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CHRISTMAS 2006

This is a disturbing Christmas for American Episcopalians. A great deal of the news is Bad News, in stark contrast to Gospel, Good News. The recent defections in Virginia have brought home to many of us the reality of our divided state more than perhaps any other defection or pronouncement since the latest round of the battle for TEC’s soul began. It is not that the news of people leaving us, collectively or individually is “news”, but that so many parishes and missions in one place being involved is “news”. There is as powerful an act as the threats to take away their property by resorting to secular courts. Let Caesar’s power arm us.

Certainly the noise of schism tends to obscure the glory of Bethlehem. As we stand firm for our differing positions the news of a condescending God emptying himself into a girl’s womb and then into a dirty manger seems weak and powerless. I love the old KJV translation of that glorious passage in Philippians. “He made himself of no reputation.”

Philippians 2: 1- 18 seems to me to be as vital a passage in describing the ideal of the Church as the more usually quoted passages in Ephesians. It draws together the grounds for our own individual and corporate condescension and anchors this self emptying in the Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection/Ascension. The point is extraordinary. God becomes vulnerable, lives a vulnerable life, makes no claims to protect his status, his holiness, his purity, but lives among men and women, and very often men and women who have been rejected by those whose personal pride and sense of virtue describes and limits their religiosity. In the end he is done to death by a coalition of colonial rulers, religious folk, politicians and opportunists.

In modern times this non-violent approach to truth has inspired many a prophet, Christian or non-Christian and in many cases led to the same result. Humans must fight to protect what they believe to be essential even if one must die for the people. The end justifies the means.

This brings us to where we are today. Unlike the child Jesus, we don’t want to be born powerless, offering only loving service, servanthood to others. Unlike the grown up Jesus we want to draw a sharp distinction between those with whom we make common cause, left or right -perhaps even center – and those who do not live up to our notions of purity. The litmus test about purity may take the form of rejecting fellowship with conservatives or liberals. We have power to reject, power to withdraw, power to withhold money, power to create our own new world in a TEC separated from the Anglican Communion free to pursue a “liberal” agenda, or in an ecclesial body separated from TEC in which we are free to create our comfortable “conservative” future.

Yet if St. Paul is right, we are to possess the mind of Christ, risking vulnerability by being born again into the real world full of real people. It was said of Jesus that the foxes have lairs and the birds of the air their nest, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. No property disputes there. We are to risk losing, losing everything, dying, really dying to self, to our plans, our solutions, our “doxies” and “praxies” in a death which has no guarantee of resurrection -that would still be painful and dreadful but incomplete. Knowing we will rise is cheating. No in God’s vulnerability we die and behold we live. Can we bear to think that God can change people through Word and Sacrament even if the parson talks tripe and the vestry funds odd causes? Can we believe that God is able to use the most flawed ecclesiastical establishment to do his will, be that establishment in Nigeria or the United States? Certainly that is what the living experience of Tradition tells us.

When we go to the manger on Sunday night, we will see the incarnate Body of Christ in all his fragility and helplessness. He offers to us His unity not in power or strength, power to enforce conformity, power to separate the wheat and the weeds, the sheep and the goats. Rather he offers us the power of love, which includes the power to help our brothers and sister who err into right belief, not to satisfy the Law but to rejoice in the Gospel.

What will be in the future will come about as God the Son through the Spirit works his self-denying, self offering purpose in love and not through our politics and acts of brute force. Nothing is more brutal than tearing in pieces that which God has called together. I believe that God will restore his church in the midst of the years. The agents of this restoration will be those who risk “making themselves of no reputation” and becoming slaves,”even unto the Cross.” Just as the angels rejoiced in the heavens at the mystery of the Incarnation so God will highly exalt those who in humility risk the death of the cross, who risk the path of love, and forgiveness and reconciliation. That self-emptying is a daily duty and a corporate responsibility so far from our repeated cries of self-justification, and our acts of self-promotion and self-love. Dare we offer up that we believe to be essential truth in an act of love towards those we now reject and scorn? Or like Peter do we prefer to take up the sword?

May the Christ-child give us the courage to love one another in our weakness and in that weakness discover God’s power to make all things new.

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