The readings on which this sermon is based can at:

s005g11  Christmass   25/12/2011

'good news of great joy for all the people'  Luke 2.10

This is the eternal message of Christmass: good news of great joy for all the people.   Down throughout the centuries, generations have perceived the message of Christmass is that it is something about good news for all the people, not just the rich and famous, not just the orthodox and the devout, but for all people.   And I want to suggest that this means that it is good news without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.

Without hesitation, because God has taken the initiative, as God always does.   One of the lovely passages of scripture is St Paul’s injunction to show mercy with cheerfulness.  (Rom 12.8)   The word 'cheerfulness' in Greek is actually the same word from which we get the word hilarity.   And if we are to show mercy with hilarity, God must do this perfectly.   Of course God shows mercy, we do not have even to ask, let alone beg for mercy.   Being merciful with hilarity is just how God is.   Ho, Ho, Ho!   The message of Christmass is that God takes the initiative to reach out to all people.   God loves without hesitation.

Without discrimination, and I have already touched on this briefly.   Sometimes I get the impression that some folk think that God loves ordinary people like them: white, English speaking, straight, middle class, Anglican ..   There is sometimes a subtle line drawn, leaving other folk out.   In times past it might have been race.   Certainly amongst some ‘christians’ there is an expectation that a line is drawn excluding non-christians – those who call God Yahweh, or Allah, or who wonder if there is a God at all.   Amongst some ‘christians’ and some Anglicans there is another line drawn, excluding anyone not clearly heterosexual.   But the consistent witness of Jesus was that he associated with tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners – people who were the least orthodox and devout, people in the most despised of professions, people for whom money and sex was their stock in trade.   The incarnation means that Jesus came to all humanity.  So often the church wants to suggest that he came only to a subset of ‘suitable’ people.   It was precisely those who thought this, people who were most clearly devout and orthodox, who had Jesus killed.   No, God loves all people without discrimination.

And without expectation.   The world is made up of a multitude of discrete and unique individuals, and I know of nowhere in the bible where it says that God wished it were not so.   Rather the witness of scripture tells us that Adam was exiled from the idyllic garden of Eden into the real and sometimes hostile world, that Abraham was sent from his home land to foreign parts to live, that the disciples were sent out rather than forming a holy huddle around Jesus, and that the apostles are sent out into all the world rather than remaining in Jerusalem.   They are sent out to experience the fullness of life in all its diversity.   They are not sent out to convert others into replicas of themselves, for if this were meant to be, God could have done this in the beginning and saved us all the trouble.   It is as if whenever we find ourselves comfortable in a group of likeminded individuals, God upsets the applecart.   Others are not affirmed while we remain in our holy huddles of likeminded individuals.  God loves without expectation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Advent letter to the Primates of the Anglican Communion, commending the Anglican Communion for the good things that do come out of our Church, commended the Anglican Communion Covenant "as strongly as I can".   He writes: ‘The question remains .. what are the means by which we maintain some theological coherence as a Communion and some personal respect and understanding as a fellowship of people seeking to serve Christ?’    What a fascinating question to have to put to Anglicans who, while we might balk at the intimacy of the injunction ‘to love’ at least should be able to show personal respect to all people, without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation?   It is as if we need a theological framework to allow us to respect others.   It seems as if showing respect has become an optional extra whereas surely it is fundamental, something in which we have to take the initiative towards all others, as I am sure the Archbishop knows and acknowledges.

One of our foundational commands is: 'In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.'   (Matthew 7.12)   Many ordinary folk may not believe in God, come to church, suggest that living up to this command is something they find easy, or claim to have lived by it during their lives.   But even so they would acknowledge that this is a worthy ideal, and would be glad to see the churches trying to live by this rule as well.   For this command encompasses those same three principals - loving without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation - taking the initiative as God in Jesus took the initiative.

So for me the present debate over intimacy which is, of course, far wider than the Anglican Church, reflects a far deeper chasm that folk outside the church see all too clearly – whether we are being true to the message of Jesus or just defining who is 'in' and who is 'out'. 

And so often it is folk who have left the church who have been the greatest activists for equality, and hear the word 'activists'.   It is activists who have had to take the initiative, like God took the initiative at Christmass.   Yes, surely the church has our number of activists too - Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Chad Verah, Archbishop Desmond Tutu to name but a few.   But they had to be activists in the face of institutional inertia.   So often the church is seen to be preoccupied with her own existence and her own rules for membership, and the information revolution and general level of education shows this up.   I remind myself that my country of birth was invaded by the British, sending the poor, convicted by good Church of England judges, of theft trying to provide some meagre sustenance for themselves and their families from the rich and powerful, with the commandment: 'Thou shalt not steal' ringing in their ears – in the process effectively stealing someone else’s land on the other side of the world.

Which leads me to say that the Christmass message is that in some ways the world hasn't changed and the initiative to love is so often found outside orthodoxy and devotion.   For which we can be exceedingly glad!   The church, for all the undoubted good it does and the influence it has, is finally incapable of doing it all herself.   The world is too big a place and there are too many people who need to be affirmed, who need to be shown respect, who need to be loved.   It was this message that love is often found outside orthodoxy and devotion that finally had Jesus killed, but it is certainly a message of hope, both for the church and for the world.

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