s009g00 Somerton Park Christmass 2 2/1/2000
"glory ... full of grace and truth ... we have all received grace upon grace ... grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" John 1.14, 16, 17.
A happy New Millennium or New Year, depending on your particular view of just what happened yesterday. I trust you have recovered from whatever did happen yesterday :-) If the millennium bug bit, I hope that it wasn't too painful, and that your PC will soon recover.
The fundamental preconception that St John has of the Christ event is that humanity has received some precious things, namely grace and truth from God. It is fundamental to the message of St John that in Christ, God has taken the initiative for good. And here may be the reason for St John's particular unique mediations on the "Word made flesh" and their motivation. In some senses the Cross is partially bound up in the human response to this divine initiative - the outcome of the fact that: "his own people did not accept him". (1.11) God acts for good, St John stresses the positive. One must be cautious saying this however, for St John, in his account of the events of the arrest, trials and crucifixion stresses how much God and Jesus were in charge (albeit quite silently). St John would not say that the cross was even a little bit about the human response to Jesus. The crucifixion also was a divine act for good, not an (other) act of humanity's inhumanity to others.
St John sees much goodness in the world. So he readily acknowledges that: "All things came into being through him ... the life was the light of all people... the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world ..." But the paradox was that "the world did not know him ... his own did not accept him ..." There is indeed darkness in the world, yet that darkness was not of God and it would not prevail. The goodness, the grace and truth, which flow from God are from eternity to eternity. They will never dry up. Indeed the Cross shows us in no small measure that God turns the ultimate rejection of the love of God into the most clear demonstration of that same love.
St John puts grace right next to truth, but they are not opposed. There is no darkness in God. We readily accept that "grace" is welcome, but "truth" may (in human terms) have is darker side. It's a bit like justice - we welcome it if we are recipients of its benevolence. However if we are the guilty one, we are quick to ask for mercy rather than justice. If we are the injured one we may desire retribution rather than justice. There are therefore "shades" of justice. Viewed in human terms justice is not all light. So too with truth - it can be used as the stick to beat us into the correct path; which might be "for our own good" but nevertheless rarely welcome. So the task is to find a picture of grace and truth, where both are welcome, where there is no darkness, no opposition. It is the task of this sermon to find such a synthesis.
The effect of the ministry of the "Word made flesh" - "power to become children of God" is of course only to accept for oneself what was and is already a reality. We are God's own who have accepted the grace and truth offered, along with God's own who have not accepted him. We and all people were made "children of God" at our birth and we are all given the option of accepting the status that God made us and all people in the beginning. However it seems for some that offer may have the outcome that they can't accept themselves as they are, or cannot accept that others are accepted in the same unconditional way as they. We, who accept the grace of God are not running away from ourselves, or at least not consciously running away.
For me, the best picture of what "grace and truth" really mean are contained in the picture of the prodigal Father in Luke chapter 15. The grace of God, and the truth about God's grace are there dramatically portrayed. For the truth of the grace of God is that God is the prodigal Father. The Father in the parable who continues to celebrate our presence and continues to plead with those who refuse to celebrate because we and others are come to the party.
The truth of the grace of God is that the Father lets the younger son go, then who welcomes so lavishly his penniless return, and then leaves the celebration for the one to try to get the other brother to join in. The grace and truth of God are all about the continuing - eternal - "prodigal - ness" of the Father.
There is no problem - everyone wants to be in the kingdom - yet none of us have seen the guest list - who else will be there. When the time comes will we be so keen?
I am reminded of a joke sent to me from real "cowboy" country in the 'States which went:
"A pastor at a frontier church ended a stirring sermon with, "All those who want to go to heaven, put up your hands!" Everybody enthusiastically raised their hands ... everybody except a grizzled old cowboy who had been slouching against the door post at the back of the room.
"All heads turned as he sauntered up to the front, spurs jangling and said,"Preacher, that was too easy. How d'ya know if these folks are serious? I c'n gar-an-tee to prove who really means it an' who don't!"
"Bemused and not a little frightened the preacher said, "Ok, stranger, go ahead and put the faith of these good people to the test. Ask them anything you want."
"At that the cowpoke pulled his twin six-shooters, turned to the audience and said, "Alright ... who wants to go heaven ... raise your hands!""
Jesus always comes with friends, and no one can have the one without the rest of Jesus' followers. The celebration is not for us, it is for all. The celebration has never been for us as individuals, for us Anglicans, even for us Christians. The celebration has always been for all, Christians, those of different faiths and of no faith.
For the life and ministry of Jesus shows us quite plainly that the opposition Jesus endured was not from those disinterested in religion - those for whom the Church ever seems to have eyes to "convert into the way of righteousness". No, the life and ministry of Jesus shows quite plainly that the opposition Jesus endured was from the religious people who did not want Jesus to accept the offerings of people other than themselves.
It is here that we find the reason "his own did not accept him" because that means, by definition, accepting others too.
Here indeed is darkness, and this particular darkness is insidious, because it was done in the name of all that seemed to be of God, all that was upright and true, yet deadly.
So it is of the essence of the "Christian" celebration that it is for all. We celebrate BECAUSE no one is turned away by God. God is celebrating that we have chosen to be a part of the celebration, and God is out pleading with others to come in and enjoy the celebration, despite the presence of other guests.
And this grace is truth itself - it is true that this grace towards all confronts humanity who wants grace restricted to a privileged few. The grace of God is not something one can "take or leave". Sooner or later life will present us with the choice of how we relate to our brother or sister who offends us, or someone we love. We may rightly oppose their actions which are at the expense of another, but we must recognise all as equally children of God with us.
I confess I find myself uncomfortable with efforts to make "God" or "religion" relevant to those who seem apathetic. It was not the "apathetic" who crucified Jesus - I can't immediately think of anyone in the Gospel accounts whose attitude to Jesus could be described as "apathetic".
For the consistent witness of scripture is that God continues to place before humanity, the truth of his grace, the prodigal - ness of God, most, but by no means exclusively, evident in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. That prodigal -ness is placed before all of humanity to choose between this, or a god who is partial and discriminatory. We do well to choose kindly, for ourselves and for others. For God has done everything possible to make sure that the truth of God's grace is plain for all who look. We cannot blame God for any doubt about the matter.
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