Sermon for Christmas 1 High Mass Sunday 30 December 2018
CHRISTMAS 1, 2018 HIGH MASS
Readings: I Samuel 2.18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3. 12-17; Luke 2.41-52
“Why have you been searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
A few weeks ago, when she was sorting through some old papers, my wife came across a collection of our son’s school reports. If Stephen should ever become famous, a modern day biographer could examine his performance at the Royal Mile Primary and Boroughmuir High School for signs of future greatness. They would note his excellent work in subjects which caught his imagination; his prowess in debating competitions – which earned him the nickname “Churchill”; and his underwhelming performance in team games which involved kicking or carrying a ball around muddy pitches on cold Edinburgh afternoons. In this he is clearly his father’s son.
The gospel-writers were not producing modern-day doorstep-sized biographies, so Luke’s story of Jesus in the Temple is all that we have in the Gospels of the years between his infancy and the beginning of his public ministry. It t is a strange story, with his mysterious response to his Mother’s understandable anxiety and bafflement. The report that “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” does suggest that he had been paying attention during his time at the parish school.
Luke is more concerned with theology than with biography. His account hints at both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, subjects on which the church would spend hundreds of years debating their nature and relationship.
His divinity is suggested by that response to his mother’s understandably anxious question on finding him in the Temple: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He says, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Those who had been listening to him may well have been amazed but his parents, sick with worry about their lost son, were not so much awestruck as baffled and angry.
The true humanity of Jesus, that this was not just a divine figure dressing up as a human, is to be seen in the fact that in those hidden years in Nazareth, he went through a process by which he came to awareness of his nature and calling.
In that process the spiritual training which he received from his parents and from the local synagogue, from the religious tradition and practice of his family and community, which included regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great festivals, played a central role. But it was a preparation for his unique role. He would be both rooted in it and yet grow beyond it. This precocious student of the law would be revealed as its master; no longer a student in the school of the law and the prophets or even as just a teacher – but as the Teacher – their master and Lord – the God to whom they bore witness.
His response to Mary’s question is something much more than a bit of adolescent rebellion; a marking out of distinctive identity. It is a response which will be echoed later in the gospels when he is told that his mother and brothers are looking for him – disturbed by reports of his activities. In response he says: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
And, even taking into account a Jewish preacher’s exaggeration for effect, one who says: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” is hardly the advocate of conventional middle-class suburban family life which some make him out to be.
Jesus’s growing awareness of his relationship with God the Father and his calling to “be about my Father’s business,” as an alternative way of translating his response puts it, will inevitably distance him from his home and family and community, yet this separation, hard for his parents to understand in necessary if he is to fulfil his calling; that mission which will create a new family, a new community, with the whole of humankind..
Our reading from Colossians points us to an aspect of the meaning of Christ’s incarnation, his sharing in our human life, which can get forgotten, but is at the heart of what it is all about: Christ becoming human in order that we might become divine.
In a passage with strong echoes of the early liturgies of baptism, Christians have renounced evil, the works of the world, the flesh and the devil. They have taken off the garments which represent their sinful old lives, and after being plunged into the waters of baptism, they are clothed in clean white robes.
But these outer garments represent something deeper: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” This is a call to the imitation of Christ.
Paul then moves from the outward to the inward: to the “peace of Christ,” which is to “rule in your hearts,” and the “word of Christ” which is to “dwell in you richly.” This peace in turn expresses itself outwardly again through word, what we teach others and through the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” and deed, in that “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.”
There is an interplay, a relationship, between outward and inward. The outward change seen in the ritual acts of baptism invites us to an inward change, which then leads to a further transformation of our outward lives and relationships with others. This is a description of the Christian life which is social and relational. Colossians visualises a new human family which transcends ethnic, cultural and social distinctions.
This is both the work of the Holy Spirit and something to which we must commit ourselves. Here the Church has much to learn from the wisdom of the monastic tradition, a radical alternative to traditional family life, which shows us a distinctive understanding of how we learn and of how we change or are changed.
The whole of life is to become the means of that change, the expression of what we have learned, what we know. The scriptures are not to be treated as objects to be understood, containers for ideas to be questioned or debated. They are to be taken into ourselves through the whole shape of daily life. We are to read and sing and meditate on these texts so that they are incorporated into our daily life; so that they become a part of us, so that they shape us. We are to incorporate them into our prayer and worship, so constantly that these words and ideas become our own. In that sense, the words and ideas are no longer objects outside ourselves but are rather woven or planted within, elements of own thinking and speaking. They shape our lives.
Just before Christmas our friend Canon Michael Gudgeon, bemoaned the fact that this Sunday, with its readings, has been made the feast of the Holy Family by the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of England, while using the same readings, has stuck to calling it the First Sunday of Christmas, so freeing it from being too confined to encouraging a particular model of family life.
In a parish like ours, with few conventional nuclear families and lots of single people, or people in gay partnerships, an excessive concentration on “family” can seem of little relevance, if not downright excluding and insensitive. But that does not mean that we can ignore these passages. Even if we are single, we call come from human families, and we are called to belong to the family of the Church.
The Christian faith sets out not to provide courses in individual self-improvement, or even personal salvation alone, but to change the world. The Church is God’s agent in that work, not simply a spiritual service industry. In that task, the communal with its disciplines and practices and mutual encouragement and support is of vital importance.
In a parish set in the midst of a city in which loneliness and lack of community and family support have been identified as important social realities, the role of Christian communities as holy families becomes more not less important; not simply for our own benefit but for that of those around us. This is about much more than being a social club with hymns. Commitment to the life of prayer and worship, fellowship and service, in a church like this one is not an optional extra, any more than our families are, but something we are called to commit ourselves to.