Sermon Given Dec. 26, 2021
In the beginning was the Word. That Word. The one that spoke over the chaos, that brought order and life to the world. The one who created the sun and moon, the plants, animals and humans, all the while delighting and calling it good. That Word. The part of God that delights in humans and creatures, that takes joy in our world. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through the Word, and without the Word, not one thing came into being. This Word always was, always has been and always will be.
This Word decided that closer was better, that taking on human nature, learning about life and death first hand was the thing to do. And so the Word came. It took form, it became Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God’s relationship with humanity took on a new form.
John begins his Gospel by making sure we hold this as primary. God’s desire for relationship with us always has been, is, and will always be. It was here before the dawn of creation and will be here long after our lives are over. The relationship is primary. We always hold before us that God delights in creation and calls it good.
Paul too today points to this relationship. Sometimes Paul can be misinterpreted as saying that the Law was bad, Jesus is good, as if there is no grace and love in Judaism. But Paul’s not saying that at all. First of all, there was no clear distinction between Christianity and Judaism at the point of Paul’s writing. They weren’t two distinct religions, Christianity was simply a movement within Judaism. But Paul wasn’t writing to Jews. He was writing to people who had never been Jewish, who were Roman and grew up with a variety of gods including the one they called Caesar. Looking at the Jewish social structure, the laws and rituals, they had to ask, “What’s important?” so they could figure out where to begin.
Paul moves them away from the law, not only because it isn’t the starting point for anyone exploring a new religion, but because in Roman culture there were secretive religious clubs built around different gods. You might join the cult of Aphrodite and move up the ranks by learning new rules and rituals to follow. The Jesus movement wasn’t a Roman religious club. It wasn’t something where you got closer to Jesus with the more rules you followed and rituals you engaged in. Jesus was easy access, available in a moments’ notice, no need to do anything special to find him. You didn’t have to work your way up to get to the status of being a child of God, you already were one. It wasn’t the law that made you one, it was grace.
Structure, order, and laws all come out of that relationship, out of that grace. They help provide structure for us to grow into that relationship, both individually and communally. Order and structure feels good, we need it to help us move through life, but it’s also flexible. It moves and changes throughout our lives and between generations. It accounts for relationship, it accounts for culture, it accounts for who we are as individuals who come together to create community. Different things get emphasized at different times, we build rules about things that weren’t even dreamed of in Biblical times, we work out how to live together now in the healthiest ways. The law is not primary, it is a support structure for the relationship.
When the structure pinches, when it hurts, when it creates a barrier between people and the Word, it’s meant to be examined and explored, meant to be changing as needed. Even before Jesus came, Judaism was accommodating the law and their ways of worship to what the people needed. There were synagogues scattered across Israel and all of the Roman empire, standing as places for people to seek God outside of the temple in Jerusalem. They adjusted and supported their relationship with God. As the temple became harder for people to access, the synagogue held their prayers. The Jesus movement was a new adaptation that came from these synagogue roots. The religion was already evolving, already adapting long before the temple was demolished in 70 AD.
If you look through the history of Christianity, you will find numerous evolutions and different ways of doing things. Pentecostals and Episcopalians share a common Bible, but different emphases, different ways of ordering worship and our lives, different laws. Our own Episcopal Church looks very different than it did one hundred or two hundred years ago and is continuing to adapt and expand. In the end, there is no such thing as an Old Time Religion, there are just ways we worship God in the here and now, doing things differently based on our emphases and historical roots.
All this is good if it helps different people of different cultures and locations, different personalities and family backgrounds, build a relationship with Jesus. Too often though, we split over whose relationship with Jesus counts more, who is really “getting it right”. Can a man who isn’t circumcised be a part of the fold? Can a person with intellectual disabilities be baptized if they don’t have the ability to affirm a doctrine of faith? Can a gay person really have a call from God and community to be a pastor? These sorts of questions are where we sin, where law and grace butt heads. We fight and we declare whatever side we’re closest to right, pulling quotes from scripture to support us.
But we don’t worship a book. We don’t worship our denominations, our canons, our liturgical resources. We don’t worship any of our stuff. We worship the Word made flesh, the one who comes near to us, even willing to take on human flesh and dwell among us. The Christmas season is not so much about a birthday, it’s about God coming among us, dwelling among us, making a home here on earth. May we never stop seeking that God in all that we do, worrying less about who’s right and who’s wrong, and more about how we are changed by our interactions with Jesus.