The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s150g12   Advent 3  16/12/2012

'whether he might be the Messiah'  Luke 3.15

I guess we all look outside of ourselves, myself as much as anyone else, for someone to fix society, to fix our lives, to establish peace.   People often look to a partner to fix them, to hide behind, or to surreptitiously use to manipulate others.  

One way of evading responsibility is to claim a special heritage.   So the 'brood of vipers' claim ancestry from Abraham to justify their self interest rather than any concern for the wider community.   It is historically interesting that the claim is that they are descendants of Abraham, which includes the other offspring of Isaac and Jacob, the Midianites, the Ishmaelites and the Edomites.   This implies the Israelites had to include at least these others in their circle of interest.

The Bible of course can also be used to promote one's own self interest and the marginalization, alienation and condemnation of others.   This is a favourite method of 'christian' churches of all flavours and eras.   'No one comes to the Father except by my interpretation of who Jesus is' which is much the same as 'no one comes to God except through me and my cronies'.  

We blithely quote Creeds as if they confer a privileged status on us.  We use the holy communion to delineate who is 'in' and who is 'out'.   We use baptism as an entry ritual and require prayer, study and bible reading to establish our 'real' credentials.

Some claim a special relationship with the divine associated with a past conversion experience or an experience of the Holy Spirit, which sets them apart from others.   This means that other good people live lives feeling inadequate because they haven't experienced such a conversion.

And there are the movers and shakers in churches whose large donations in the collection plate mean that their wishes prevail.   One of the constant frustrations in parish, and I suppose diocesan, life for ministers is having members of the congregation at constant loggerheads, each expecting the minister to take their side!   I suppose that God has a difficult time with this too!

But the other interesting thing is that Jesus dismisses the importance of Abraham completely.   So the church is not a giant pyramid scheme with the foundation members at the top - an important thing to realise in episcopal churches and in newly formed congregations.   I suspect that the revival in interest of church planting has, in part, a desire to be foundation members of a church.   It confers a degree of immortality.   I suspect that this is also the reason for the initial popularity of the Charismatic and Pentecostal churches - the lure of being foundation members, being remembered and revered.   Humanity's penchant for the proliferation of sects is similarly motivated.   But if Jesus discounts the status of Abraham in preference to those, here and now, those around us, any pretensions to grandeur are quickly dispelled.   Of course, the other reason for the proliferation of sects is the unwillingness of the church to listen and value differing opinions.   By claiming a monopoly on truth the church attempts to keep others subservient and infantile, and this is ever doomed to failure.

No one is better, or worse, than ourselves.   We, each and every one of us, are - and therefore we are, each and every one of us, sacred.   Sacred enough to die for, because those who claimed a special status couldn't abide a Messiah who didn't acknowledge their superiority over others.  We, each and every one of us, are human, and it is our humanity that is sacred, not some religious or spiritual facade.

John dismisses any suggestions that he himself is the Messiah, and in fact Jesus also distances himself from the title.   Jesus didn't live to establish his own superiority over others, but called his followers to include people rather than marginalising, alienating and condemning others.

If our remembrance of the saints of old, even the ones I personally hold dear, like Pope John the XXIII - gets in the way of our own responsibility to embrace all those around us now, those of other faiths and those of no faith, the straight and the gay, the rich as well as the poor, the able and the less than abled - then we are failing our Lord's command.   Apostolic Succession is meaningless in this sort of kingdom!   Jesus speaks of John the Baptist: 'Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.'  Matthew 11.11

To bring this into the here and now: I know that the nurses in the hospital in which I work regard the patients they care for as no less sacred than Jesus or the blessed virgin Mary - and thank God that this is so!

We as christians have to contend with the fact that Jesus asks not for our worship but for us to accept others around us.   This is what those words of Jesus mean: 'When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.'  Matthew 5.23-24   As so often, the church interprets this as applying personally to individuals, but, more importantly, it applies to brother and sister churches.  It is more important that churches recognise each other's essential goodness than it is to be continually at loggerheads over who is the more special in the eyes of God, and whose offering the divine prefers, who uses the correct name for God, who worships in the real kosher manner, and on the proper day ..

I have, in the past, had occasion to refer to St Paul's lovely passage in 1 Corinthians 13, where he says that love does not insist on it's own way, and surely this means that if God is love, God would not insist on his or her own way, assuming that there was one proper, kosher, divine way.   And for those who quote: 'I am the way .. no one comes to the Father but by me' - surely this means that Jesus' way is an all encompassing, all embracing way.

While we as individuals embrace those who are around us, while the church seems only concerned with defining who is in and who is out, I have to wonder what lasting good will ever happen.

Proclaiming Jesus as Messiah is not what we are called to do.   Neither is threatening condemnation or an immanent end to this world.   We are called to love those who are different, and to call our church to love churches who are different, for it is only in this way that we can be of any use to society as a whole.