Salvation and the People of God

Sermon for Advent 2
Year C 2018

Malachi 3:1-4
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Phil 1:6

Back in the middle ages, a certain set of changes in how people thought about things began to emerge from the prevalent views – largely known as ‘The classical period’. What is most significant for we who live in the Modern world was the rise of the significance of The Individual.

At the same time, the significance of communities – of shared life and existence began to wane, slowly at first, but gradually accelerating. The experience of Life as something richly shared became more and more something only experienced within first family, then nuclear family to the point where relational language disappears. I was in conversation on Friday with someone discussing the increasing prevalence of children calling their parents and other family adults by their first names . . . although there are aspects of this which might be considered a positive, if you have a very negative view of family structures, one aspect of it which we found disturbing was the absence of the language of relationship. Fewer and fewer people used relational language.
In traditional societies it is still common to use extended language to describe relational links – so for example ‘my mother’s brother’s daughter’, as opposed to the Western ‘Cousin’, a word which speaks of relationship but lacks depth.

With the rise of the individual also came the gradual erosion of the significance of the Church. The idea that to be baptised was to be brought into a community, the significance of which took up but also transcended any merely human relationships . . . increasingly took a back seat. Church increasingly became a place to which you came often to be alone. The idea that the people amongst whom you sat Sunday by Sunday were people with whom you shared in a most profound way, Life, indeed Life in all its fullness, evaporated. And the idea that broken relationships between members of the church were remotely significant was dissipated . . .

And so to our readings today

For the wilderness announcement of John, son of Zechariah, is an announcement not to individuals but to a people. The people of God. For too long they had lived as if they were not a people – the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl, yet there was no sharing in life – the announcement of the Gospel is an announcement first of all to the people of God.
The Salvation of our God is something which comes to life amongst a people and it is not an easy work.

The prophet Malachi uses the language of ‘fullers soap’ – the highly caustic soap which was used to wash cloth – to bleach it – to make it Clean and white after it has been woven – again he speaks of the refining of Gold and Silver which could only be accomplished by fire – and the goal of this work? To ‘purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.’

The message is plain and clear – the people of God need straightening out . . . but why? That the glory of the Lord might be revealed, to prepare a highway for our God . . . or as Jesus puts it – ‘by this shall all people know that you are my disciples – that you love one another as I have loved you, that is with the love that the Father has loved me’

It is without doubt the witness of the Scriptures to the Christian Life, that to encounter the Church is to encounter Christ himself. So St Paul as he writes to the churches, almost without exception give thanks for their shared life and its witness as the body of Christ in the world. One of the key exceptions to this is his first letter to the Corinthians where after his customary greeting he as it were draws back and goes on to challenge them saying ‘I hear that there are divisions amongst you’. Splits and schisms, intentional breaking in the Church are literally breaking up the Body of Christ, yet in the age of the individual, such language seems odd

One of Paul’s most commonly used words is Koinonia – that is Communion, or we sometimes have it translated ‘fellowship’, or today very weakly ‘sharing’. In our epistle St Paul speaks of the Koinonia in the gospel – it is a powerful phrase. We express something of this Koinonia in our liturgy. In sharing the Peace we declare – ‘We are the body of Christ, in one spirit we were baptised into one body’, and we share one bread, and all drink from one cup’

I’ll conclude with a brief reflection on what has happened to our faith over this last millennia – and it could be summed up in the words of a bishop who told me that he would have no problem ordaining someone who considered that the Resurrection of Jesus was a ‘purely spiritual matter’, that the body of Jesus lay still in the tomb.

Such thinking is commonplace – but especially in the age of the Individual – so we no longer talk in any meaningful terms of ‘The faith of the Church’.

But there are two significant, indeed fundamental problems with such a statement, not to mention the act of ordaining someone into the church who denies its Creeds, wherein we, the Church, affirm ‘the resurrection of the Body’.

First, to affirm the resurrection of Jesus as ‘purely spiritual’ simply that it suggests that The Incarnation never happened. That Spiritual and material are inseparably woven together in Jesus Christ, that you can separate out the spiritual Jesus from his material being – and as many in the church today push it even further to deny his very Koinonia in the Life of God as the Second person of the Trinity made flesh – has become the unthinking way of the world. To separate the spiritual an the physical in this way is to deny the possibility of the work of God in the material creation, indeed even in ourselves.

But secondly, in the Separation of matter and spirit you separate the Church from Christ, who is woven into us by his Spirit, we deny our Koinonia in His Life. We end up denying that The Church Is the Body of Christ in the World, and consequently that we have any shared existence, for He is our life.

This is of course convenient belief. It is easier to stand outside of the Body of Christ, not to have to go through the process of coming to birth in this body, of having to change how we live out our common life, to give priority to this shared life. It is so easy to take the Individualist line and to participate in Church as it is convenient – for genuinely sharing in life, in having to learn to love the unlovely and as the unlovely learning to be loved in return – is a hard work. It is like fullers soap, it is like a refining fire, it is like the levelling of mountains and the filling in of valleys, it is to have our crookedness straightened and our roughness ground away as if under a sandstone. And these people amongst whom we sit this morning are the soap and the fire and the sandstone

This purification, this setting straight, is the business of being the Body of Christ – that ‘the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ and that the glory of the LORD will be revealed.

Later this morning we shall have our annual Advent Pageant
During it we shall use this prayer
Let us pray

O Christ, the Master Carpenter
Who, at the last, through wood and nails,
Purchased our whole salvation.

Wield well Your tools in the workshop of Your world,
So that we, who come rough-hewn to Your bench
May here be fashioned to a truer beauty of Your hand.

We ask it for Your own Name’s sake.

Amen

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