Sermon for Second Sunday of Christmas – High Mass Sunday 3 January 2016
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:10-18
Yesterday, a front page newspaper story told us that universities now catch tens of thousands of students cheating by handing in essays which are not their own work but have been downloaded in whole or part from the internet. ‘Plagiarism’, the unacknowledged copying of other people’s work, has become so common that academic institutions now employ computer programmes to detect it.
This kind of thing has in fact been going on in pulpits for centuries. In both past and present, preachers could buy ready-made sermons to read out to their flocks as if they were their own, or simply borrow other people’s ideas.
Clerical colleagues in the congregation this morning, enjoying a post-Christmas break, will testify that few if any of us can manage original thought every Sunday. Some of us struggle to manage it at all; let alone when we also have to produce a monthly letter for the Parish Paper and a weekly email, as well as sundry other occasional homilies and pieces of writing.
A sermon is not an academic essay or lecture – complete with footnotes – if preachers had to stop at the end of every paragraph to announce references, they would lose your attention even more quickly than they sometimes do already.
So, this preacher is quite happy to acknowledge that he recycles the ideas of others, wiser and holier than he. We stand on the shoulders of others. This Sunday, when we have been listening to that grandest of all gospel passages, the prologue to John’s Gospel, is no exception. Again, fellow clergy will probably agree that it is for your benefit that we do. Another word for this is ‘tradition’, the handing on of what we have received. It is a good idea if preachers make the effort to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’, what they are trying to hand on. You can usually tell when they haven’t: it doesn’t sound like them speaking, when they are reading out a Rowan Williams sermon.
A few years ago, the Australian-born man-of-letters, – not Fr. Michael – who is enjoying the sunshine of an Australian summer at the moment (in fact he was preaching in Perth Cathedral this morning) – but the critic, essayist and poet, Clive James, published a book called Cultural Amnesia. It was the product of 40 years of voracious reading: a search for a humanism he sees as being at risk after a century in which European civilization had plummeted into war and genocide. The culture, learning and, above all, the science which people had confidently expected would be a liberating force, had either failed to prevent mass destruction or aided and abetted it.
His book is a one volume introduction to western culture of the last century, with articles on people I had heard of but never read and others I had never even heard of. It’s the kind of thing you need to read if you want to win University Challenge.
James is not just showing off that he has read, marked, learned and inwardly digested more books than anyone else. He is a humanist who sees the danger in western culture’s forgetfulness of its own roots. He seeks to distinguish between a humanism concerned to enrich and widen the variety of the created world, and a destructive one which seeks to narrow it. He sees learning and remembering as a necessary and vital antidote to the human hubris which thinks it understands but doesn’t.
I was struck by his use of ‘amnesia,’ because it seems to fit what much of our culture has done with Christianity. Clergy sometimes lament, I have lamented, that people no longer know bible stories, hymns and prayers. English literature students at university now have to be taught something about the scriptures in order for them to be able to understand much of the literature they are to study.
But there is a deeper amnesia at work in our society – both accidental and willed– down to both neglect and deliberate policy. We have not only forgotten or expunged from our collective memory, the bible stories and the Christian tradition they are part of – although that is bad enough– but we have forgotten their revolutionary significance for the world of our forebears.
A reminder of this is to be found surprisingly in the columns of the New York Times, in an article called The Christmas Revolution. It was written by Peter Wehner, (a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer. What, I wonder, does he make of the present Republican presidential hopefuls?)
He begins with the familiar lament that because ‘the Christmas story has been told so often for so long, it’s easy even for Christians to forget how revolutionary Jesus’ birth was. The idea that God would become human and dwell among us, in circumstances both humble and humiliating, shattered previous assumptions’.
The birth of much of our humanistic tradition springs not so much from the classical culture of Greece and Rome, as many assume, but from this story of divine enfleshment.
For most Christians, the incarnation — the belief that God, in the person of Jesus, walked in our midst — is history’s hinge point.
A major consequence of the incarnation was the rejection of the belief – common in the ancient world and expressed most clearly by the philosopher Plato – that the material world, the flesh, was evil. For Plato, there was a dramatic distinction between the physical and the spiritual worlds, ideal forms and actual bodies. According to him, what we perceive with our senses is an illusion, a distorted shadow of reality. The purpose of philosophy and religion is to enable us to escape from the limitations of the world and the flesh.
Plato’s view had considerable influence in the early church, as it sought to engage with the culture of the ancient world, but that influence faded because it was in tension with Christianity’s deepest teachings. So, for example, at the very beginning of the book of Genesis, echoed by the opening words of St. John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning’, God declares creation to be good — and Jesus, having entered the material world, as the Word made flesh, ratifies that judgment.
The incarnation testifies to the existence of the physical, material world. Our life experiences are real, not shadows. The incarnation affirms too the delight we take in earthly beauty and our obligation to care for God’s creation. This was a dramatic overturning of ancient thought.
The source of creation in the divine Logos, the Word, reason, wisdom, means that there is an order to it which can be studied and understood; everything is not the random product of chaos. In spite of the Church’s problems with Galileo, Christianity and its positive understanding of creation has been one of the great driving forces of scientific endeavour.
The incarnation also reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are all created in the divine image.
Just as significant is that we have value because God values us. Human beings have worth because we are valued by God, who took on flesh, entered our world, and shared our experiences — love, joy, compassion and intimate friendships; anger, sorrow, suffering and tears. For Christians, God is not distant or detached; the risen Christ still bears the marks of the cross. All of this raised the value of human experience and life. It laid the groundwork for the ideas of individual dignity and inalienable rights.
Wehner cites the French philosopher and secular humanist Luc Ferry, who in his book A Brief History of Thought writes that unlike the Greek understanding of humanity, ‘Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men were equal in dignity — an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.’
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor in spirit and the pure in heart, the meek and the merciful), his touching of lepers, and his association with outcasts and sinners were fundamentally at odds with the way the Greek and Roman worlds viewed life, where social status was everything.
He then quotes the American Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart, in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, which won the Michael Ramsey prize a few years ago:
‘Christianity placed charity at the center of its spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.’ Christianity played a key, if belated role in ending slavery and segregation. Today Christians are taking the lead against human trafficking and on behalf of unborn life and the dying. They maintain countless hospitals and hospices, schools and orphanages around the world.
The modern world blithely assumes that compassion for the poor and marginalized is natural and universal. But actually we think in this humanistic manner in large measure because of Christianity. What Christianity did was to ‘transform our way of thinking about the poor and sick and create an entirely different cultural given.’
The incarnation enables those who hold and practice the Christian faith to avoid turning God into an abstract set of principles. The Gospel stories we hear Sunday by Sunday, which in meditation form a vital part of our prayer life, show how Jesus interacted in this messy, complicated, broken world, through actions that stunned the people of his time. This teaches us compassion in ways that being a moral rule book never can.
‘Rule books’, says Wehner, ’however worthy and well-intentioned, cannot shed tears or express love; human beings do. Seeing how Jesus dealt with the religious authorities of his day (often harshly) and the sinners and outcasts of his day (often tenderly and respectfully) adds texture and subtlety to human relationships that we could never gain otherwise.
Christians have often fallen short of what followers of Jesus are called to be. We have seen this in the Crusades, religious wars and bigotry; in opposition to science, in the way critical thought is discouraged and in harsh judgmentalism. To this day, many professing Christians embody the antithesis of grace.’
We Christians would do well to remind ourselves of the true meaning of the incarnation. We are part of a great drama that God has chosen to be a participant in, not in the role of a conquering king but as a suffering servant, not with the intention to condemn the world but to redeem it. He saw the inestimable worth of human life, regardless of social status, wealth and worldly achievements, intelligence or national origin, gender or sexuality. So should we. If we do not remember this and remind others of it, who will?