One of the subtitles on Sunday’s Sunday Times front page read, ‘SA prepares for one of the largest funerals the world has known as it mourns its favourite son.’ As most know, Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela, first President and ‘Tata’ (father) of democratic South Africa, passed away on Thursday night, aged 95 after a long sickbed. ‘Madiba’ is his clan name, a name much loved by most in our country and abroad. Ordinary people have sometimes spoken of the ‘Madiba Magic,’ thereby referring to his seeming ‘magic touch’ pertaining to things, including sport. My son and I attended the exciting international Sevens Rugby Tournament which took place in our city last weekend at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth. Our team beat every one of the other 15 participating nations, including the mighty All Blacks and current champions Fiji! Our local press claimed it was the ‘Madiba Magic’ that did the trick. I wish you could have felt the atmosphere at the stadium – vibrant, jubilant and yet respectful of Nelson Mandela’s passing.
There are three fundamentals to be born in mind as we think of the father of our nation and icon of the world.
- We need to see Mandela in perspective. He was a great man, but at the same time a man of flesh and blood. Barak Obama, President of the USA, endeared himself to his audience when he referred to the statesman’s humanity, even his mischievousness, things which demonstrated the greatness of the man.
- There is one infinitely greater, who also walked this earth. He was divine and yet he was flesh. His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He has no equal or peer. We worship him alone. Many South Africans have a tendency to idolize Madiba but this is out of place [in this regard, do read Tobie v.d. Westhuizen’s blog at naturalchurch]. One woman declared Mandela ‘the greatest man to walk the earth.’ Mandela himself would have vociferously denied that.
- Did Mandela have a personal, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?? We know he was christened, raised and schooled as a Methodist in rural Transkei. I remember reading in his biography that he never failed in 27 years to attend a chapel service on Robben Island. He spoke openly at church meetings and synods of the fact that, while he saw faith as very personal, he was committed to implementing the Christian values with which he had been raised [one has to have some sympathy with Mandela in this regard – he governed a nation of many religions, and South Africa long ago ceased to be the ‘Christian nation’ it so often purported to be under white leadership]. I also heard a past President of the Baptist Union of SA tell us how he asked for an interview with Mandela and on that occasion presented him with a Bible and a daily devotional book. Mandela was honest enough to say that he would be too busy to read the Bible on a daily basis but that he would certainly read the devotional book on a daily basis. Of course none of these things per se qualify him as regenerate. However let us be aware that in the issue of personal salvation we can never play God – he alone remains final Judge of all things and all people. For myself I certainly hope he knew and loved Jesus – that’s as far as I can go! Each one is of course entitled to their own opinion in this matter.
What I do know, and think many of you would agree, is that Nelson Mandela was raised up by our sovereign God to lead our young nation in her most critical hour. This fact, together with the earnest prayers of God’s people across the country, ensured a bloodless and largely peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy.
What I also know is that Mandela, by the outrageous grace of God alone, displayed some wonderful qualities of which the Church and all believers should take serious note and implement:
- We can learn from his humility. Often officials would find Madiba in the kitchen of some larny hotel, talking to and jiving with the staff in obvious pleasure.
- We can learn from his love of children. How he interacted with children at their level, put them on his lap and affirmed them. How he worked for the upliftment of disadvantaged children in the most forgotten corners of our country.
- We can learn from his servanthood. He reminded South Africans that he had not come as a prophet among them, but as their humble servant (how the current regime can learn from this!). Once his official car passed a woman along the roadside, trying to cope with a flat tyre in the rain. Despite his body guards’ remonstrations he got out, took an umbrella to the woman and saw that her tyre was changed so that she could continue on her journey.
- We can learn from his humanity. Theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once declared that Jesus had come to make us ‘human.’ I love John’s Prologue to his Gospel, Jn. 1:1-18. Verse 14, particularly apt at this Advent time, reminds us how ‘The Word (eternal and pre-existent) became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory…’ ‘Flesh’ is a strong, almost crude word stressing Christ’s humanity. ‘Made his dwelling among us’ derives from the Greek word for ‘tent’ or ‘tabernacle’ – Jesus pitched his tent among us, he moved into our neighbourhood. Through all this his divinity shone through.
- We can learn from his spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. How a lack of these graces has characterised many a church group and many a church member!
Maybe I could conclude by saying that Mandela had ‘the common touch.’ Francis Schaeffer, in the early 1970’s, wrote a booklet called ‘The New Super Spirituality.’ He warned of a time when true spirituality [see my blog archives] would be eclipsed by an eastern, mystic, ‘new age’ guru spirituality totally foreign to the Bible. There is much of that ‘super spirituality’ on display today: in the Church’s fixation with success and prosperity, upward mobility and arrogance, crass materialism and other-worldly gnosticism, a superabundance of ‘gifts’ to the detriment of ‘fruit’ (or character), etc.
Many years ago a young Christian couple I was privileged to unite in marriage, while discussing the Church and church leadership in general, paid my wife and I the compliment (imho) of having ‘the common touch.’ I never want to lose that, and you are free to rebuke me should I stray from that path. Jesus supremely owned ‘the common touch’: consider his birth in a smelly stable; his intercourse with the poor and broken and outcast; his washing of his disciples’ sweaty feet (Jn. 13); his self-humiliation in becoming ‘a servant’ for our sake (Phil. 2); his dying a criminal’s death on our behalf; having a fish braai (barbecue) with his fishermen friends on the beach (Jn. 21); working with 12 ordinary men (one of them a traitor) and empowering them to do the extraordinary in his name; giving his followers a similar Comforter, to make his own presence real beyond his grave; promising to return visibly to abide with them forever in a transformed earth; etc.
By the life of Jesus within (Jn. 15) take time with the teller at the supermarket if you can, thank and affirm her. Don’t just give money to the poor but get to know the poor. Be patient with the disillusioned and the hopeless. Incarnate Jesus in the ecclesia and in the market place. Be the Bible to people who would never think of opening it (if they even have a copy). Reconcile people to God and their neighbour, through Christ, wherever you can (2 Cor. 5:11-21).
And so, and in a myriad other ways, may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be praised!