through the history of the nation of Israel, beginning with the call of Abraham, and is now coming to a climax in the birth of his Son into the world. The content of that plan includes bringing people back into relationship with him through Jesus Christ, but it also includes Jesus’ followers living as citizens of his kingdom, and therefore making a difference in the life of the world around them. The world will not be finally transformed until Christ returns, but as his followers we have a responsibility to seek to transform the world so that it reflects more fully the life of God’s kingdom – and this passage tells us a lot about what that should look like.
In my view, the most obvious theme that comes out of this passage is God’s concern with the righting of wrongs and the ending of injustice. This begins with God’s choice of Elisabeth and Mary as his principal partners in bringing about his plan of salvation; by contrast their husbands play only a peripheral role in what God is doing. One could say of course that this is simply because their function is that of child-birth and the rearing of children; but the prominence given to them suggests something more than that. Elisabeth and Mary are clearly the principal human actors in this drama; they are partners with God in the execution of his plan of salvation. It was every Jewish woman’s dream that she might become the mother of the Messiah, but the way that this story is told by Luke indicates something new – namely that two women are given an honoured and prominent place in God’s plan. This is I believe a sign of the new life of God’s kingdom, echoed by the choice of women as the first witnesses of the resurrection. God is doing something new in the inclusion and affirmation of women – but sadly it has taken the Church and our society a long time to catch up with that!
A second dimension concerns the way in which Mary in particular feels that she has been “seen” by God. She has experienced his choice of her to be his partner in the drama of salvation – and she is overjoyed and overwhelmed by his choice. Now clearly this event was unique – no-one else has had the privilege of becoming the mother of God’s Son – but at the same time there is something very powerful and important for all of us who are made in the image of God and called to be followers of Jesus Christ. God calls each one of us by name and invites us to become partners with him in his plan of salvation. In the Anglican liturgy of Confirmation, the Bishop lays hands on each candidate, and then using their forename says to them “God has called you by name and made you his own”, before going on to pray “Confirm O Lord your servant with your Holy Spirit”. When I do this I always put my hands on the candidate’s shoulders and encourage them to look me in the eye as I say these words to them. It is often a very powerful and moving moment for them – and for me.
Then we come to the implications of the Magnificat for the way we look at the world and what we should try to do as followers of Christ and citizens of God’s kingdom in order to change that world. I think it is very clear that God’s intention is to establish justice and equity upon the earth – that will be one of the outcomes when he finally established his kingdom on earth. That means that should be one of our goals also, as citizens of God’s kingdom who are also citizens of this world and of the nations in which we live.
In this regard, I would like to pay huge tribute to the people of Germany and to your Chancellor Angela Merkel for the way in which you have led Europe in its response to the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Mediterranean. This has been a wonderful and courageous example of moral leadership. Thank you for what you have done.
The tragedy of the Middle East has been developing for many years, and much of what we see today has been in part the result of Western foreign policy in that region during the last hundred years and more. Equally the huge numbers of people seeking to emigrate from sub-Saharan Africa is in part the result of climate change, but also of trade policies that have made it more difficult for farmers in those countries to export to Europe and earn enough to keep their families alive. At the risk of being controversial, there is a potential connection that we should consider between the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy and the plight of farmers across the centre of Africa.
I am deeply saddened by the decision of the British people to leave the European Union. I would much prefer that the United Kingdom has stayed in the EU and worked for real change in its institutions. But we have to respect the will of the people and find the best way forward for everyone.
At the same time, and again at the risk of being controversial, I would like to raise the question of the impact of economic policy in the Eurozone on the poorer southern nations of the EU such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy in recent years. Before the banking crisis of 2008, the evidence suggests that these nations were making good economic progress and their governments’ finances were mostly in surplus. But their economies were always weaker than those of Germany and the north of Europe. The effect of their being in the Eurozone has been that since the crisis they have been unable to stimulate growth, either by fiscal measures (which are forbidden by the European Central Bank), or by cutting interest rates (which are set by the ECB), and nor have they been able to benefit from export growth as a result of fall in the value of their currency (because they are in the Euro).
The imposition of austerity measures by the ECB has further weakened the economies of these poorer nations, when all the evidence of post-war economics suggested that what they needed was stimulus to help them recover. And the result of these policies has been that economic growth in the Eurozone since the 2008 crisis has been far lower than in other parts of the world – and even of Europe. There is a real challenge here for the future of the EU, because massive unemployment especially among young people in those nations is likely to stir up further resentment towards the EU. Careful thought will need to be given as to how resources can be transferred within the EU – and especially the Eurozone – for the good above all of the poor and vulnerable. It is only by helping these people to achieve greater prosperity that the people of the EU as a whole can thrive and achieve its goal of greater co-operation and lasting stability among the nations of our continent.
I base these comments on my study of economics, and my reading of the work of people like the Nobel Prize-Winning Joseph Stiglitz, but my real motivation for raising these questions comes from my reading of the Magnificat. The Song of Mary challenges us to think as Christians about the consequences of the actions taken by our governments, and especially to ask how these are affecting the weak and the vulnerable, whether in our own communities and nations, or across our continent and beyond.
As I have said, I am deeply saddened by the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the EU. I am in particular saddened by what seem to have been signs of xenophobia in some parts of our nation, leading to both verbal and physical attacks on some immigrants and refugees. This is totally unacceptable. At the same time, to many people in Britain it does feel that some of those involved in the institutions of the EU have been determined to resist any change or to permit any flexibility in the operation of the rules. Free movement of people, for instance, has led not only to very high levels of immigration into particular part of the UK, but also the loss of highly educated and skilled workers from economies of nations who can least afford it. Spain and Greece for instance may take much longer to grow new businesses and recover economically if their best young people are working in bars and restaurants in the UK!
Now please understand that I am not proposing solutions to all these questions. But I am trying to encourage us to ask questions about where our society is heading and about what governments and other are doing in our name. And I am suggesting that we should ask those questions in the light of our reading of the Bible – and in particular the Magnificat.
In closing, let us read again the Song of Mary and then let us ask the Holy Spirit to show us what those words mean for us as followers of Christ and citizens of the kingdom of God, here in Europe today.
(Read Luke 1, 46-55)