‘Who presides?’ (part one)

I expect that this will be the first in a series of posts on the subject of whether or not a person who is not an ordained priest may legitimately ‘preside’ at the Eucharist or Holy Communion service. This series will inevitably include some theological discussion, but I want to begin, not with theology, but with a practical issue.

In the Diocese of the Arctic, where I ministered for seven years, there were in those days a number of what we would call in the south ‘multi-point parishes’ – that is to say, parishes in which one full-time ordained priest looked after churches in two or three different communities. The reason for this was of course financial; there was not enough money to pay a full-time priest to live in each community. This situation is common in rural Canada, and in the south it isn’t too complicated; a priest becomes a road warrior who gets up on Sunday morning and drives between the communities of his or her parish, leading two or three services of Holy Communion in different places each week. The different congregations all fight for prime time, of course, which is a drawback (11.00 Sunday morning is always better attended than 3.00 Sunday afternoon), but for the most part the situation is workable, and parishes celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper frequently, if not every week.

In the Arctic, however, there was the added complication that the distances are much greater and the only way of getting between the communities is by air. This was ridiculously expensive and so, rather than the ‘out stations’ receiving communion every week or two at less convenient times, they actually received a visit from their priest three or four times a year, and when he or she came, they stayed for a week or more, visiting and catechising and administering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion and so on (I should point out that this was the situation when I lived there twenty years ago; it may have changed since then).

Many of those out-stations actually had quite well-trained lay readers or catechists resident in the community: locally raised-up leaders who had received a pretty good preparation for the work of leading services of morning and evening prayer (which was the usual Sunday fare when the priest was not present), preaching and teaching and so on. For the most part these were well-respected local Christians. However, they had not been to seminary, and there was a long-established tradition in the Diocese of the Arctic (for reasons involving complicated family dynamics) that when a person was ordained they were not sent back to their own community as a priest. As a result, rather than the bishop giving permission for a perfectly competent local leader or leaders to preside at Holy Communion on a more frequent basis (which would be contrary to ancient ‘catholic’ tradition and practice), these communities became what we might call ‘occasionally sacramental’ – that is, their customary form of worship was Morning and Evening Prayer with sermon, and once a quarter or so a priest was flown in, at great expense, to provide sacramental ministry to the community.

The irony here is that this is the very kind of parish life that the Anglo-Catholic revival of the nineteenth century found so problematic. It was common in England in the early 1800s for churches to celebrate Holy Communion once a quarter, even though they had resident priests; it was the Anglo-Catholic revival (which insisted that Holy Communion was the only form of Sunday service instituted by Jesus) that aimed to change this. The high sacramental theology of Anglo-Catholicism insists that a weekly celebration of Holy Communion in each parish should be the Christian norm, and yet its high theology of priesthood in the apostolic succession (another feature of Anglo-Catholicism, but also one which all Anglican Christianity practices, whether it agrees with it in theory or not) coupled with the desire for a properly educated priesthood (hence the requirement in many places for a Master’s degree and a full- or part-time salary for the priest), have made such a weekly celebration impossible for many parishes around the world in the Anglican Communion – for my story about the Arctic could be duplicated in many parts of Africa and South America.

Consider further the situation that occurs in parishes with their own full-time priest when the rector goes on holiday. In my parish I usually go away for a three-week holiday in the summer time, and take a couple of other weeks at other times during the year. What happens when I am away? Well, we are not quite so insistent on a weekly celebration of Holy Communion as many Anglican parishes (it is our custom to have a ‘service of the Word’ on the last Sunday of the month), so usually we arrange for a priest to visit the parish during the middle week of my holiday, and for our lay-readers to lead Morning Worship without Holy Communion on the other two Sundays. It is not always easy to find a visiting priest, but usually we are able to do so with a bit of effort.

We do of course have four perfectly competent lay-readers in the parish, who are well-respected local Christians and have been properly trained for their ministry of leading non-sacramental worship and preaching; they are also up-front with me and share in the leadership of the Holy Communion service every week, although not saying the Eucharistic Prayer (the part of the service reserved, in our Anglican polity, for the priest).  But once again, rather than the bishop giving permission during the priest’s holiday for one of the lay-readers to preside at Holy Communion and consecrate the bread and wine, we are obliged to bring in a stranger to the parish (who has to get used to our way of doing things) to consecrate the elements. Either that, or in some parishes they ‘reserve’ bread and wine from a previous celebration of Holy Communion and have what is called a ‘reserved sacrament service’ – i.e. something resembling a Holy Communion service, commanded by Jesus to be done ‘in remembrance of him’, without actually including the specific prayer that remembers him!

And this is where the discussion about lay-presidency at the Eucharist (as it is called) needs to begin, in my view. It is often caricatured, by opponents of the idea, as a free-for-all: members of the congregation presiding at the service in a haphazard, random sort of way, without any proper preparation or training or order of any kind, so that the Eucharist becomes, not the sacrament of the whole catholic Church presided over by the local representative of the universal church, the duly-ordained priest, but a purely local thing, the property of the local congregation or, worse, of individuals within it, each of whom feels that he or she ‘has the right’ to preside.

This caricature needs to be knocked on the head immediately. I am aware of no responsible advocate of lay-presidency who is suggesting such a thing. In the second century A.D., Bishop Ignatius of Antioch laid it down as a rule that no celebration of the Eucharist should be considered valid unless it was presided over by the bishop, or one who had been appointed by the bishop. The question I would like to consider in this series is whether this ‘appointment’ should be understood strictly as permanent ordination as we now understand it, or whether the bishop might legitimately and validly appoint other, non-ordained persons to preside at the sacrament of Holy Communion, in the full sense of saying (on behalf not just of the congregation but of the whole catholic Church) the Eucharistic prayer or prayer of consecration, by means of which the bread and wine of Holy Communion become for us the Body and Blood of Christ, .

Next up: who actually presided at the Eucharist in the early church?

Old Fashioned Communication Methods

I suppose that most people who like to read keep books in their bathrooms. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to, but we all do it.

I’ve usually got three or four books sitting beside the ‘Throne’, and invariably, one of them is a book of letters by C.S. Lewis. I have the three volumes of Lewis’ collected letters, each one a big fat book, and I just leave one in the bathroom all the time, slowly working my way through it until I’m finished, when I replace it with the next one. After about two years, I start at the beginning again.

Lewis’ letters never fail to satisfy me, even after all these years of readings. There is literary criticism, offered up on an individual basis to friends or students; there is controversy with friends over theology or literary matters; there is ‘spiritual direction’, for want of a better term, offered to people who had read his books and had written for his advice; there are countless thank you letters to American admirers who sent him ‘care packages’ of food during the bad days of rationing during and immediately after the Second World War. Usually, Lewis wrote briefly, although there are long letters in the collections as well. Always, he wrote clearly and with what a friend of mine used to call ‘sanctified common sense’. Through his letters, Lewis has become one of my most reliable spiritual guides.

I am grateful, then, that these letters were preserved, written by hand (in later life, a very reluctant and arthritic hand) with an old fashioned nib pen, dipped manually into a bottle of ink in the old way. They have been painstakingly collected from many different sources and edited and compiled by Walter Hooper.

But where will future generations of such letters be found? Who actually sits down and writes a letter nowadays – I mean ‘writes’, with a pen, on real paper, and then seals it in an envelope and sends it through the mail? Who even bothers to type up a letter to send by mail? The vast majority of us just send an email. And I know what they say, that in cyberspace things last forever, but I don’t think that’s the case. I regularly clean out my inbox and delete emails I don’t need to keep. If I had been one of Lewis’ correspondents, would I have kept every email he sent me, right from the beginning? Probably not.

Well, like it or not, we can’t turn the clock back. But reflecting on this has made me wonder whether it would not be good for my soul to get the old pen and paper out from time to time and write a good old fashioned letter, one you have to put in an envelope and buy a stamp for. I have a fountain pen and I like to write with it (not a dip pen like Lewis used, but an ink pen nonetheless, that you can change the cartridges in, or even install a reservoir and fill from an ink bottle). And I remember a few years ago, when a good friend of mine died, and another very good friend wrote me a letter of sympathy; she took out pen and paper and wrote me an old fashioned letter, beginning with the line, ‘This subject somehow seemed too important for something as trivial as an email’.

I’m also wondering about the phone. My Dad and Mum are elderly and my Mum barely has time to keep up with emails; I find myself picking up the phone now and calling her almost every day. My brother, and a couple of my other old friends, stare at emails all day long at work and don’t like sitting down at a computer again when they get home. One of my new year’s resolutions is going to be to pick up the phone more and have more conversations with those I love who are far away from me, using the old fashioned methods.

Email is a wonderful tool and I enjoy the simplicity and the immediacy of it, but some people are slipping through the cracks, and some good things are being lost. Time to think about how to address that problem.

Stephen

Another good post at Anglicans Online, this time about Stephen, whose feast day is today.

Poor St Stephen, not only the first martyr to Christ but also the first martyr to Christmas, his feast day lost as most clergy enjoy their first decent day off for ages and even the most avid churchgoer feels sated after Carols, Christingle, Crib Service, Midnight Mass and Christmas morning Eucharist.

Even in the Bible he appears only briefly on the scene; ordained deacon by the apostles in Acts 6, he is dead by the end of Acts 7 after one recorded sermon. Accorded the position of patron saint of deacons during the early centuries he finds his own transient ministry echoed in the way that for much of that time (and still largely today) the Western church has seen the role of deacon as a one year preparation for priesthood.

Yet for one brief moment it is Stephen rather than one of the twelve who is at the centre of the story. And in that moment he does two remarkable things.

Read the rest here.

The Queen’s Christmas Message

I like the fact that, although the Queen is always respectful of other religions, she is never afraid to speak from a specifically Christian position:

Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: ‘Fear not’, they urged, ‘we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.’

Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) – but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.

Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.

In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin
And enter in
Be born in us today

It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas.

Read the whole thing here – or watch it here.

Sermon for Christmas Day: Luke 2:1-20

Good News is for Sharing

There’s been a lot of good news flying around St. Margaret’s in the last few weeks, in the form of birth announcements. Since November three families in our congregation have been blessed with the arrival of new babies, and I’ve been amazed each time at how fast the news has travelled. Of course, in these days of Facebook and Twitter it’s even easier to share that sort of news; put up a status update and a photograph of the new baby and immediately you get a hundred messages of congratulation! But whether modern technology is used or not, I’m still fascinated by our instinctive urge to share good news. No one tells us that we should do it; we just hear a story of gladness and joy and we feel somehow compelled to pass it on. Good news is for sharing!

In our Christmas gospel reading for this morning we read about the passing on of good news. First of all we have the angel of the Lord appearing to the shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth. This is what he says:

“Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (vv.10-12).

After this a great choir of angels appears to the shepherds, singing the praises of God.

What’s the next thing that happened? Luke tells us that when the angels had left them, ‘the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”’ (v.15). So they left their flocks to look after themselves, and they went down into Bethlehem to search for the child.

I must admit that I chuckle a bit when I think of how they might have gone about their search. Did they knock on every door in town and ask, “Excuse me – is there a new baby in this house? Er – is he lying in a manger?” I expect they got a few strange looks, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few doors were slammed in their faces! But eventually, by whatever means, they found the right house; they found the baby and Mary and Joseph, and they told everyone they met what the angels said to them about this new child. The good news had been given to them, and now they were passing it on to other people. Good news is for sharing!

What was it about the message they had heard that would have motivated the shepherds to abandon their flocks and run down to Bethlehem to see this child? It certainly wasn’t just the fact that a baby was born. I mean, I’m sure the new parents in our congregation were very excited at the arrival of their newborn babies, but they wouldn’t expect total strangers to abandon their work schedules just to come to the hospital to see for themselves how their particular baby is of course the most beautiful child ever born!

No, it was what was said about the child that motivated the shepherds to go and see for themselves. The angel said, ‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11). The word ‘Messiah’ today tends to have an exclusively religious meaning, but that wasn’t the meaning in those days. The Messiah was a deliverer, a king who God was going to send to rescue his people from oppression and violence and restore them to prosperity and peace. And when the Israelites looked back in their history, the model they used for the Messiah wasn’t a preacher like Jesus; it was a famous king, their first great king actually, David. He himself had been a shepherd boy in this very town of Bethlehem, but God had chosen him and had led him by a long and tortuous journey until he became the king of Israel and delivered his people from the threat of the powerful Philistines.

So when the angel told the shepherds that the Messiah had been born, their excitement wasn’t just to do with what we might call today ‘religious’ feelings. They believed that God was about to cause a great change in their circumstances; God was sending them the King who would deliver his people from their enemies and usher in prosperity and peace for everyone. No doubt the shepherds could imagine this having a direct impact on their own lives – hence their excitement.

Of course, we know today that Jesus confounded some of those expectations. He chose not to be a political and military ruler, because he knew that political and military solutions to human problems may work in the short term, but in the long term they don’t address our human addiction to sin and evil. And so when he grew up he chose instead the path of gathering together a group of followers and teaching them the way of life of the kingdom of God – a way based not on violence and greed, but on love for God and for your neighbour and even for your enemy. He embodied this way himself when he went to the cross, and God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. He then sent his followers out to share the good news of God’s power and love with the whole world, and they went out boldly and fearlessly to tell everyone that God has made this Jesus the true Lord and Messiah. Once again, good news was for sharing! And they did it to tremendous effect; although they had no organisation and no access to mass media, the community of followers of Jesus spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean world and beyond. And two thousand years later, here we are this morning, still celebrating the good news that the angel brought ‘for all the people’.

Note those words, ‘for all the people’ (v.10). To put it bluntly, the shepherds weren’t normally the recipients of royal birth announcements! They were ordinary working class people, making a living by the strength of their hands and the sweat of their brows. Their work forced them to break the Sabbath, and so they were often looked down on by the religious people of the day, and we can be certain that the political rulers didn’t give them a second thought. Would they have expected to get an invitation to the birth of the next royal prince of the house of David, who would grow up to be God’s anointed king? I suspect not.

But they did get that announcement, and they were invited to the birth of the new prince. And this is just one example of the way Jesus reached out to the marginalized and to outsiders and to the people who no one else cared about. When he became an adult Jesus was constantly being criticized for partying with the wrong people; instead of spending time with the righteous, he went around with tax collectors and prostitutes and other lawbreakers, and he invited them to come into God’s kingdom and learn the new way of life he was teaching. Good news is for sharing – but it’s for sharing with everyone, not just the select few who have the inside track.

And so the shepherds were excited to be invited to this event, and they willingly left their sheep and came down to celebrate the birth of God’s anointed King. And this morning you are like them. When I was a little boy growing up in England, Christmas Day services were very popular, but I’ve discovered that this is not the case in Canada in the twenty-first century! Most people, even Christians, do not include a Christmas Day service in their Christmas celebrations. And I’m sure you had lots of other options for spending this hour on Christmas morning – options involving coffee, and Christmas cake, and wrapping paper, and gathering arund the tree and so on. But you’ve left all that behind – you’ve ‘left your flocks to look after themselves on the hills’, as it were – and you’ve come down to join in the celebration.

Why have you done that? I suspect it’s because you love Jesus. You try to live with him at the centre of your life; you do your best to walk with him, listening to his word and trying to put it into practice. And the decision to be here this morning is a conscious choice to put him right at the centre of your life, even of your Christmas Day celebrations.

So here we are on Christmas morning, gathered at the manger (metaphorically speaking), and what do we find? Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, we find ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.10). The baby in the manger who looks so ordinary turns out to be extraordinary; he’s the one whom God has sent to change the world by the power of love. When we welcome him into our lives, he gives us the power to be what we can’t be by ourselves; he give us the power to change, and to live the life that God dreamed for us when he first created us. We receive that good news ourselves, and we experience its reality, and we in our turn pass it on to others, and they also are changed by it. And so the world is changed one heart at a time, and the kingdom of God comes nearer and nearer.

The invitation goes out to all of us, without exception. Some might find themselves thinking, “I’m not the sort of person God would be very interested in. I’m no one significant, and anyway I’ve done a few things I’m not all that proud of. I’m not really sure that God would welcome me if I turned up at his door; I’m sure he has more important people than me to worry about”. I’m sure that’s what the shepherds thought, but they discovered that the invitation is sent out to everyone. The good news is ‘for all the people’. It doesn’t say, ‘for all the people, except for you!’ It says, ‘for all the people’ without exception.

And so let us, who have been welcomed by Jesus into the presence of God, also in our turn welcome him – into our hearts and into our homes, into our places of work and recreation, into all that we do and say and think and feel. Let’s experience for ourselves the good news that he is our Saviour, and let’s not forget to pass it on. Good news is for sharing. I’ve passed it on to you this morning; now it’s your turn to pass it on to others. And may God bless you in the sharing of it. Amen.

What would Jesus do – today of all days?

A lovely Christmas piece from Bishop Alan Wilson on ‘Thinking Anglicans’:

What would Jesus do… today of all days?

Lo within a manger lies
he who built the starry skies…

Doing what? Sleeping? Staring at the ceiling? Filling the first century equivalent of nappies? an occasional infantile gurgle or puke?

What did Jesus do? Not much, I’d say — certainly nothing out of the ordinary. The manger scene reveals the Son of God in a state of almost complete passivity.

The baby in the manger is almost as helpless as the tortured body on the cross.

And yet Christian theology says that in these two episodes of utter helplessness Jesus accomplished his life’s work, far beyond our capacity to describe let alone understand the implications. They are the heart of the good news, the foundation upon which everything else rests.

Read the rest here. Do – it’s worth it.

Christians Awake

Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man. You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come. Let us then joyfully celebratethe coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

From a sermon by St. Augustine. h/t Brutally Honest and Standing on My Head.

Sermon for Christmas Eve: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20

A Different Kind of King

In our Old Testament reading for tonight, from the book of Isaiah, we heard these words:

‘For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders’ (Isaiah 9:6).

Or, in the more familiar language of the King James Version,

‘and the government shall be upon his shoulders’.

When we hear these words, we ought to breathe a sigh of relief, because what we really need right now is someone with integrity who will shoulder the burden of government for us, someone who can carry our problems and find a solution. We’re tired of leaders who just aren’t up to the job. They’re faced with global terrorism, with a coming food crisis, with ongoing troubles in the global financial system, with the approaching crisis of climate change, and with so many other problems. Our leaders do the best they can, but in the long run, not much seems to change. The world is just as violent now as it was when I was born. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider. Emissions are going up, not down. And of course, everyone loves to blame the politicians for it, when the truth is that we’re all implicated, in one way or another. The burden is too much for these people to bear. Quite frankly, they’re not up to the task. No one is.

And so it comes as a great relief for us to know that God has a plan. God has sent us a leader who will be up to the task. After all, look at the names given to him in verse 6 of our reading from Isaiah:

‘…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’.

It sounds as if God himself is about to stride onto the stage of human history and take charge; surely he should be up to the task! And what will be the result of his rule? Look a little further on:

‘His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and righteousness
from this time forward and for evermore’ (v.7).

It sounds like God is finally going to sort things out!

But when we turn to the gospels, we get a surprise. It’s a surprise that had been hinted at in some of the Old Testament prophets, but it’s fair to say that most people hadn’t noticed it there. It looks very much like a change of plan on God’s part, although when we look at the whole story, we can see that it’s very much in line with God’s original purposes. And the surprise is this: God sends a king, but the king refuses to rule – at least, in the way that kings and politicians usually rule.

In our gospel reading for tonight we come face to face with two different kinds of power. In the first few verses we read about the power of big government:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David (Luke 2:1-4).

This is power! The divine Augustus sits on his throne in Rome, gives an order, and the whole empire starts to move. People’s lives are impacted, trade is disrupted, while all over the world officials start to register people – all so that Rome can be more efficient in the collection of taxes, of course! But just imagine the power that can cause this to happen! If you want to make an impact on the world, this is the sort of power that you need.

In those days the Roman emperor was the most powerful ruler the world had ever known. Like many absolute rulers, he claimed some pretty amazing titles for himself. Two of those titles were ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’. And yet, later on in our gospel reading, these same titles are taken by an angel and applied to the adopted son of a Galilean carpenter – one who had been caught up in Augustus’ registration and forced to take a journey far from home at the worst possible time in his wife’s pregnancy:

‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11).

This must have seemed a very strange thing to the early Christian converts who first heard Luke’s story of Christmas – that the angel would take the titles of great Caesar, and apply them to this powerless and defenceless man from Galilee. Evidently God’s idea of power is very different from ours.

So on the one hand we have the enormous power of Rome – and of governments since then, whether totalitarian or democratic. On the other hand, we have a child who was born far from home, who very quickly had to flee from his own country as a refugee from Herod’s death squads, and who was raised as the son of a carpenter in Galilee. He spent most of his life in obscurity before striding onto the stage for a brief three years of teaching and healing and exorcising, before Rome decided it was time to put him in his place by nailing him to a cross. Isaiah may have said that ‘authority rests upon his shoulders’, but the only sort of authority that ever rested on Jesus’ shoulders was the authority of Rome, symbolized by that cross they made him carry to his place of execution.

But things aren’t always as they seem. The Roman empire is long gone, but strangely enough, the movement Jesus started is still here. In the earliest days it had no power to compel people to follow it; it had no budget, no strategic plan, no access to Twitter or Facebook or anything of the kind – but in a couple of hundred years it transformed the Mediterranean world, and it’s still going strong today. At times it has been seduced by the love of power, but those times have always been looked back on as failures. The times when the Jesus movement has been most effective in transforming the world have been the times when it has looked most like its Master – the one who worked by the power of love, not the love of power –  the one who allowed himself to be crucified rather than destroying his enemies and imposing his will on others.

So Luke’s story introduces us to a different empire, a different emperor, a different kind of emperor. Jesus isn’t simply another politician on whom everyone can pin their hopes, but who will then let them down.  His way of establishing peace and justice on earth was totally different from the usual games about power and money. Today we’re hungry for just that difference, and Christmas is a good time to think about it.

How do you change the world? Not from the top down, says Luke – not by seizing control of the government and imposing your will on others. Even when that’s done with the best of motives, in the end it just seems to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, and the results are usually disappointing.

No, you change the world from the bottom up – by transforming people’s lives, by giving them a vision of life as God intended it, and by giving them the power to live that life. You change the world through the lives of ordinary people like the shepherds of Bethlehem, and like the family of a Galilean construction worker, who meet God and are forever changed by the meeting. You don’t change the world by having the sort of authority that makes people bow before you and serve you as slaves – washing your feet when you come in from walking on the dirty roads. No, you change the world by being the one who does the footwashing, the one who serves other people in love. As you know, in the mind of Jesus there’s no contradiction between absolute authority and humble service: ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (John 13:14-15).

This is the slow and messy way of changing the world, because on the surface it looks weak and inefficient compared to the usual power-grab. But centuries of experience should have taught us by now that the usual power grab may look effective, but it’s really not. As one of my Bible teachers used to say, ‘a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’. Forcing people to do something, when their hearts and lives are not really changed, will not accomplish much in the long run. It may succeed in restraining evil for a while, but it can’t establish goodness. For that, you need inner transformation.

And so God doesn’t force himself on people – he simply knocks, and waits for them to respond. As the well-known verse from Revelation has it, ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’ (3:20). There’s a risk in operating this way, of course – the risk that there will be ‘no room at the inn’ – that we will refuse to find room in our lives for God and for God’s way of transforming the world. Apparently God thinks the risk is worth taking.

So tonight, as we remember the birth of our King, let’s embrace his way of being king, his way of changing the world – the way of seemingly small actions in the lives of ordinary people, acting, as Jesus said, like yeast gradually working its way through the whole lump of flour, or like a tiny seed being planted in the ground and gradually growing into the largest of plants. Our acts of love, in obedience to Jesus, are the most potent force to change the world. So let’s leave this place tonight as followers of Jesus, doing those acts of love in the name of Jesus and by the power of Jesus, and let’s trust the results to him.