A Sermon from Sherborne

Christ is not just for Christmas; not just for believers

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne abbey, preached on Sunday 10 December 2017 by The Reverend Sister Isabel Keegan, FJ


Each year as the Seasons of Advent and Christmas merge into each other, I am amazed afresh by the ingenuity of some advertising slogans. Castle Gardens for instances says Christmas is here’ with an arrow pointing into their car-park. Just imagine the Abbey with a sign or lights saying the same thing!

The other sign which has been around for a few years is of course ‘A dog is not just for Christmas …’. All this made me wonder about what it would be like, if we had a sign outside the Abbey which said ‘Christmas is not just for believers!’ We will return to that a little later on.

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. This familiar first verse of our Gospel reading this morning [Mark 1. 1-8] is filled with the same sense of excitement that the beginning of any great story can ignite in us. The trouble is that over the years we think we know the end of this story. We have possibly allowed ourselves to become complacent and to think that this time of waiting, this Advent time, is all building up to the joyful time of Christmas and in a sense of course it is.

However, the general feeling is, that once we have celebrated the Birth of the Baby, everything will get back to normal again until next year.

So who is this strange, hairy man, striding out of the desert, called John the Baptizer, shouting about repentance, and Baptism and the Holy Spirit? Is this part of the same story or not? Does John belong to some other story that we are not really interested in just now? So today we may decide to say “No thanks” to his story – “let’s go back to the Baby.”

In medieval times, in Western Europe at any rate, the Church was a big fish in a small pond. Most people believed in or feared the Christian God. Everyone was afraid of going to Hell, especially the clergy! Today the Church finds itself in a Big Pond but we are a much smaller fish, as far as influence and power go.

In her book Quest for the Living God the Roman Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, states that “belief in Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One, was used to hide the work of God in other religions.”

Christianity was understood in such a way, that it appeared as if the Word of God, Incarnate in the person of Jesus, was only present in Christianity – or at least that God was not so truly and lovingly present in any other Religion.

A familiar hymn invites us to sing these words: “There is a wideness in God’s mercy.…” Wherever we engage in interfaith relationships we open ourselves to the broad and deep vision of God’s unspeakable generosity, to the whole human race, pressed down and flowing over, throughout the generations.

Another theologian called Jack Dupuis, a Jesuit priest whose writings were condemned – by the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore always likely to be a good read – suggests that we try to take a God’s eye-view of history. Of course we know that this is impossible for us, but if we could just glimpse the sweep of human history, from God’s point of view, what would be the meaning of the diversity of living faiths, with which Christianity is surrounded?

If there is only one God, then presumably there is only one plan by which God intends to bring all people into loving union with Him (in Church-speak we call it being “gathered into Salvation”). So we can trust ultimately in God’s plan, because God is certainly not scatter-brained like us! This line of thinking will help us realise that the divine plan for making everything whole is multifaceted and more complex than we so often imagine.

This divine plan reaches its peak in the historical birth of Jesus, ‘the Christ’, with significance for all of humanity. And thanks to God’s imaginative initiative, different paths have been laid in different cultures, times and places, inviting people to share in the divine life in a vast array of difference.

Elizabeth Johnson highlights the fact that other religions, in parallel with Christianity, also reveal the overflowing generosity of God, who before, during and after the coming of the Christ, approaches all peoples with the invitation to join in the divine love – to join in Salvation.

So perhaps the generous birth of the Christ Child, this sharing in our common humanity by the Divine that comes at the end of Advent, is not the end, but the beginning. That would make sense: after all, most births are concerned with the beginning of things!

When we have met this mysterious God at Christmas, we are not expected to pack everything away until next year – instead we are invited to start the journey with him again, no matter what our age range; willing ourselves to grow as he did; finding out what we are truly capable of and delighting in it (even though it is sometimes very hard work!) and waiting to see how our own life story unfolds. Every life is a gift from God – so do we use and delight in this gift, or leave it in its wrappings unopened?

And yet our Faith and many other Faiths continue to tumble on down through the centuries, waiting, all the while: waiting for the Cosmic Christ to come as He has promised. Will it be in our time? Or will He invite us to continue to follow until we have truly understood His message? You see His message is a bit like a dream, which is too good to be true, but nevertheless it is happening around us all the time in the chaos of our world.

So perhaps when religious differences or indeed indifferences can be seen as part of God’s multifaceted, rich, intricate design for the making whole of the human race, then we will be able to understand the one divine love, working itself out through a multifaceted plan.

So hairy old John the Baptizer got it right in the end, as he took the wrappings off the hidden Jesus of Nazareth and showed us ‘the gift of the Christ, the Anointed One, for the whole world’. Certainly worth waiting for, and hoping for, and working for during a lifetime, to be truly recognised! Amen.

The Reverend Sister Isabel Keegan FJ 10/12/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne