For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
For many children and teenagers there is a very uncomfortable moment that occurs at some point before they’re sixteen, and it’s that moment when they realise that one or both of their parents might be wrong about something. Now I’m not talking about abusive or broken backgrounds; just your average family, but there will come a point in every young person’s life when the penny drops and they realise that their parents have flaws.
What happens next depends a great deal on how the situation is handled. At one end of the scale an insecure parent who has a child lacking in wisdom could suffer a great loss of authority as rebellion becomes steadily more of an issue, whereas at the other end of the scale it may be just a simple acceptance that things were not as once thought and the child makes a mental adjustment and decides that, in this instance it genuinely does know better but doesn’t need to make an issue out of it which will disrupt the home.
In the latter case we see a triumph of accepting love, that parent and child are able to accept their flawed natures but love each other despite that. In the former case a complete breakdown may occur that takes an eon to repair, if indeed it can be repaired. But it all comes down to what is always a revolutionary idea, that something (or someone) that was once thought to be correct has been shown to be wrong and a response is demanded by the person who has uncovered the error.
And that is what we find in both of our readings today. So I want us to think about revolution, how we deal with it, particularly if our beliefs are entrenched, and how it may apply to the modern church.
Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Now in order to understand the context of this you need to be aware of the situation of the Roman church. When the early church began it sprang out of Judaism. It was initially another sect like Sadduceeism or Phariseeism, but that gradually began to change, largely through St. Paul’s group, as they found the Holy Spirit leading them to preach to Gentiles, non-Jews like us.
The church in Rome was probably started as a result of Jews from the day of Pentecost taking their new found faith back to the city, rather than from any direct mission by any of the apostles since they began their church before any missionary activity spread. There was a widespread Jewish population in Rome and had been for about a hundred years or so.
The pivotal action, though, was in AD49, the on-going dispute between Jews and Jewish Christians resulted in emperor Claudius expelling all Jews, both Christian and Judaistic. Now the expulsion only lasted about five years because Claudius died in AD54, but that was enough. The Gentile Christians were left alone for just a few years, and in that time the character of the church would have changed.
Imagine, then, what it was like for a Jewish Christian to be able to return to the city only to find that the essential style and nature of worship in church had changed dramatically and lost a lot of its Jewishness. It would be like you going away for a few years and when you come back and rejoin this church you discover that this service has become a charismatic one with lots of singing and dancing.
[Note - this sermon was preached at Prayer Book Communion and Evensong!]
You can quite easily put yourself in their shoes. There had been a revolution because the Gentiles who had been left behind had concluded that Christianity was not predominantly Jewish. Now there had to be a reckoning. Would there be love or a split? So Paul writes to try and show them that this had been foreseen by the prophets, quoting the prophets and showing that even the early Jewish patriarchs had seen this coming.
He was instructing them that Jesus was making the Father available to everyone, and that it was right that Gentiles should come into the church, and that the Jewish Christians should rejoice with them because this was part of God’s plan for the Jews to lead this mission. You can truly sense the pouring of oil on troubled waters as he exhorts them to worship together and be mutually filled with joy and hope in believing together.
And there is a similar kind of revolution going on in Matthew’s Gospel. Here we find Jews relying on their heritage for salvation only for John the Baptist to declare how worthless that is, and that God can make new followers out of stones if he wants to, and that what is really needed is repentance. Once again we have a revolutionary teaching, that being born a Jew isn’t enough; one had to live a life that was bearing fruit to be counted as a child of Abraham.
Over and over again, throughout church history there have been revolutions overturning the old order, or attempting to do so. Was the Gospel also for non-Jews? Did not-Jews have to be circumcised? Was slavery appropriate? In every case the revolution has stood or fallen depending on whether it was deemed correct to reject a previously held teaching and accept a new one.
Those who sometimes declare a wish to return to how the church used to be when it first began should note that we have grown in Christ a great deal, and perhaps it would be unwise to return to a time when Christians accepted slavery, that circumcision was demanded and only ‘clean’ foods could be eaten in accordance with Torah.
But the question I think this raises for us is, what are we to do with the revolutions that are currently facing us? If you follow the news about the Anglican Communion you will be aware that we are facing a difficult time ahead as we try to decide whether or not it is right for women to be consecrated as bishops in the Church of England.
For me I find that, if I apply all the rules and tests for how we have made decisions in past church history, then I can see every reason to go ahead, that this is indeed the will of God, but I recognise that there are many who would disagree. At some point, when the readings suggest it, I will go into this in far more detail and explain why I believe in the consecration of women bishops, but in terms of today’s readings I think the more prominent issue is therefore going to be, how do we live with each other in the face of the revolution of ideas that are coming through?
Jesus said that people would know who we were by our love for each other. I don’t see a great deal of evidence of love amongst disagreeing parties in the church. We seem to be far more concerned with being right than with expressing brotherly and sisterly love for fellow believers. In this time of Advent preparation, then, the question it raises for us to consider is, when we disagree with other believers, will we regard loving unity as being more important than theological correctness, or is that we’re no different from the rest of the world, and all we really want is to get our own way. Amen