Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Circumference of Peace 2007

Sounds of Nativity

If we listen with the ears of the heart, the sounds of Christmas may just envelop us. And heal us.

A cough, Joseph turning.

A shuffle, Shepherds moving.

A murmur, a shudder, a shake.

Cattle, lowing.

The crisp crackle of hard soil, snow and ice, under foot.

Distant laughter, ribald and rough, out from the inn.

And Mary. Mary. Her yawn, her sigh, her song, her cry.

If we listen with the ears of the heart, the whole creation sings in ecumenical chorus, and the sounds of Christmas heal us by enveloping us in a circle of peace, whose circumference is without measure. Without measure…

You know, our time, and world and culture are fixed on limits. We lean more on what we can count, than on what we can count on. Christmas inquires about our sense of limits.

Limited Atonement

For instance, one great old Christian teacher was John Calvin. He produced no carols, by the way. For the Songs of Christmas we depend on others, like John and Charles Wesley. Yet while Calvin may not have capaciously explored the nativity, and while we may object to his narrowed and straitened theological perspective (total depravity, unmerited salvation, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints), he may have provided us with a distant mirror in which to see ourselves. Especially his thought about limited peace, limited salvation, health, mercy, atonement.

Oh, we talk a good game about God’s limitless love…Yet…

Our lips may not acclaim limited atonement, but our habits of being do. Health care, for all or for some? Limited medical atonement. Good education (with books, safety, discipline, respect), for all or for some? Limited educational atonement. Employment (most people just need a job and a home), for all or for some? Limited vocational atonement. Heavenly hope, for all or for some? Limited spiritual atonement. We do tend to live and move and have our being as if the very temporary distinctions we so prize had, somehow, a lasting life.

A Broad Peace

Here is a Christmas pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth. On earth. With Ghandi along the Ganges. Beside Tutu on the southern cape. Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet. In Tegucigalpa with Lynn Baker. This is no Calvinist quietism, which so suddenly has taken over non-Catholic American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Presbyterian and Anabaptist communions: cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed. No, this is Christmas: warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful! I remember Augustine’s proverb. Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage.

A Tale of Two Tales

The early church told two stories about Jesus. The first about his death. The second about his life. The first, about the cross, is the older and more fundamental. The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight of the first, the code with which to decipher the first.

Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture. That is the first story. How we handle this story, later in the year, come Lent and Easter, is a perilous and serious responsibility, given the myth of redemptive violence in which so much of our national and global thinking is now enmeshed. This morning, wee do light a candle, light a candle, for our Pakistani siblings, in the hour of Ms. Bhutto’s tragic, unnecessary death. We wail with them, even as Rachel and others wailed long ago. Peace and preemption have no common ground. Violence that is preemptive, unilateral, reckless and unforeseeable, in any direction, by any hand, has no lasting future. You cannot make a world on such a premise. Global warming is indeed a threat. But so, and more so, is global arming. Especially this week we have every reason to recall that we will have no world, no world worthy of the name, if I legitimately may attack you merely on the basis of what I imagine or fear you might do.

The first story, the death story, the story of Jesus’ death, another season’s work, needs careful, careful handling. Today I might briefly say again what I have said to you recently: Remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person who defines the passion. Remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Holy week, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation after seven days, the last mark of the week to come in 168 hours, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. The resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. Still, it is also true that the cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life that has the last word.

Later in the year we shall return to story one. At Christmas, we listen for story two, the story of Jesus’ life, the story of Jesus.

Who was Jesus? What life did his death complete? How does his word heal our hurt? And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first. Christmas is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven. Christmas in a violent world is meant to remind us, all of us, that you do not need to hate the world in order to love God. Here is the single greatest divide between liberalism and fundamentalism. Alf Landon said, “I can be a liberal and not be a spendthrift”. We might say, “I can be a Christian and not hate the world around”. Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all. Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Lent. And the Christmas images are the worker bees in this theological hive. Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace. Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did. That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm. What good news for us at the end of 2007! Such a passionate year we have had. Theologically, culturally, politically, militarily, ecclesiastically —we have exuded passion this year. Now comes Christmas again to announce that there is more to Jesus than passion. There is the matter of peace as well.

New Creation

With great effort, the ancient writers join the God of Creation with the God of Redemption. The coming of the Savior does not limit the divine care to the story of redemption, but weaves the account of redemption into the fabric of creation. There is more to the Gospel than the cross. The ancient writers sense this and say it with gusto: angels to locate heavenly peace on earth; shepherds to locate peace on ordinary earth; kings to empower the sense of peace on earth; a poor mother to locate physically the Prince of Peace in the womb of earth. The location of peace is earth, and its circumference is without limit. God’s Christ is without limit.

There are many rooms in this mansion. In the OT, as translated into Greek long ago, Christ referred to Cyrus the King of Persia, who at last freed the Jews from their bondage in Babylon. 'The Christ of God' later Isaiah calls King Cyrus.

Then Christ meant the messianic conqueror who would bring apocalyptic cataclysm, the end of things as we know it, the reconstitution of Israel, and the reign of God--the main wellspring of hope for those breathing and sweating in Jesus’ day, including Jesus.

Christians then began to use the term to refer to Jesus, as sometimes we do, meaning that man who spoke Aramaic, rode a donkey, recited the Psalms thinking David wrote them all, walked only in Palestine, never married, and was crucified for blasphemy or treason or both.

A while later Christ, in Paul, becomes the instrument of God's incursion into the world, to recreate the world, and is known in the cross and the resurrection.

Still later, when the Gospel writers pick up the story, Christ is the Risen Lord, preached by Paul, and narrated by unknown silent ghost writers who somehow put together the story of his earthly ministry, always spoken as a resurrection account, and always seen, if seen, in light of Easter.

John takes another trail, in the telling of the Christ, because for John none of the above really matters at all, save that Christ reveals God--wherever and whenever there is way, truth or life, there is Christ.

Still later, and drawing on all the above and more, the church fathers--early Christian writers--painstakingly and painfully tried to fit all this into neo-platonic thought, involving natures and persons, the human and the divine, the seen and the unseen, and described Christ in creeds, perhaps best and for sure first in the Apostles' Creed--only Son, Lord. Most of the options then have been laid out by 325ad or so, to be regularly and fitfully retried and rehearsed into our time.

Even John Calvin, God bless his unhappy being, could write that we really can't say, definitively, where Christ, as Lord, begins or ends. Is Christ only in the Methodist Church? Or only in the south? Or only in Christianity? Or only in America? Or only in religion? Or only in this world? Or only in the church of Rome? Or only in Bible believing churches? Or only in worship? Let us allow all the absolutists their absolute Absolution--absolutely!--Christ is the Absolute. Story one. But then, in the end, we also have to ask, Where is Christ? Leo Tolstoy wrote a Christmas Story about this once. "Where Love is, Christ is". Story two.

The lovely decorated Christmas tree in your living room, with its natural grace adorned by symbolic beauty, is meant to connect the God of Creation with the God of Redemption. The story of Jesus the Christ is as wide and large and limitless, limitless, as the story of light throughout all creation.

Once we visited in the home of a friend whose lovely tree sported a particularly wonderful ornamentation. Oh, he had placed upon the boughs the more usual collection of angels, bulbs, lights, tinsel and all. But here and there, slowly illuminating and slowly darkening, there were five lighthouses. I had never seen a lighthouse as an ornament. As we shared life and faith in the living room, the slowly illuminating and slowly darkening lighthouses, all five, caught my imagination. With Wesley we affirm five means of grace, ever available, and savingly so, amid the branches and brambles of life. Prayer: as close as breath. Sacraments: in the closest church, weekday and Sunday. Scripture: take and read, read and remember, remember and recite. Fasting: we might say walking, exercise, attention to discipline and diet. Christian conversation: a word spoken and heard that just may be healing enough to be true, or true enough to bring healing. Even in a sermon on the Sunday after Christmas.

An Invitation

At Christmas we can remember. We are humans before we are lovers. We are lovers before we are Christians. We are Christians before we are Protestants. We are Protestants before we are lovers. Are we lovers anymore? Where love is, Christ is.

If we listen with the ear of faith, the whole creation sings in ecumenical chorus, and the sounds of Christmas heal us by enveloping us in a circle of peace, whose circumference is without measure.

A circle with an unlimited circumference inevitably includes…you. You may decide today to lead a Christian life. To worship every Sunday. To pray every morning. To tithe every dollar. To take up the way of peace, by loving and giving. You may decide upon this path this morning. Do.

The birth of Christ is for you.

His way of life is for you.

His manner of obedience is for you.

His church is open to you.

His happiness is for you.

His love is for you.

His death is for you.

His life is for you.

His discipline is for you .

You see, you really did get a special gift this Christmas!

If we listen with imaginative ears, the sounds of Christmas envelop us and heal us.

A cough, Joseph turning.

A shuffle, Shepherds moving.

A murmur, a shudder, a shake.

Cattle, lowing.

The crisp crackle of hard soil, snow and ice, under foot.

Distant laughter, ribald and rough, out from the inn.

And Mary. Her yawn, her sigh, her song, her cry.

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