The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s005g08 Christmass Molong
'his own people did not accept him' John 1.11
Jesus was not born an Anglican, a Catholic, an Evangelical, a Charismatic, or indeed even a Christian. Jesus was born a Jew but like most of us this was an 'accident' of birth, not a conscious decision he made. Our gospel for today tells us that the thing that is of most importance was that Jesus was born a person, a person like you or I, with all the joys and frustrations that ensues from this. He had to learn to live amongst others, he went through the same agonies of puberty that afflict us all. He knew what hormones were, though not by that name. He knew what insecurity, poverty and political oppression were all about.
Over the years, individuals, denominations and faith groups have sought to claim a special relationship to this Jesus, to claim him for their own. The most well-known of the Psalms begins: 'The Lord is MY shepherd'. But first and foremost Jesus became a person like each and every person who has ever lived and like each and every person who ever will live. Jesus is not more mine than he is everyone else's. Jesus is not the Anglicans' any more than he is every other denomination's. And Jesus is not the Christians' any more than he is every other faiths'. And Jesus does not belong to those who have some sort of faith. He just as much belongs to those who have no faith. 'Blessed are the poor in Spirit', Jesus once said.
Jesus being born a person means that his primary call is for us to be people too. Jesus doesn't call us to be religious, Jesus calls us to be accepting.
Recently I have been thinking about how we as the Anglican Church is organised. Historically in England, the parish church was the centre of village life and the minister the one literate person to whom everyone had to go to enable any transaction of any importance to take place. When I was the priest in the parish of Kapunda in South Australia I noted that there were old marriage certificates where people put an 'x' because they couldn't sign their name. The church was the centre of social and sporting life. Churches in England are ancient and the living endowed, so that the ordinary members of the congregation were not burdened with building or paying the priest. However transporting this to the colonies meant that this romantic ideal has in fact been unattainable. Buildings had to be built, ministers had to be paid. With more general literacy, the centrality of the priest has been lost. Indeed with increased education lay people not only read the Bible, but come to their own conclusions about its interpretation. Social and sporting activities are better done in the secular sphere and our efforts look like we are in competition with others. In South Australia there was the Church netball association and the School Association.
So while in the past the Church was the centre of society, now we are on the periphery. The burden on ordinary people is way beyond what Anglicans in England ever have had to bear. Church people have become isolated from the community and sometimes resentful that more people do not share the load.
But it is precisely this isolation, this being on the periphery, that Christmass came to demolish. It is often thought that Jesus was killed because he claimed to be Son of God, but this is the excuse of those who had him killed. In fact he was killed because he became a person amongst all, and didn't just associate with the devout. And the history of the Church is littered with disputes about how Jesus became a person, and there were not a few who wanted to say that Jesus only seemed to be human. This is just another way of keeping Jesus to themselves. The creeds of the Church are an attempt to make it a statement of faith that he became a real person, because then he came for all and not just for an exclusive coterie of initiates.
Even our coming to Church at Christmass can be mistakenly assumed that it is in Church that we will find Jesus. We are as likely to find Jesus in a hospital, a prison, a school, in the down and out, and in ourselves as well.
'His own people did not accept him' is not a historical fact that the Jewish authorities did not accept his message and had him killed it is an eternal truth that all who consider Jesus as their own and not others in fact do not receive Jesus. Jesus, the real Jesus, not our lovely theological idol, came for all people.
When I look at the gospel stories I find those who had worshipped with Jesus in the synagogue where he attended all his life trying to kill him because he suggested God cared for others besides them. I find his own family being disowned as Jesus describes those listening to him as his brothers and sisters and mother rather than those who had family ties to him. I find the disciples wanting Jesus to send the children away, they didn't deserve his attention Jesus' was 'theirs'. They hadn't got the message even though they were disciples. And the disciples were not to be a exclusive coterie of initiates surrounding Jesus, they themselves were sent out to others.
A while back I was listening to Radio National and half way through the night the 'New Dimensions' segment came on. The story went something like this: A person decided to do something for the poor and needy, so she started cutting sandwiches and delivering them to the needy. In the course of time the local media got wind of what she was doing and they featured an article on her work. As a result of this media attention, some people started sending her money. Each of those who sent money were surprised when they got a letter back from the lady, thanking them for their interest but enclosing their money with the words: 'Cut your own damn sandwiches!' Program #3267
God doesn't need our money, God needs us to get on with other people! Not marginalizing women, not alienating gay persons, not condemning those who do not worship with us, live like us or speak our own theological lingo to eternal damnation, like so many so-called 'christian' people do. God dwells within each of us and we are given time to find out our gift and to use it. It may not be cutting sandwiches!
Over the years I have many times wondered after the christmass services were all over what was all the fuss about? After mass and endless carols and turkey and pudding and presents - life seems to return to its ordinary boring normality. And, of course, while we keep Jesus to ourselves (or pretend to do so) then there is nothing else to do but to return to ordinary boring normality, with all its frustrations and anxieties. But just consider what the world might be like if we let Jesus into the lives of others if we saw God at work in people other than 'christians', people of faith? Ordinary boring normality might become christmass every day of the year!
I have spoken recently about people's lives blighted by religion, and it might be assumed I'm talking about some of those in the psychiatric hospital where I minister. But no, it is not at all restricted to this. I reflect how good and faithful Anglican's lives have been blighted by that romantic ideal of the self-sufficient parish I described earlier. Stipends go up, the dwindling few are pressed to give more, and there seems no way to extricate our selves from this endless treadmill. Most parishioners I have known are frankly tired out. Their faithfulness is commendable, but where is a modicum of happiness? Instead there is a natural resentment that others haven't got onto the treadmill too. It doesn't sounds like 'good news' to me.
Somehow we have to open ourselves up to other people, and the incarnation of Jesus tells us that for all we might find sanctity in our expression of 'christianity', God is not confined to this, but is found all around us in the ordinariness of human existence. Our task is not to convert others to see things in our way, but for us to accept that God is everyone's as well as ours. The endless treadmill is not God's will for anyone, least of all for us who try so hard to be faithful.
If we think Jesus is our own in a way denied to others, then there is no escaping the treadmill, the resentment and the disappointment. But thanks be to God, Jesus was born a human being so that divinity might be seen in all people. The message of christmass is true and vital - the promise of peace and justice there for us and for all to accept.
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