“God Is (Not) an Englishman . . .”
If you type into a search engine, “God is a . . .” near the top is “Englishman” (just after “astronaut”—go figure!). We quote this phrase all the time in England. It’s from a well-known book by R.F. Delderfield. Suffice it to say that my country’s relationship with God has a long and complicated history. Nowhere is this more evident than in the words of the hymn “Jerusalem.” Considered one of our most patriotic songs, the hymn also has the dubious honor of being the only one where every line can be answered in the negative:
And did those [Jesus’] feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green? [No!]
And did the Countenance Divine, Shine forth upon our clouded hills? [Nope!]
And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? [Again, nope!]
And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills? [All together now: No!]
William Blake penned the poem as a riff on an apocryphal story about adolescent Jesus visiting England’s shores and finding it to be heaven on earth. The hymn was written when religious fervor was rife in England; many believed God “favored” our land. Such words convey that nationality, not spirituality, is God’s highest priority. Moreover, they assume something about “the English” that requires God to be more for us than he is for others. Such sentiment, I fear, isn’t confined to the past or restricted to my nation.
Now I long for the church attendance, respect of the Bible, and gospel zeal of previous generations of my kinsmen according to the flesh. However, my forbearer’s apparent linking of “Englishness” and “Christianity” wasn’t just unbiblical but positively counter-biblical.
UNITY IN EPHESIANS
Over the last three years, I have preached through Ephesians at my church. Week after week, unity has been the theme. Throughout Ephesians, Paul emphasized unity because Christians are in Christ together, not because they’re from the same earthly background. Indeed, Christian unity exists despite our array of temporal differences. Paul rejoiced in the truth that the gospel provides a superior unity.
Here are just some of the things Paul says to the Ephesians:
- In Chapter 2, he writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both (Jew and Gentile) one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (italics mine).
- In Chapter 3, he explains, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
- In Chapter 4, he delights in the truth that, “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
In light of these great spiritual realities, it’s no wonder that Paul is concerned that the church should be eager to maintain the “unity in the bond of peace” (4:3).
CHRISTIANS SHARE THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL THING IN COMMON
The manifold implications of these truths are glorious. But one primary insight is that Christians share the most fundamental thing in common, regardless of our earthly backgrounds. Indeed, Ephesians taught our church that our spiritual bond is far stronger than our earthly ties. I heard this same sentiment when someone recently said to me: “I have more in common with my brothers and sisters suffering in underground churches in China or the poor churches of Sub-Saharan Africa than I do with the unconverted of my homeland who vote, live, dress, and talk like me.”
In other words, what matters most for our churches is that we’re together in Christ, not that we’re together in England.
This truth hit home to me more profoundly several years ago when we arrived in the US for seminary. We moved into our campus accommodation and found that one set of neighbours was from West Africa and the other from Texas. Culturally, our three families had very little in common. We had very different tastes in food, music, and sport. Truth be told, our conversations did not flow freely at first.
However, the conversation dynamic changed when we talked about the Lord, his Word, and his work in our lives. Suddenly, we had so much to talk about. There was warmth in our conversation as we recognized each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We were strangers from an earthly standpoint. But because of Christ, we were family. Our love for Jesus outpaced and will outlive our love for our homelands.
I’M GRATEFUL TO BE AN ENGLISHMAN, BUT . . .
Now don’t get me wrong, there are many things that I’m thankful to God for about living in England. Chief among them: Christians in our country have more or less enjoyed the freedom to proclaim the gospel. And no doubt, whatever country you’re reading this from, there are elements of your culture you can also thank God for. However, we should never confuse God’s kindness to our home nation with the idea that nationality is his primary interest.
No, whether we are from Nigeria or Nepal, Britain or Bahrain, believers in Jesus across nations share the most important thing in common with each other—that we have been brought from spiritual death to life and share an eternal inheritance. As we display a diverse unity in local churches throughout the world, we foreshadow the day when every tribe and language and people and nation will be before the throne, worshipping Jesus as one.
So contrary to my country’s popular phrase, God is certainly not an Englishman—and for that, this Englishman is very thankful.