Sunday, December 26, 2010

Life from Life

SJF • Christmas 1 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.+

Merry Christmas! I don’t know about you, but I usually find the reading from the beginning of John’s Gospel to come as a bit of a surprise on the First Sunday after Christmas; perhaps especially when it is the day after Christmas. Instead of hearing one of the Gospel accounts from Luke or Matthew actually describing the events of the Nativity, the church assigns today this theological reflection in the form of prose poem — the prologue to the Gospel according to John the Theologian (or Saint John the Divine, as we are more accustomed to refer to him because of our cathedral here in New York!)

But this theological reflection comes at a good time and is a good reminder of something crucially important to our lives as Christians. The Nativity Gospel passages with the infant in the manger, the animals standing by, the shepherds and the angels, are the stuff of greeting cards as well as of the Gospel. But the prologue to John’s Gospel is of a different sort entirely — not the kind of thing one is likely to find depicted on a Christmas card! Although I did reproduce on the back of our bulletins today and in larger form at the back of the church, an icon of the Nativity which might make it on to a Christmas Card. In addition to showing the shepherds and the child Jesus, and Mary and Joseph and all the rest, it also includes that crucial element that relates to John’s Gospel: that beam of light coming down out of heaven and resting on the Holy Child. This is exactly why we proclaim this Gospel on the Sunday after Christmas, whether the next day or six days later, to remind us in the midst of all the rest of the Christmas imagery — the shepherds, the angels, the animals in the stable, the manger, and Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus — this Gospel comes to remind us of who that infant Jesus is: the word of God, now in flesh appearing; the true light which was coming into the world: a light that would be rejected by some, but who, to all who would receive him, he would give the power to become themselves children of God. Like himself they would not be born to this inheritance of Godhood by blood or by the will of the flesh or the will of man, but by God and through God and for God. The life of God himself would become their life — our life.

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Scientists tell us that life is almost inevitable given the proper conditions — or as was recently discovered with a life-form based on arsenic, perhaps even improper conditions! They are probably right, but not for the reason they may think. While I am not a creationist — I have studied far too much science to imagine that the universe is only a few thousand years old, and I completely accept the fact that life on earth not only has evolved but is still evolving — as I say, while I am not a creationist, I do see the irreplaceable hand of God at work in the beginning of life, and the establishment of the conditions that could allow that life to evolve and develop and flourish. And that is true whether on the unlikely chance that this island Earth is the only place in the universe where life has sprung forth and developed; or whether there is life on countless other planets circling the billions of billions of stars in this vast universe, or any other possible universe that may exist in some other dimension. There are, we are reminded, many mansions in our Father’s house. And there is every possibility of intelligent life on other worlds — and I say “other” advisedly, since the evidence of intelligent life on this planet is not always so obvious.

I take my cue for this view that life springs from the source of all life — and had and has its beginnings in that divine origin — from that short verse in the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard this morning: “for as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up.” Life does not come from what is dead, but from the source of all life. And this is true of the life that springs forth at the beginning of this world and every world where such life came to be or comes to be, as the hand of God apportions to each and every atom its particular characteristics and valences that cause them to unite to form things capable of living — and behold, they live.

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And the same is true of us. Without the hand of God reaching out to us, we would never have come to life. Without the grace of God our life would not be worth living. We live because, as the old hymn says, “because He lives”: not only to face tomorrow, but to face today! Jesus who comes to us today, the day after Christmas, is the same Jesus who came to earth 2,000 years ago — but he is also that same Word of God who at the very beginning of the universe some 14 billion years ago set it all in motion. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Jesus Christ, the son of God, who came to earth at Bethlehem on that cold winter’s night, that silent night, that night the angels sang, is the same Jesus Christ who is with us today — in our fellowship and our holy Communion, and in our hearts. And because we have received him into our hearts and have believed in his name, we have, through him, become children of God, not born of the flesh but of the spirit — the spirit of God. He brought our flesh to life through the amazing complexity of universal and evolutionary growth, from the time the universe was first created and made capable of sustaining life at all; and he has brought us to spiritual life through his Son. We are only able to be born a second time, just as we were only to be able to be born the first time, because of God. And for this second birth, God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts to cry out, “Abba, Father.”

Without God’s touch, without God’s command, the universe would not have come to be; and when it came to be it would not — could not — have brought forth life but for God’s prevenient grace so to have ordered it as to be capable of forming the complexity and richness that life requires. And so too, we who live because he lives, would have remained an inert collection of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and a few other assorted elements — were it not for his life and his light coming to be within us and shining upon us when each of us was first born, as he was, a human child. And were it not for his having come among us as a child, we would not be capable of that second birth, that second life in him and through him, that makes us heirs of everlasting life.

He has brought us to life, for he is the life of the world. He has brought us out of darkness into light, for he is the light of the world.

And so, as we continue to celebrate this feast of Christmas — remembering that Christmas season does not begin on Thanksgiving Day, but on Christmas Day, and ends on January Sixth! — let us take these next days, take the time — which is God’s gift to us as well — to ponder the great mystery of creation and of life itself: that in this vast and almost timeless universe, we children of God are gathered here because God lives and shares his life with us — and came to us as one of us that we might live again, and become children of God, and have his life in us for ever.+

Naughty or Nice

SJF • Christmas Eve 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The grace of God has appeared... training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.+

I don’t know about you, but this short quotation from the letter of Paul to Titus sounds a little bit like the requirements to get on Santa Claus’s A-list. It sounds a bit like a checklist for avoiding coal in one’s stockings come Christmas Day, and assuring sugar-plums instead. It reminds me of a line in a hymn we won’t be singing until next spring, “There is a green hill far away,” which assures us that Jesus “died to make us good.”

And Lord knows we need to be made good — left to our own devices we are more likely to accumulate a long list of mistakes and missteps, and even misdeeds, in spite of our sometimes best efforts to be as good as we possibly can. But I assure you — and if you don’t believe me just watch the evening news — the old saying is true, “there is none perfect, no not one.”

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Once long ago there was a Christian theologian who thought otherwise, and developed the most easy-going and optimistic of heresies. His name was Pelagius. (I hasten to add, in fairness to him, that it is very likely that more is attributed to him then he actually said — but he’s been pinned with it and blamed for it and what’s done is done!) The heresy to which he gave his name — or to which his name was given — is called Pelagianism. It is the veritable Pollyanna and “Look on the SunnySide of the Street” of heresies. It is the idea that if we really work as hard as we can, by our own efforts, we can overcome all of the human tendencies to selfishness and pride and envy and lust — and all the rest of the things that get us on the naughty list — that brew in every human heart. Pelagius is the Dr. Phil of theologians, who tells the depressed “just cheer up,” the manic to calm down, the suicidal to think twice, and the addicted to “just say ‘No.’” Pelagianism is a very attractive notion, you see; that’s why it has been around for 1400 years or so; it is a kind of do-it-yourself salvation, the bargain-rate Ikea of furnishing your very own mansion in the kingdom of heaven. It’s very popular.

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Well, as many a parent will likely discover in the next few days, DIY and following the simple list of instructions for assembling a bicycle or a bookcase, or plugging in that new BluRay player and expecting it to work, or installing that new piece of software isn’t really all that easy on your own. I confess I have trouble getting the cellophane off of a DVD! And if the simply mechanical — or electronic — can be such a challenge, who would imagine that salvation could be so easily obtained without the help of a Savior!

We may want to be nice with all our hearts, but our hearts are the problem, aren’t they? For the heart can be impatient, and demanding, and fickle, and capricious; the heart can be selfish, and jealous and prideful — and envious. Watch a group of children opening their toys on Christmas Day and see if they don’t carefully take note of what the other children get — and see the wheels spinning and the little value calculators churning away behind those innocent little faces!

The simple fact is Pelagius or his interpreters had it wrong: salvation is not a do-it-yourself enterprise, not a simple matter of just trying to try harder. We need help; help — in fact the situation is worse than that — we need to be rescued; and fortunately, deep down, those of us here tonight know it.

For it is precisely to the people who sat in darkness that a great light appeared. Salvation was not a case of coals to Newcastle or ice to Eskimos, or a mere leg up to people who could have made it on their own if left alone. Salvation was a rescue from the ditch into which we had steered ourselves — the ditch into which we continually steer ourselves when we’re left alone. Salvation was liberation from the burden of slavery — slavery to each other and to our own appetites, which, left to themselves, had brought us no satisfaction but only continuing hunger for more.

Salvation was — in that powerful image from Isaiah — like the end of a war when a country is liberated from oppression. I think of that image — I’m sure you’ve seen it — a short clip of documentary film from the end of World War II when the allies liberated one of the concentration camps. It’s only a few seconds long but it tells the story that has been going on since the beginning of time. It shows one of the camp prisoners, horribly thin, painfully thin, dressed in the shabby thin striped uniform that was the only protection from the cold, being lowered onto a stretcher by soldiers’ caring hands. He is weeping with joy and clenching his hands and shaking them — shaking them in gratitude for having been saved. Have you seen it? I think of that image as I read the line from the prophet:
“For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire!” The war is over, and in the midst of a cold winter the refuse of war will be used to warm those rescued from disaster.

And how? Isaiah answers: a child has been born for us, a son given to us. Authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That’s how. That’s what it takes to lift us from the failings from which we could never lift ourselves, never free ourselves.

Not a help line phone call to someone stationed in New Delhi, not a printed sheet of instructions in the flat box that somehow promises miraculously to become a bookcase, not the vapid encouragement of a huckster promising a quick fix, or a trainer tell us just us to try harder — but a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

We celebrate his birth tonight, in that little town of Bethlehem; for his coming into the world changed everything — not all at once, but beginning there and then — and because of his birth then, and his birth now every moment we allow him to be born in us today and every day — in our hearts — we can indeed do all that he empowers us to do — through grace. Not because we are doing it on our own, but precisely because we are not on our own any more, not only with him in our hearts but with each other in the Church which is his Body on earth, continuing his work in accordance with his will.

So let us rejoice, my friends and kin, let us give thanks that our Helper and Redeemer has come to us to save us. He will bring about in us all that we could not do on our own. He will establish and uphold us with justice and with righteousness from this time forward and forevermore.+