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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 10: John 1:14

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
John 1:14

By Revd Canon Andrew Bunch

Throughout my life, Christmas has been one of the highlights of the year, particularly when I was a child. Was it the festive church services that made it all so special? Well, if I am totally honest, I think the answer would be no, not really. It was the family atmosphere, the special food and the Christmas cake, but most especially waking up on Christmas morning and wondering what presents there were to be unwrapped. Yes, the day was full of expectation, joy, and family love. Going to church was part of this celebration, but it was the physical reality of the secular celebration that made the day really special.

Now you might find that a shocking admission from someone who is/ was your parish priest and was brought up in a vicarage household. It might sound as if it was a betrayal of the centrality of the Christian Gospel in the shaping of our lives. But I just wonder if this degree of honesty is actually a call to strip away some of the sideshows of what we take as the Christian Gospel and discover the real significance of Christmas for our lives.

Just take a step back and ask a few questions about what is recorded about the birth of Jesus in the Gospels. First, the details of the birth of Jesus are not recorded in either the Gospel of Mark or in John. These two Gospel writers didn’t think it was either important enough to record or the details had not been remembered by them. The name of Jesus’ earthly father is not noted by Mark and John doesn’t mention the name of Jesus’ mother. So, in two of the Gospels the birth and early years of Jesus’ life are not seen as being particularly significant to the Gospel to be communicated.

It is true that both Matthew and Luke name both Jesus’ earthly father and mother and both give an account of his birth, but there are some major differences between the two accounts. The way the two Gospels handle the material around Jesus’ birth indicate a considerable overlay of theology built up around Jesus’ birth. In Matthew there is a desire to show Jesus’ birth is special in nature but also rooted in the past associated with the people of Israel. In Luke, Jesus’ birth is also seen as miraculous, but two themes seem to shape the story; namely the failure of the established leaders of the nation’s religion to be able to believe the word of God in action (Zechariah not believing the angel in the Holy of Holies) and the reconciliation of past hurts as Simeon greets Jesus, Joseph’s son (recall the enmity between Joseph and Simeon  in Genesis 42). Both Matthew and Luke see something very special is associated with the birth of Jesus, but it seems in all four Gospels it is not the details of Jesus’ birth that are of primary importance and needs to be celebrated, it is something much greater than this.

I believe the that primary importance of the Christmas celebration is neatly captured in the words of John… “The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us and we beheld his glory, the Glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. This is the heart of our faith about the birth of Jesus, that his very presence and life display the nature and love of God in material form. So rather than scoff and make tut-tutting noises about the secular Christmas celebrations, maybe we should recognise they have a point. At Christmas, maybe we should look around afresh at this material world and stop and wonder. For it is the love and glory that we experience in a physical form in this material world, that we see the nature of God most fully. It is God’s creation, and it is his gift to us.

Jesus’ life and witness demonstrate how wonderful and beautiful this world can be when we open our eyes to see God’s glory and grace in his creation. Yes, let’s give thanks for the opening of our eyes to this truth and make the celebration of Christmas something which is truly glorious and inclusive. In this way, maybe we are on the point of recognising God’s presence more fully in the midst of his most wonderful creation that he has given us to enjoy.

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Autumn 2020 reflections Reflections

Week 9: John 20:19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’
John 20:19-23

By Revd Daniel Walters

“Fear”, a wise spiritual teacher once said, “is the path to the dark side”.

Okay, it was a fictional green alien spiritual teacher from Star Wars, but the point still stands. We don’t generally think of fear as being a moral weakness, but as a legitimate emotional response to a dangerous situation. Indeed, if humans literally had no fear, then we would not have survived for as long as we have!

But, famously, the Biblical injunction to “not be afraid” is the most frequent instruction given to believers, in both the Old and New Testaments. It may not be spoken 365 times as is sometimes claimed, but we are certainly talking triple figures, especially if we include similar phrases.

In this case, however, when Jesus appears to the apostles for the first time after the resurrection – huddled as they were in a locked room, terrified of the religious authorities – Jesus does not tell them to “not be afraid”. Instead he says something far more profound: he says “peace be with you”.

Being at peace is something far deeper than a simple lack of fear. It is a lifetime’s work of being truly able to accept oneself and those around us. To see both ourselves and others, and the whole created order, as truly creatures of God, loved unconditionally by him.

I suspect that’s something few of us will ever fully achieve in this life (I know I certainly have a long way to go!), but the fleeting glimpses we may receive are precious gifts that stay with us.

Yet just as Jesus offers this gift of peace to his disciples, to his friends, he gives them something which perhaps should strike them with fear: he sends them out, just as he was sent by his heavenly Father. He compares their mission here on Earth, which is about to begin, to his own which is coming to an end.

And what is their mission? To forgive the sins of others. To make it known to all that the poor choices they have made, the destructive habits which they have adopted, are not what defines them. What does define them, what gives them value is the fact that they are beloved children of God.

What a responsibility for the disciples! To not be afraid of this awesome charge would suggest a big dose of humility is needed. And yet, this is the very mission of the community of God: the Church.

In John’s Gospel, it is perhaps here that the Church is born, formed around this mission of peace through forgiveness. A mission that is beyond any of us, but not beyond God’s Holy Spirit, working in us and through us – and sometimes, even despite us.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep all of our hearts and minds in the knowledge of his love and his forgiveness this Advent and Christmas. Amen.

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