Monday, December 29, 2008

The Feast of God's Humanity...the Inclusive Gospel

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York on the First Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10--62:4; Galatians 3:23-29, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

“Christmas Day is the feast of God’s humanity.”[1] Thus says Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx. This declaration comes to the fore in our readings this morning in all its radicalness.

I take Schillebeeckx’ declaration, as well as Christmas itself, to be a manifesto for our fundamental stance that Christianity is a religion of inclusion rather than exclusion. There is no purity code in Christianity; there is no clean and unclean. Christmas has erased all that.

Isaiah this morning proclaims newness for Zion, a newness so profound that a name change is necessary. It’s why I added the next verse to the official reading, because it is the verse that gives the new names. Zion is now to be called “Hephzibah” and “Beulah,” in English, “Delight” and “Married.”

Zion is now Beulahland, the state of being married to God. The relationship is sealed as permanent (the divorce rate in marriage with the divine is zero). The relationship excludes only any sense of desolation or forsakenness or impurity. God is now wedded to his people.

St. Paul speaks this morning of the implications of this wedding. All the old distinctions between us are gone. In Paul’s day these distinctions were predominantly male or female, slave or free, and Gentile or Jew. There is no theological or biblical reason why the erasure should be limited to these expressions, however. Paul clearly means to say that all distinctions are now simply gone in the eyes of God. So we rightly add such distinctions as black or white and gay or straight. None of this is to say that these distinctions do not exist or deny the reality that they shape our identity in some very fundamental ways. It is to say that they do not ultimately matter to God. God is on all sides of all distinctions.

Why? Paul goes on to say because all are equally adopted. There is no longer any distinction between godly or ungodly. All may pray as Jesus prayed, “Abba! Father!” And an important thing happens in Greek in verses six and seven of chapter four that we miss in English. Paul begins, “And because you are children…” the “you” being plural. This is how we are used to Paul speaking, to the broad audiences of his letters. But then he shifts to the personal: “So you are no longer a slave but a child.” The “you” is now singular. It had to have been a deliberate shift on his part. Paul is saying to whomever is listening, “You are a child,” and you and you and you, without distinction.

And then there is John’s magisterial poem about the incarnation, or, as he puts it, the Word becoming flesh and living among us. He says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” “Light” is an important image for John, contrasting with the darkness or night. Equally important, however, is the word “true,” contrasting to lies or falsehood. “You will know the truth,” he will later say, “and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31). (This is the motto, by the way, of the Anglican Communion[2]). So when John puts these two images—light and truth—together, you know something really important is going on.

There is “true light” as opposed to “the darkness of lies.” And what makes the light true? It enlightens everyone, he says. The light is true that enlightens everyone, without distinction. Then, like Paul, John uses the image of being a child. All are children of God, born of God. The only distinction left between persons is whether or not one knows, receives, and accepts this truth.

Again and again in these readings, the images are of inclusion, of the end of distinctions, and the universalizing of the delight of God. In becoming human, God has put an end to the ways in which we divide ourselves. Our divisions inevitably lead to systems of pure or impure, clean or unclean, worthy or unworthy. All these distinctions are swept aside in the humanity of God.

Christmas is the feast of God’s humanity. Christmas is the feast of God’s taking on all human flesh and thus making it a fit receptacle for divine delight and glory. All, all, and you and you and you, are included in this amazing explosion of holiness.

We have nothing of which to be ashamed when we preach and practice this gospel, this good news. It is not, as some say, our twisting the Bible to say what we want it to say. It is what the Bible says, clearly and plainly from Isaiah to Paul to John. All are included in the delight of God as adopted daughters and sons of the Most High.

If this were not true then Christmas would be nothing but an embarrassment, and I suppose in a way it is. Christmas is the feast of God lowering his standards to become flesh and blood and live among us, without distinction.

Christmas is the feast of God’s humanity…and ours. To follow Isaiah, our identity as married to God, living in God’s delight. Or to follow Paul and John, our identity as God’s adopted children, living in the true light.

[1] God Among Us: the Gospel Proclaimed (Crossroad, 1983), p. 12.
[2] It is the inscription, in Greek, around the seal of the Anglican Communion.

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