The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s068o06 The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus Lockleys 1/1/06
"Thus you shall bless the Israelites .." Numbers 6.22
The words of the blessing given to Aaron to bless the people are very lovely yet it is not insignificant to point out that, liturgically, in 1928 they were to be used only for the churching of women, and the sick. In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer they only appear in the visitation of the sick and at the end of the "Commination" -- "denouncing of God's Anger and Judgement against sinners". These days our use of the words is extended to the end of the "Thanksgiving for the birth of a child", marriage and morning and evening prayer. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to assume that these services are when people other than Christians are most likely to be present. I suppose one could say in defence of this usage that we do not inflict upon non-Christians the full Trinitarian blessing said at the end of the Holy Communion. Yet there seems a wideness to this Aaronic Blessing sadly missing in our "Christian" usage.
If you were to ask the ordinary person in the street whether they perceive the Church as being a blessing for our society or being critical of our society, I bet that time and again, it would be the later.
It is interesting, as I look at what I have written, how we so easily slip into a mindset of how much different we are as Christians, and how we use one form of words for those "inside" and another set for those "outside". And I draw your attention to the fact that this is in precisely the opposite manner to which our Saviour lived. Jesus seemed very "at home" with people other than the religious, so much so, that he was killed by the religious.
So I believe this calls into question our usage of the Trinitarian formula "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" to "Christians" alone, indeed to baptised, confirmed and communicants alone. Is this a uniquely Christian formula, denied to others?
Recently a Moslem friend of Tim's read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, and commented how wonderful it was. It didn't have anything about the Trinity, the authority or correctness of the Church, and it made me wonder, not for the first time, how frequently the words we use uncritically, often serve to alienate others.
As I am wont to say on Trinity Sunday, if we as Christians claim to understand the Trinity, you can be certain that that understanding is heretical. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was formulated to confound those who were able to explain God.
So are we more discriminating in our membership than the Jewish faith? I am reminded of some other lovely words in the Old Testament: "Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God." (Psalm 84.3). Do our theological doctrines actually serve to alienate others rather than include them?
Again and again you will hear me ponder the fact that our atonement with God is intimately linked to our atonement with other people. If our doctrines serve to marginalize and alienate others, then our own atonement with God is on very shaky ground indeed, for all its professed orthodoxy.
The beauty of Christmass is that Jesus came and was a blessing to ordinary people. Mary and Joseph were not the "movers and shakers" of their society. Shepherds come to witness the birth. Foreigners also. St Paul talks about those who cry "Father!"
One sometimes hears sentiments like: "Christianity should be simple" and I can but heartily agree. We simply include others rather than marginalize or alienate them. But often to retain our simplicity we need to critically look at the language we use and the doctrines we hold, lest we are inadvertently marginalizing or alienating others.
I've already alluded to the fact that our "Book of Common Prayer" and its revisions retain some exclusivity. Our hymn book too has many examples of gender exclusive language. It is hard to change hymns with which we are all familiar, but is it harder for us to change our attitudes and doctrines than it is for someone to change their gender to feel more fully a part of our community? Now that would be a big ask if ever there was one! Or do we in fact not actually care about others?
Let us be quite clear, in the first of the creation stories, the one where humanity is created on the sixth day as the pinnacle of creation, we are told: "God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply"" Genesis 1.27-28. So women were made simultaneously and equally in the likeness of God as males.
Today is New Years Day, and traditionally people at this time make "New Year resolutions". It is a time when we try to make a new start rather than continuing in old patterns of behaviour that are unhelpful or destructive.
Often this has focussed on our own little foibles, our own "Achillies heel", our penchant for chocolate, wine, overwork, stress, or whatever.
But the real question for us as Church is: is there nothing in our old ways of thinking and believing where (perhaps inadvertently, but perhaps not) others were alienated or marginalized? Is it time for a new start, a new examination of what we believe and how we express our faith?
We are encouraged to do this personally frequently enough as individuals, again focussing on our own faults and foibles; but the effects of our own faults and foibles on those around us are relatively minor. We might come to private confession and go away feeling a nice warm glow. But it may well not ever translate into loving the person who doesn't love God according to my tradition.
Do we actually believe that God sent his son Jesus to die on the Cross and rise again that we might be given grace to overcome our own little foibles, our penchant for chocolate, wine, overwork, stress, or whatever, to massage our own insecurities? As if this is going to make a scrap of difference to bringing peace to the world!
The difficulty is that what we believe, how we express our own faith, indeed how we use (or misuse) the name of our God, actually has far greater potential impact on other people. It has of course the potential for great blessing, though sadly it has more often been used for widespread cursing.
Aaron was instructed to bless the Israelites, and Peter was bidden to feed others; New Year is a good time to reflect how well we do this ourselves as individuals and as Church, and if we can do better, then we ought to try.
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