republished, with permission, from the Diocese of Durham site, 25 December 2008
Sermon at the Eucharist on Christmas Morning, 2008 in the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham
I listened yesterday morning with growing frustration to a clip on the Today programme in which a bishop and a journalist were arguing about the rights and wrongs of Establishment and Disestablishment. Why the frustration? Because I know the journalist in question and the arguments he uses, and he needed to be blown out of the water with considerably more force than the bishop used; and I know the bishop in question and, though I agree substantially with what he said, there was much more – as there always is on the radio – that could have been said.
The point they never got to, but which is hugely important and deeply relevant to Christmas Day itself, is that the reason people want to get rid of the established church is not because the Church of England has too much power; anyone who thinks that has no idea of how things actually work. Nor is it really because Establishment gives the state too much power over the church. Again, things just don’t work like that. It’s really all about trying to get God off the public square altogether. A generation ago it was an older type of Conservative politician who wanted God off the public stage in case God might turn out to be a crypto-Marxist; but today it’s often the older type of Socialist, some elements (not all) within Old Labour in particular, who want God to clear off in case he upsets the applecart of the long-postponed Secular Revolution. These things come and go in waves, and some of these waves are going in different directions: so we have the debates about euthanasia and sexuality, where the church often appears to take a conservative line, and the debates about the war in Iraq, and about business and the economy, in which the right wing are increasingly shrill in their attempts to say that everything’s all right really, that Mrs Compound Interest is having a bad hair day just now but that she’ll be fine again after a couple of Gordon Brown’s strong painkillers. And at every point the church has the right and the duty to say No: we don’t dance to the tunes of either right or left, and we don’t stop saying what has to be said, and we don’t stop saying it in public. And underneath all of this is something so central, so foundational, so essential to the nature of Christian faith that it is the truth which bubbles to the surface on this, one of our greatest festivals: the truth of Incarnation.
You see, the push to get the church off the public square is the same, at bottom, as the push which I remember from my student days to say that Incarnation itself was a category mistake. God into man won’t go, we were told; no first-century Jew would have dreamed of an incarnate god. With the eighteenth-century Enlightenment behind us, we were firmly told that the incarnation was just a myth, in the simplistic sense of a story some people find helpful but most people know isn’t true. And that theological strike at the incarnational heart of Christian faith was made on the same basis, and for the same reason, that people today try to elbow God off the public square: if there is a God, he’s much safer upstairs, out of sight, so that we can get on running the world the way we want to.
Well, the way we’ve been running the world doesn’t seem to be terribly successful right now; but let that pass for the moment. Here, on Christmas morning, and with the wonderful prologue to John’s gospel ringing in our ears, we have deeper and more serious business still. The Old Testament is in fact full of hints and signposts which St John picks up and draws out. John has woven together at least five different strands of incarnational meaning from the Old Testament into a single story, the story of the Incarnation, of the Word made Flesh. And it is this story which provides the firm ground beneath our feet as we reflect on the place and task of the church within the real, public world of today and tomorrow.
The Word made Flesh: there is the first of John’s Old Testament themes. ‘By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made,’ sang the Psalmist, ‘and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.’ This is a way of speaking about how the one true God, who is transcendent over the whole creation, nevertheless acts within his own creation: he speaks, and things happen.
Second, there is God’s Wisdom, God’s handmaid in creating the world – as in the reading from Proverbs which we heard in the Carol Service yesterday afternoon. ‘The Lord created me as the beginning of his works; I was with him as his assistant.’ This is the theme of one of the greatest Jewish poems of the period between the testaments, in the book called Ecclesiasticus or Ben-Sirach. John’s Prologue, too, is a ‘Wisdom’ poem, a reworking of the tradition about God making the world through the agency of his second self, his wise handmaid.
That same ancient Jewish poem highlights two other themes: the Law and the Temple. God gave Israel the Law, not just as a set of instructions but as the written mode of his own presence, guiding and directing them and shaping their national and personal lives. And, along with the Law, God gave his people his own strange, glorious presence, in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, dwelling in the Tent or Tabernacle, which then, under Solomon, was swapped for the Temple in Jerusalem. God, it seems, wants to dwell in the midst of his people, and to do so both as the sovereign Lord and the one who puts things right, by the justice of the Law and by the worship and sacrifices in the Temple.
Word, Wisdom, Law, Temple – and the fifth one is the Spirit. God breathes his Spirit, his breath, into people, into the world, into animals even, and his presence brings things and people to life. In each of these five ways the Old Testament insists that the living God, the creator God, the God of Israel, is not a remote being away up in the sky but is actively engaged with his creation and his people.
All these themes rush together at key points of the Old Testament, particularly in relation to the King from David’s house, the coming Messiah. He would be equipped with God’s Spirit to bring God’s judgment to the world, speaking words of power, teaching and embodying wisdom, upholding the Law, and building or cleansing or rebuilding the Temple. That’s how it works in John’s gospel, too. ‘The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us’, with the word in question echoing both the Greek and the Hebrew for Tent: the Tabernacling or Tent-pitching of God, the glorious presence of God with his people, like fire itself, dangerous yet full of delight. And the Word-made-flesh is then introduced to us as the true King, the Messiah, Jesus.
All of this, every single bit of it, would be anathema to the kind of modernist liberalism that used to rule the roost theologically and is now trying to make a late run politically. Incarnation is a nuisance because it implies that God wants to make his presence felt around the place, and he may well want to do so especially where people are trying to run things their own way and making a mess of it. We live today amid the flotsam and jetsam of the failed liberal project – the deregulation of sex giving us AIDS and a nation of confused young people and lonely old people, the deregulation of power giving us atom bombs, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Darfur and the Congo, and the deregulation of money giving us loadsamoney one minute and market meltdown the next – and we who know these things, and yet resist fresh regulation because we like our freedom even if it’s the freedom to go to Hell in a Hedge Fund, we resist the message of Incarnation, of God being around the place, and we invent excuses to say it’s a bad idea all round, lest the fire consume us or the cloud confuse us and we have to admit we don’t know who we are or why we’re doing things the way we are . . .
Now of course, things being what they are, there are other ways of resisting the message of Incarnation than downright denial. You can turn it, if you like, into a general pantheistic principle, of God being part of the air we all breathe. Then Jesus may be divine, but so are you and so am I and so is this pulpit and so is Bruce Forsyth. And, in particular, when you go this route you lose, at once, the cross and resurrection. No: the Christian story of Incarnation, John’s story of incarnation, doesn’t leave you with a generalized, vague sense of divine presence but with a single human being embodying in himself the personal life and love of the personal God, and carrying the world’s sorrows and pains all the way to the cross. In the same way, the notion of Establishment can be perverted into the church simply being a vague religious presence, unable to comment much on the world around, just as it could be perverted the other way, by the church claiming for itself a pseudo-theocratic power, giving itself airs, trumpeting its own pomp and prestige, and forgetting again the fact of the cross. But to object to the perversions is not to demolish the reality.
And the reality of an established church, here in the north-east of England at least, is not about an outmoded nostalgia for a bygone past when everyone was more or less Christian. It is about partnerships in education, in ecology, in peacemaking, in climate campaigning. I am proud of the fact that the school which, this time two years ago, was labelled the worst school in England has now been turned completely around because the local authority in question came to the Diocese of Durham to ask if we could go into partnership on it. Establishment is about the church being alongside people when they are hurting most, as the farmers were last year and as many small businesses, and some large ones too, are doing right now. It is about the church being the voice of the voiceless, the loyal and courageous opposition to wrong-headed ideas and the equally loyal and courageous supporter for right-headed ideas, wherever the ideas come from. It is about the church refusing to confine its work to those who come looking for spiritual help, because we know that the God who became incarnate in Jesus went about inaugurating the kingdom, which was and is a reality whether or not people acknowledge it. And it is about a society that recognises that the church has this role and that it’s a good thing that it does, and that sets up structures to make sure it goes on having and exercising it. Where we are right now, historically and culturally, a vote for Disestablishment would be a vote against Incarnation, a vote against Christmas – as you can see when secular councils, despite all the mockery about political correctness, still try to ban it – and a vote for a flatland society with no room for the word of God, no room for the wisdom of God, no room for the law or the Temple or the Spirit of God, no room for glory, no room for Jesus . . .
Hmm. Wasn’t that how it was at the first Christmas? Fortunately somebody was on hand with a manger . . . and the rest is history – but it’s the history that we are now to make happen, the history of what God wants to do in the next generation, through you, not least the younger ones among you, who will learn and live the truth of Incarnation in a world that badly needs it but daren’t admit it. ‘And the Word was made Flesh, and Tabernacled Among Us’: as we celebrate that reality in bread and wine this Christmas morning, let us pray that we may be strengthened by this food, this Tabernacling Presence, to become ourselves people of incarnation, lively members of the Church not just in England, as though by some historical accident, but the Church of England and for England, the Church which, despite all its awful failures and flaws, nevertheless stands as a witness to the truth that God’s kingdom shall come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. That’s what Christmas is all about; that’s what every Eucharist is all about; and that’s what we need to be about, as we pick up from this glorious festival the inspiration and energy we need to face the coming year with faith, hope and love.
Isaiah 52.7–10; John 1.1–18
Tom Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, is research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews