s009g98 Internet Only Christmass 2 4/1/98
"the Word ... lived among us" John 1:14.
A happy and safe New Year to you all - especially to those holidaying at this time.
The best laid plans of mice and men. I had intended not to post a sermon for today - being on holidays ... But recent revelations of my new counter on my sermon page has led me to reconsider. I have a few hours before holidays officially begin on Sunday, and I was thinking ...
Of all the places for the Word to be made flesh - in cyberspace! The Internet is the most quintessential example of ethereal existence one could imagine. Billions upon billions of "zeros" and "ones" - all arranged in someone's head and communicated to someone else, perhaps used, but more likely modified, without even ever reaching a piece of paper or other "concrete" "hard copy" form. It hardly could be described as "becoming flesh". I suppose 250 hits a day on a web page is not great in the overall billions of messages the Internet handles each hour. Yet clearly some of my thoughts find resonances in some other people. It has caused me to reflect that my own Archbishop has heard me preach but once. It is no criticism of him what so ever, but when he comes - he preaches! The opportunity for peer feedback for sermons is rare indeed, and I have been grateful for the positive feedback that I have received through the Internet. I am beginning to reevaluate the direction of my own ministry. But as they say - I won't be giving up the day job!
I find it fascinating that the opening verses of St John's gospel, summarising the ministry of Jesus, uses this phrase, that he "lived among us". It is a pregnant phrase, in what it says and in what it doesn't say.
For instance, one would hardly say of Adolf Hitler that he came and lived among us. If he had done just that, what a different world we might live in today!
On the other hand, looking at people who have positively influenced history, the inventors who have brought us wonderful advances in science and technology - Crompton, Edison, Bell, Marconi ... I mean the list is endless ... again one would hardly summarise their lives by saying they came and lived among us. If they had done just that, what a different world we might live in today! I shudder to think!
Or those people who proved to be instruments of the many and various turning points in human understanding - like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi ... again one would hardly summarise their lives by saying they came and lived among us. If they had done just that, what a different world we might live in today! I shudder to think!
However there would be a couple of people I would point to, other than Jesus, and say that their epitaph might simply be that they came and lived among us. Of course, others might pick other people, but I would personally point to two: Pope John the 23rd and Mother Teresa. One of my favourite books is the biography of John the 23rd by Lawrence Elliott (Collins 1974) "I will be called John" which has the final chapter entitled simply: "I am your brother". And Mother Teresa went to live amongst the poorest of the poor in India. But just as I have typed these words, I think of Molly Wolf, author of Sabbath Blessings, who through the Internet comes to live amongst us ... As I say the list is endless. John and Mother Teresa have profoundly influenced our human society as they have simply come to live amongst us.
One of the blessings I am enjoying at this particular stage of life is that my 161/2 year old and my 14 year old are teaching me the joys of classical music. I guess I've enjoyed the usual range of Church music, hymns, anthems, sung evensong ... But recently as they have been learning their musical instruments, and as they have been discovering the classics, I am really being introduced to real music. It is finding a resonance in me. I will still enjoy singing "Imagine" by John Lennon on karaoke nights, particular after a couple of clarets ...
What I am pointing to is the blessing of a good life, simply seeking to live with others, harmoniously ... of seeing the positive influences others have on us.
And it isn't too structured either. For the other common use of the phrase "living with" is of course a prelude to a "de facto" relationship. It is a relationship which seeks the other's company, but is prepared to allow the other space, to see if the relationship will get grow closer or diverge.
St Mark would probably write Jesus' epitaph "the hidden messiah". St Matthew - "the new Moses". St Luke - "the great physician". St John is mostly thought as the last of the gospel writers - so he had (perhaps) the benefit of the estimation of these others before him. His estimation of Jesus (it is indeed arguable that he is more the theologian than those before him) is that he came and "lived among us".
What do we think Jesus' epitaph might be, if not that he came to live among us?
I suppose - and no particular criticism is intended anywhere here - for these are all quite orthodox
- the evangelical would say that Jesus came to call us to repentance ...
- the charismatic would say that Jesus came to confer the Holy Spirit ...
- the catholic would say that Jesus came to found the Church and institute the sacraments ...
I am sad that some people seem to think that Jesus came to continue to uphold the stricture of the law, particularly against those who express their intimate affection with other people who they find inappropriate or in their view at an inappropriate time.
I am sad that some people seem to think that Jesus would have disapproved the ordination of women.
I am reminded of the words of CS Lewis in the third of his "Chronicles of Narnia": "The Horse and his Boy" - the description of the Narnians in Tashbaan: "Instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, they walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders go free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling. You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly, and didn't give a fig for anyone who wasn't." (p54) The power of simply living with ... It is indeed "full of grace and truth" even if we do not remotely approach the qualities of Jesus or his ability to live that sort of life.
Of course each of us sees not Jesus, but ourselves reflected in Jesus. We see some of the image that God made us from the beginning, and try to avoid seeing some of the inner demons that torment us - reflected back.
I began this sermon with a statement of how living in the Internet has affected me profoundly, through the positive feedback I have received from my sermons. That positive feedback has encouraged me to think further, to perhaps stretch the boundaries of orthodoxy, though that has not been my deliberate intent ... But having said that, much of my theology stems from an concerted push by some to reflect their picture of Jesus in its entirety back to them and their chagrin when I would not. For the first time in 20 years of full time ministry I have been shown the force of politics in the life and ministry of Jesus, a lesson I will not forget for a while. That opposition has encouraged me to think further, to perhaps stretch the boundaries of orthodoxy, though that has not been my deliberate intent ...
I guess I am saying that both encouragement and opposition bring blessings. We can but live with others, as Jesus came to live amongst us. There is indeed right and wrong, but as I reflect back on some of my examples of people who have influenced the world's moral thinking profoundly over the course of human history - right and wrong squarely coincide with the breadth of people we are prepared to grant the possibility of the presence of Jesus in their lives, and hence our attendant care for them.
For "the Word ... lived among us". Or as those who have come to know me will not be surprised when I express this differently: "Jesus came to sit down and eat with sinners".
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