Second Sunday after Christmas Day, Year C
2 January 2022
John 1:(1-9), 10-18
I had a bit of an exchange with an old friend from middle school. We spent a lot of years together, in school, confirmation class, youth group, and hiking together.
He sent me a greeting by the Dalai Lama, titled something like world peace through empathy. It’s an hour long and I haven’t watched it yet. But I replied saying that together we mourn Archbishop Tutu, as Tutu and the Dalai Lama were connected through the bond of friendship. My friend replied with the wish that there continue to be women and men who will stand up for justice.
My parents were not church-going people, at least not in their younger years. However, they did find their way into the body of Christ and so my brother and I were raised in the church, and at least for myself I would say, raised by the church.
It was a Lutheran church that we were a part of and forgiveness was perhaps as big a deal as it was for Martin Luther. This was expressed in the monthly practice of corporate confession and forgiveness with the laying on of hands while the words of absolution were spoken to you, but also perhaps in an emphasis on our sinfulness. The emphasis on our sinfulness was perhaps coloured somewhat by evangelicalism where our sinfulness becomes a tool to bring about conversion in people. We are sinful, therefore we are doomed, our only hope is in God and the forgiveness God grants us in Jesus.
I did not disagree with that. I had no doubts about my own sinfulness, and yet while I never doubted God’s forgiveness, my own forgiveness was harder to come by than God’s forgiveness in Jesus.
And so I was perhaps not entirely convinced that speaking of human sinfulness was the tool to affect conversion, but since forgiveness was not my biggest theological issue, it also did not lie at the heart of my thoughts about God and the world.
What did lie at the heart of my thoughts about our life with God was not how we would obtain forgiveness, God had established that in Jesus, but how life with God might change me, make me the person I wanted to be, and make me the person God wanted me to be.
And so my last reply to my childhood friend’s hope for courageous women and men who would stand up for justice was that it was my hope that he and I would be found in that group that together with others would not be satisfied to only bandage the wounds of victims crushed by the wheels of injustice, but that we would be people who would drive a spoke into the wheel itself.
If you recognize this phrase, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words in 1933.
There is reason for us to believe that our faith is not only about forgiveness but also about change. That change is brought about by God and when Paul calls the addressees of his letter holy ones or saints, he also harkens back to the designation of the people of Israel, a people set apart as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”1
That our change is brought about by God Paul makes clear by telling us that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (v.3). Everything else flows forth from this, and everything else is worked in Christ.
Paul’s arguments always work from what God has accomplished: Since we live in Christ, let us live lives worthy of our calling,2 worthy of the Gospel.3 God’s doing is first, our response follows.
That Paul’s arguments work this way is not a rhetorical strategy, it is not a pep talk, but rather an affirmation of what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. And that God has accomplished our salvation in Jesus leads Paul to say that if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).
And if Paul is right, if God has blessed us with every blessing of the Spirit, has adopted us in Christ, has made known to us the mystery of his will, and has given us the inheritance, then truly we can live as the children of God. Then living in Christ is not a matter of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps but of claiming what God has given us in our baptism.
I was reading a short essay on the ability of persons and of nations to change.4 It is true that change is not easy, which may be why we should be a little easier on others. A rule of thumb I once heard was that as many years as it takes for a pattern to take hold of us, that is as many years we will need to establish a new pattern.
But back to the article. The author reminded us of the fact that rational arguments do not bring about change. The vaccination debate is a case in point but not the only one.
What brings about change is the experience of pain. Things are so bad that they cannot go on in the same way. The scriptures tell us that as we have died with Christ, we have also been raised with Christ, so that we might walk in newness of life. In our baptism into Christ we have experienced the crisis of the world and we have been raised with him to walk in newness of life.
And looking at those who have gone before us, whose lives have given witness to the light and life of God, and knowing from where they drew their strength, I think it quite possible for us to not only bandage the wounds of the victims of injustice but with our lives to witness to a better way: To love as God loves us, to forgive as God forgives us, to share ourselves as God shares Godself with us, to turn the other cheek as Jesus turned the other cheek, to be patient as God is patient with us.
The way to live in this way is to worship in the community of the church where everything we just mentioned is constitutive of our common worship and where God gives us a better vision than the one we are capable of nurturing on our own.
1 See Exodus 19:6 and 23:22 in the rendering of the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures).
2 Ephesians 4:1
3 Philippians 1:27