Sunday December 30, 2018
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Spencer
A Rescue Mission
An angel came down from heaven to a snow-covered bridge above an icy river to save a man contemplating suicide.
George Bailey, in the film It’s a Wonderful Life, was a good man who had fallen on hard times, who considered himself a failure, hopeless, of more use dead than alive. Standing on that bridge ready to jump to his death. But the angel, Clarence, jumped into the frigid water first and George jumped in after him to save him, rather than killing himself.
It was a rescue mission.
A ghost appeared at night in a London townhouse to an old and bitter man.
Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”, was a greedy and tight-fisted businessman, more concerned with profits than people. Jacob Marley’s ghost came back to haunt his former partner. And to send him three other ghosts to warn Scrooge that if he continued down the path he was on, he’d meet a similar end - bound by chains of his own making, damned, doomed.
It was a rescue mission.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ...And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us...full of grace and truth.”
The prologue of Saint John’s Gospel is a companion piece to the story we heard on Christmas Eve. The shepherds and the angels, Mary and Joseph, the babe in the food trough and the cattle in their stalls.
Saint John’s “Christmas story” pulls back from this intimate night time scene waaaay out into the widest possible view. God in God’s self. In the Beginning. The creation of the universe and the Word, the Logos in Greek, who created all. Ancient Greek philosophers associated the Logos, the Word, with the expression of the mind of God, the order and design of the universe. In Hebrew Biblical tradition the Word is the creative utterance that by its power brought all into being. Another Jewish Biblical tradition ties the Word of God to the Wisdom of God. Wisdom, or Sophia, is God’s eternal companion, the artisan who worked with God to fashion creation and who remains a source of sustenance and life for creation moving forward. Saint John envisions these traditions coming together around a Divine Person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son. Jesus whose life, death, and resurrection renews all just as the creative utterance of the Logos made all.
It is a rescue mission. But we are not saved by a philosophical concept.
We are saved by a person. Like Clarence the angel or the ghost of Jacob Marley.
God came down, as a human being, into the darkness and pain and struggle of human lives. Amongst tradesmen with their calloused hands and moneychangers trying to make a buck, amongst the sick and the dying and the dead. God left eternity and entered history in flesh and blood and bone and sinew. And where the traditional Christmas story in Matthew and Luke emphasizes the very human birth and social situation of Jesus, Saint John’s prologue shows us the divine origin and nature of Our Lord. How the human one who comes to rescue us is the very God who made us.
It was a scandal to the ancient Greek world, and to the ancient Jewish one as well, that the Logos would do what the Logos has done. Put on our fragile human body, vulnerable to, as Shakespeare writes, “The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to.”
But that’s what the Christmas season celebrates. That God did exactly that. God did not remain apart in some perfect world of light and logic and ideals. No. God made camp alongside us in the mud and the blood and the tears of our broken and fragile world. And he experienced heartache, and loss, and suffering, and death. All to save us from death as Clarence the angel sought to save George Bailey, to save us from our sins as the ghosts of Christmas sought to save Scrooge from his.
And not just to save us. To renew us. To transform us.
As Saint John writes, “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.”
He came down to us that we might rise with him.
Or as Saint Athanasius wrote, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
Theosis. This Greek word, found most commonly in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, means “deification.” The process by which a person becomes more like God. We cannot become like God in God’s essence, of course. We bear God’s image and likeness, not his fundamental Nature. We are icons, images of divinity. And through sin our image and likeness is marred and obscured. But through grace, we can be transformed by God. Renewed, remade, reborn. Filled, the Eastern Christian tradition teaches, with the divine energies of God. Like a sword thrust into a hot fire until the steel glows red. The sword does not become the fire in its essence. But the energy of the fire changes the blade. The blade gains the properties of fire.
God became a human being so that we might be changed, through faith and by God’s grace, over the long haul of time into children of God. Our image and likeness restored to what it was created to be. Like a shattered sword, reforged in the heat of the fire. But also stronger, sharper than it was before.
George Bailey is not only saved from death, he is given a deeper awareness of the meaning of his life, and a profound gratitude for those he loves and who love him. Ebenezer Scrooge is not only saved from doom, he is shown the meaning of his choices and given a new sense of joy and purpose. And we are not only saved from the death and brokenness of our sins. We are also given in Christ, as the Prayer Book says, “the means of grace and the hope of glory.”
Theosis is a pilgrimage. A life’s work of transformation by grace through faith. And it starts again here and now with us right where we are today.
The angel Clarence met George on the bridge in the depths of his sorrow and despair. The ghosts came to Scrooge in the height of his bah-humbug selfishness and greed. And the Word of God was born in the midst of real human history: amidst poverty, injustice, fear, sadness, violence, and death.
As my friend and Jesuit priest Father Tim O’Brien says, “there is room enough in the manger” for the pain, the struggle, the mess, the darkness, and confusion of our hearts and lives.
The Word that was uttered at Creation and who came down at Christmas was God and God, as Saint John says in his letters, is love. Love that shines in the darkness of our world and our lives and that is not ever overcome. Love that lights our way.
Saint Fulgentius, bishop and friend of Saint Augustine, whose feast day is New Year’s Day preached about how we make the journey of theosis, the journey into becoming the children of God. The journey of being reborn, reforged, remade. Living our part in the downward-and-then-upward journey, the rescue mission, that began in creation and began again on that first Christmas.
“Love indeed is the source of all good things,” Fulgentius writes, “it is...the way that leads to heaven...Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.”