Sunday, January 7, 2018

Gifts fit for ....... ?

A Sermon preached on 7th January 2018, Feast of the Epiphany (transf.), at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 60: 1 – 6; Ephesians 3: 1 – 12; Matthew 2: 1 – 12

In Germany the Feast of the Epiphany is known as "Three Kings Day" and in the Cathoilic regions the Sternensänger, dressed as kings. go from house to house collecting money for charitable causes.

But, according to the Bible, they were only “wise men from the East,” not kings. But to be a full-time magi or wise man, an astrologer or astronomer you would have to be wealthy, and at least serve a king or ruler. We also have no evidence for the number of visitors. We just know that they offered three types of gifts from their treasure chests: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And while I am deconstructing the story ….  We don’t know their names either. Caspar. Melchior and Balthasar were probably reverse engineered out of the initials CMB that are written on or over doors as part of the traditional Epiphany blessing, standing for "Christus mansionem benedicat" or May Christ bless this house.

What we do know is that magi came in fulfillment of the prophecy we heard in the reading from Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:3,6)

The wise men came to and followed a light, the light of the star that lead them to Bethlehem and to the one we call the Light of the world. “Ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9) Once there they proclaimed praise: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” (2:11)

There are however some big differences between the prophecy and its fulfillment. Isaiah imagines the representatives of the nations coming to Jerusalem, bringing their riches with them, especially gold and frankincense. In Matthew they come to Bethlehem, and they bring not just gold and frankincense, but also myrrh. Ironically, they are sent to Bethlehem by King Herod. There is a message in this too. Bethlehem was the city of Israel’s great king, David. Herod was king only by virtue of the Roman occupying powers. And his family had no connection to either of the great royal dynasties, not to the house of David, nor even to the Hasmonean dynasty founded by Judas Maccabeus. Herod’s family were originally Edomites, though Herod was raised as a Jew. Bethlehem as a destination tells us who is to be seen as the true king of Israel and of all the nations.

The gifts are also significant and contain a message. On the one hand, these valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. We find these same three items recorded in ancient inscriptions of gifts or offerings and, as we heard, Isaiah also mentions two of them.

But there is a spiritual meaning to the gifts as well.  Gold represents Jesus’ kingship. The Magi came to hail a new king. Gold was valuable, beautiful, and long-lasting – just the right thing for a king who would not have just any throne, but an everlasting one. 

The gift of frankincense is in recognition of Jesus' priesthood. Frankincense was often used in the temple routines, burned ceremonially by the priests. Jesus is – according to Hebrews – our great high priest, not just replacing the high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem but acting as mediator and intercessor for the whole world. 

Finally, myrrh, that extra gift not mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy. This is a bittersweet present, as myrrh was used in embalming rituals, and so connected with death and burial. This gift foreshadows Jesus’ death. It also reminds us Jesus’ death was already present at his birth. It was part of his mission.
The three gifts stand then for Jesus as King, as Priest, and as Sacrifice.

The strange thing is, we could receive the same three gifts. We are also called to be kings and priests, and to give up our lives. 

In the 1st Letter of Peter (2:9) we read, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” God has entrusted creation to us as beings made in God’s image and as Christ’s heirs. But we are kings on his behalf. Christ is still the king of kings, we owe him homage, and our reign or rule is supposed to be by his standards.

We are also all priests, not just me. We all have priestly responsibility “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him … and, … to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world.”[1] Together we worship and praise the one great high priest. 

And what do I mean by giving up our lives? In his Letter to the Romans (6:3-4) Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  In Baptism we promise to give our lives to Christ; to seek and serve Christ; to put selfish desires to death. He has already died for us, but through Baptism we share in that death and in the promise of new life in this world and in resurrection at the end of our lives. 

And what gifts should we bring to the Christ child, to the incarnated God? What can we give that God needs? One answer is simply, nothing. The other is that God may not need anything from us, but that God desires that we give back just a little of what we have received.  Just as the presents Jesus received from the Magi came with great responsibility, so too do the gifts we receive come with a charge or call. God’s other desire is that we receive God’s greatest gift, the gift of God’s Son, fully and completely and without any reservation.
In the words of the last verse of Christina Rossetti’s lovely carol, “In the bleak midwinter“
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

[1] BCP, Catechism

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Church and State

A Sermon preached on 31st December 2017, Christmas I, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

If you have been living in Germany for a while, you will know that today is not referred to as New Year’s Eve, but just as “Silvester.” It is named after Pope Sylvester I whose feast day it is today, although he had nothing to do with fireworks, drinking sparkling wine, or eating fondue. It is his feast day today simply because he died on 31st December, over 1,600 years ago in 335 AD. 

We do not know much about Sylvester, although he was Pope during an important and turbulent era in the history of the Christian Church. The Council of Nicaea took place during his pontificate: out of which developed what we call the Nicene Creed, and which defines some of the basics of what we believe about God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Constantine was the Roman emperor. So, this was the time when Christianity changed from being, at best a tolerated sect, to becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire! This was the beginning of what we call Christendom, a society nominally built around Christian values. Others have called it the beginning of the Babylonian captivity of the Church to the State and the world. 

It is perhaps therefore not a coincidence that a few hundred years later, the doctrine of papal supremacy and the forged Donation of Constantine were backdated to this period. In the fictional account the Emperor Constantine was cured of leprosy by the virtue of the baptismal water administered by Sylvester and out of gratitude supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope. It sounds like an attempt to reverse the dependency of the church on the state that dates from Sylvester’s pontificate.  

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul looks back to the time when “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law,” (Gal. 3:23) until God releases us: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4:4-5) In the prologue to his Gospel, John has a similar description of this change of priorities: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)

The law that both Paul and John are referring to here is not the law of the Roman Empire that Christianity became part of, but the Mosaic law, that detailed and extensive system of laws set in place to guide the conduct of the Jewish people: their worship, diet, and rituals, but also issues of ownership, dealing with debt and disagreement, and many other aspects of human relationships. Before Paul put his faith in Christ, he says, he lived under the supervision of the law. But after he put his faith in Christ, his life was lived under the supervision of Christ and Christ’s Spirit. 

Neither Paul nor John are claiming that we can do whatever we want. That would be a very dangerous freedom indeed, then many of our laws are put in place to protect us from our greatest enemy, ourselves and our selfish desires. Instead we are liberated from what holds us back from becoming God’s children and heirs. What both are saying is that we must try and do what God wants, as individuals and as a society. 

Paul was quick to defend himself against any accusations of lawlessness. He knew that we need reliable rules to govern our interactions. In his mission he profited from the rule of law, from a reliable infrastructure, and from his right as a citizen to appeal to Rome when he felt he had been arrested unjustly. But he was also willing to be arrested and punished if laws got in the way of his mission of bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible.
To be redeemed and liberated from the law means that our acceptance by God is not dependent on us obeying a set of rules about worship and ritual. I want you to come to church every week, and I want you to come to this church every week, and I truly believe that you will benefit from hearing the Word and even more from receiving the Word in the bread and wine made holy at the Lord’s Table. But your relationship with God does not depend on it. Your relationship with God depends solely on you responding in faith to how God has already acted in Christ. 

Both Paul and John tell us that we have received adoption as God’s children, and that we are called to act like God’s children, and that because we are children, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,” (Gal. 4:5) a spirit of grace and truth that directs and guides us. Liberated from the law and guided by the Spirit, we have both the freedom and the duty to act primarily as God’s children in our interactions with one another, with the state, and with those in power.
It is a good thing that the State does not run the Church and that the Church does not run the State. Wherever and whenever that has happened, it has not turned out well. Our relationship with the State and with governments will always be both constructive and critical. Our primary allegiance is to our Father, God, not to any particular country or party. 

To be critical means to judge existing and new rules and laws by God’s standards: Are they just? Are they equitable? Are they based on the principle of equality – that all human beings are made in God’s image? Do they reflect God’s preferential option for the poor, the powerless, and the stranger? If not, we need to work to change them or to prevent a change happening. In exceptional circumstances we may even need to disobey them. If I were living in Poland, Hungary, and more recently in Austria, there are rules I would actively oppose, because they are discriminatory and simply un-Christian. Even in Germany some churches break or at least stretch the law to offer Kirchenasyl, church asylum in exceptional cases: Protecting a refugee or a refugee family threatened with deportation back to allow their case to be reexamined. And here in Germany I am definitely very critical of the current regulations that prevent a whole group of refugees, those who have temporary, subsidiary protection because they fled a warzone, from being reunited with their families, without at least taking the individual case into account. I continue to be astonished by the hypocrisy of those who proclaim the value of the family one day, only to deny this to a whole group of people another day. No government can be forced to do what the church says anymore, but equally no government and no politician has the right to stop us saying what we believe God wants for the world. We cannot let darkness overcome the light of Christ.

To be constructive means engaging with and working with those who govern and hold power. Incarnation is about God coming into the world: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him.” (John 1:10), “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14) We cannot, as some Christians have argued, separate ourselves and try and live in some sort of parallel society. God sent God’s Son to bring light into this world and that very Son, our Lord and Savior, calls on us to testify to that light. Good laws can prevent discrimination and offer restitution for past wrongs. The best way of caring for the poor, the powerless, and the stranger is through society. We need taxes to ensure that wealth is more evenly distributed and to finance the provision of health, education, and social services. In many countries, the Church is a provider of some of these services. 

Coming back to our friend Sylvester, I think we can assume that his motivation for working with the Roman Empire and with Constantine was positive. He hoped for a constructive engagement with the Roman State. Christians were freed from persecution; the Church was able to grow and reach more people. Christian ethical considerations began to influence and change laws and practice, leading to greater respect for the value of human life, for children, women, and slaves. For Pope Sylvester it will have seemed as if the world had finally begun to know Christ and to accept him. 

That is what God wants of us to. That through our testimony and our lives the world gets to know the light that is Christ. That his light and life continue to transform the world. And that we are all liberated from anything that prevents us loving God and our neighbor.