Monday, 3 January 2011

The Visit of the Shepherds and Revolutionary Christianity

Sermon on Luke 2: 15-21 (and Romans 4: 8-14) St Matthew’s, 2 January 2011

Luke’s story of the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus in his manger is all of a piece with one of the big theme in his gospel: that Jesus is on the side of the poor and powerless.

Here at Jesus’ birth the first people to come and see him are shepherds – who for the most part were viewed as lower class in first century Palestinian society and certainly weren’t very well off. At his resurrection the first people to see him alive will be a group of women who then - as for much of the intervening centuries – were seen as second class to men. Luke is always putting poor and powerless people at the heart of his story about Jesus.

Where Luke has shepherds visiting the baby Matthew has Magi – important religious figures who, when they turn up in, what is for them, a foreign country, appear to have instant access to the ruling authorities (in this case King Herod). The visit of the Magi is full of symbolism about the true nature of kingship and power but sounds a bit implausible to me – who would actually bring a baby gold, frankincense and myrrh: surely a rattle would be much more appropriate. The visit of the shepherds always seems somewhat more realistic - a real spontaneous response by a group of ordinary people to an event which somehow they grasp is going to change the world for them.

Luke throughout his gospel is much more concerned with Jesus’ impact on ordinary people than the powers that be. This isn’t to say that he is unconcerned about power-relations in society and in particular the relationship between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless.

On the contrary Luke is, for example, much more interested, than say Matthew, in Jesus’ political teaching about poverty and oppression. Matthew does record Jesus speaking about these things but he tends to see Jesus speaking of them in spiritual rather than physical terms. When Luke speaks of poor people – he means people who don’t have a lot of money. When Matthew speaks of poor people – he means people who are spiritually impoverished. Of course this exaggerates the difference in perspective because Luke knows that people who are financially poor are less likely to have time for spiritual things and Matthew knows that those who are financially wealthy are going to have greater problems with Jesus’ spiritual demand to give up everything in order to follow him. But in general Luke sees Jesus as ‘biased towards the physically poor’ whereas Matthew seems to see this less clearly.

This difference in perspective of the two gospel writers is reflected in the debate about Jesus’ teaching that has echoed down the ages. Is the good news for everyone or is it only for those who God has special regard for.

The gospel reading – as well as recording the visit of the shepherds – also records the circumcision of Jesus and the epistle reading picks up on this. Paul in his letter to the Romans is arguing that the coming of Jesus makes it clear that it’s not circumcision which makes you a member of God’s chosen people but faith (and even suggests that ‘twas ever thus – that people just hadn’t really seen it that way before). In other words Paul is saying that the good news of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is for everyone – not just a select few who have gone though a particular initiation right.

We are now fairly used to the idea espoused by Paul in his letter to the Galatians that ‘There is no Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ – even if it has taken around 2000 years for us to take this on board. But does this mean that God has no special favourites anymore? Isn’t he biased towards the poor and powerless? Does he not have special regard for these people?

I would suggest that the good news of the gospel is good news precisely because Jesus has come primarily (as he himself claimed at the very start of his ministry) ‘to preach good news to the poor..proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed’ This isn’t good news for the rich and powerful. It’s not even saying ‘I have come to warn the wealthy oppressors that they better change their ways. It’s arguing that what he says and does will have a direct impact on marginalised, poor and powerless people – like the shepherds that night in the fields outside of Bethlehem – regardless of what establishment, rich and powerful people do.

This is why I want to have a gentle dig at Archbishop Rowan William’s Christmas sermon this year. I quote

"Faced with the hardship that quite clearly lies ahead for so many in the wake of financial crisis and public spending cuts, how far are we able to sustain a living sense of loyalty to each other, a real willingness to bear the load together? How eager are we to find some spot where we feel safe from the pressures that are crippling and terrifying others? As has more than once been said, we can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no-one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out."

This is all well and good as far as it goes: but it is essentially a warning to the rich and powerful not good news for the poor and powerless. (And I must say at this point that I count myself as one of the former rather than the latter) Even so as warnings to the rich and powerful go it isn’t really of the same tenor as Jesus. Rowan respectfully asks about how far we are able to do things like ‘bear the load together’ and gently chides us about our tendency ‘to find some spot where we feel safe’. In Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says ‘Woe to you that are rich for you have received your consolation, woe to you that are full now for you shall hunger’. Not exactly gentle chiding.

Rowan Williams is also urging a greater sharing of what we have and a greater commitment to our neighbour. Jesus says much the same thing later in his ministry (the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 and the parable of the Good Samaritan spring to mind). And we rich do need to be reminded of these things. But where is ‘the good news for the poor’? Isn’t Rowan William’s just saying that if we rich and powerful don’t help build the Big Society (or whatever you want to call it) then the poor and powerless will suffer.

I am reminded of a book I got for Christmas by a Marxist called Terry Eagleton – entitled Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, This is a devastating attack on the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al. Eagleton is no Christian but he is brilliant at exposing the New Atheists’ lack of understanding of what Christianity actually is but - as the blurb on the back says – ‘he also launches a stinging assault on what he sees as Christianity’s betrayal of its revolutionary mission’.

We, the church, surely do have something to offer the poor and powerless. Not only practical help – like hostels for the homeless at one level or just neighbourly help at another – but also surely, and perhaps more importantly, a robust critique of modern-day, consumerist, individualistic society. Eagleton reminds us that Karl Bath – one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century described the capitalist system as ‘almost unequivocally demonic’: strong words perhaps – but surely more akin to ‘Woe to you that are rich for you have received your consolation’ than ‘How eager are we to find some spot where we feel safe from the pressures that are crippling and terrifying others?’

Perhaps it is time that the preachers in our churches tackled some of the causes of poverty and powerlessness today – and surely our unjust economic system is one of them.

Jesus came as a baby to turn the world upside down. ‘Blessed are you that hunger now for you shall be satisfied,’ he said. Poor people like the shepherds believed him and came to worship him.

I know it is easy to criticise Rowan Williams for his diplomatic language which, of course, hides much that is revolutionary. But perhaps we Christians, in 2011, should resolve to be more overtly revolutionary – that we as a church should be clearer that we bring good news to the poor. Luke says that the shepherds left the ‘stable’ ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen’. It would be good if a few more cleaners, check out staff, and other modern day equivalents of shepherds, left our churches today ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen’!

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