The Rev. Joseph P. Mathews
30 December 2012
Christmas 1, C
St. Luke's Episcopal Church, San Francisco
In the name of God: Eternal Father, Spirit, Word.
On the third Sunday of Advent this year the Advent wreath made much more sense to me than it ever has before. Not only was I keeping Advent candles lighted at church, but my fiancé and I replaced the plant on our dining room table with an Advent wreath. I insisted that if we were putting up a Christmas tree on the Second Sunday of Advent I was making an Advent wreath.
As we ate dinner each night I grew accustomed to the amount of light the two candles produced. On the Third Sunday of Advent, when we lit another candle, our table seemed much brighter. A ha! We were using light to wait for the light that came into the world, the light that the darkness did not overcome. This light grew weekly and before our eyes cast away the darkness around our table.
This prologue to John sets up the entire narrative of Jesus in John’s gospel. We have heard three prologues to Gospels today, though in different forms. Matthew, Luke, and John all give us background on Jesus before he begins his public ministry and teaching. John, however, goes farther back. While Matthew and Luke deal with Jesus’ birth, John tells us that the Word exists in the beginning.
Like the passages we heard leading up to this selection from John, this passage is a history of salvation — starting at the very beginning. “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word was present at the time of Creation and there when life came into being. The Word was there when humanity sought life not in God, but in the fruit of the earth. This falling into a darkness away from God was not the end, though. The Light of Christ shone on and gave a ray of hope for humanity. As our Isaiah passage says, those who had walked in darkness have now seen a great light.
Throughout time God was with us speaking through Prophets and giving guidance in the Law. Bur rather than merely speak from on high, through one or two people here and there over time, God gave up some of Godself and chose to live among us. The word became flesh and lived among us. He is called Emmanuel — God with us.
This passage from John’s Gospel is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Both Chrysostom and Augustine say that this passage from John’s Gospel is actually beyond human thought. But so what? What does it mean that Jesus took on flesh and lived with us? How often do we think about what that practically means?
Sure, in Eastertide preachers might point out that Jesus — post-resurrection — holds his fish fry and says he’s hungry. I think that is entirely too tame. One Friday night in seminary, in the wee hours of morning as I made my way back to my campus very thankful for New York’s grid system I had an epiphany: Jesus, at some point, probably had to have had too much wine.
His first public miracle, also in John’s Gospel, certainly tells us that he was an amazing host. How many of you are familiar with the wedding at Cana? The wedding runs out of wine and Jesus’s mother asks him for more. He says it’s not his time yet and she does a motherly snap of the fingers and he turns water into wine. There’s more wine. What our usual tellings of this story don’t capture is how much more wine. 818 standard bottles is how much water Jesus would’ve turned into wine. 818. Think about that tomorrow night if you’re out celebrating.
This, peoples of God, is the Good News. Not necessarily that Jesus had too much wine, but that Jesus the God-man came to be with us and live like us. From a humble birth in a manger to losing his parents at one of the biggest entertainment events of the year, to dying a real death, Jesus came to be with us. He doesn’t come just to hang out, though. He comes to give power to become children of God to those who receive him and believe in him.
In a few minutes we’ll all stand up and say the Apostle’s Creed. This is the creed that is affirmed at baptism, and its placement in the Daily Office is to remind us of our baptismal promises about these beliefs. The words of the Apostle’s creed are in the first person. I believe this, that, or the other. In the Nicene Creed we profess what we believe.
This believing, though, isn’t just checking of the list that the creeds so easily make available to us. Run down the row, with their sight lines so we can all say it together, “Yep, I’ll take that one too.” This believing is far more than intellectual assent, but personal embrace. Rather than acknowledinging in your head that you accept something, believing in Jesus — to become a child of God — means doing something with that belief.
To find the things we do, we need only look at Jesus — and need only look at our passage from John. The Word became flesh and lived among us. In what ways to do we live as flesh with those not like us? One way that St. Luke’s is living among others is having John Philip Newell come to speak next month — and advertising the event on Facebook! Your parish YouTube video is a great way of engaging with those who aren’t here yet, including today’s preacher. This engagement with contemporary communications methods may be new to you, but it may not be. Perhaps it might have been or might be still a field trip, a visit to somewhere new.
In his series on welcome and new member incorporation from the Diocese of California’s be::community webinar series, Chuck Robertson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop, invites churches to take field trips: into their past to discover the things that have remained constant; into their present to see ways that perhaps they aren’t being as hospitable as they think or ways that someone new might encounter their regularly routine; and into their horizons, those places outside our churches where we might build relationships.
His push is that the church look at ways of adopting new members, offering to bring new people under their wing and seeing how God may bless the community with gifts that new people bring. In your Sunday Night Mics and your food pantry you have taken people under your wing and welcomed them to be as they are and to form you. You’ve taken field trips to cyber space and to your community to find ways of inviting new people and sharing good news.
In Canon Robertson’s series the encouragement is not on finding newcomers, but welcoming new members. He challenges people to look at demographic groups around them and how best parishes might engage them. Beyond corporate work, though, he challenges individuals to think about three people in their lives who might be interested in events at church and will have gifts to bring. He stresses intentionality of building relationships over giving sales pitches.
You have collectively taken those field trips. Maybe not all of you, but your leaders have, and they have borne fruit. Your field trips into your neighborhood and cyber space and then setting up shop have benefited you collectively and benefited others. The Word becomes flesh and lives among us. God leaves where God has been and comes to live among us — on a field trip — in the person of Jesus.
Jesus comes so that those who embrace his teachings and let themselves be made in his image may become children of God. Canon Robertson encourages us to look for new members, not just newcomers. Jesus was looking for disciples, not just people following a crowd around him. He’s still looking for that, and we are still being made in his likeness. Jesus took on flesh and lived like we do, and although he’s not physically present with us as Jesus the man, we assembled the church are Christ’s body.
In this season of Christmas we celebrate God’s field trip to earth. Born of humble means, Jesus is God with us — God in the mess of things. As we move toward epiphany, when we celebrate the Light enlightening not a chosen few, but everyone, think about ways that you corporately and individually can go on field trips to new places. Epiphanytide has historically been a season of evangelism.
This doesn’t mean knocking on doors and asking people to come to church — but it may mean knocking on doors and seeing if anyone needs help. Who are three people in your life who might enjoy what happens at St. Luke, in all of the various programs that you have. Think about telling them about the things that give you life here. In the context of a relationship, think about inviting them to come to church with you for an event.
The word became flesh and lived among us; we are flesh and live among others. In this being flesh — living like Jesus, who lived like us — keep going on field trips to learn about yourself and from others, ever challenging yourselves to be discipled and personally embrace the teaching of Christ, not just assent to them intellectually. Amen.