The Sunday after Christmas Day
31 December, AD 2017
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Isaiah 61:10–62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-1888
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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In the Diocese of Fredericton, where I was served before coming here, pretty little 19th-century gothic churches dot the countryside. In fact most of the Anglican churches in the diocese were built off the same basic pattern, long and narrow with high-pitched roofs, and the altars are either three, five or seven steps above the level of the congregation. And on the pulpits in several of these churches is carved a line from that scene St John’s gospel in which some Gentiles approach Philip saying, ‘”Sir, we wish to see Jesus’” (12:21).
John Medley was appointed the first Bishop of Fredericton by Queen Victoria at a time when something called the Oxford Movement had taken hold in the Church of England. Up until that time the prevailing view in the Church of England was that it was essentially the British Empire at prayer, functioning more or less as the religious arm of the state. Wherever the Empire expanded, the Church of England expanded with it. And one of its evangelistic goals, as the government saw it, was to teach the newly colonized locals how to be God-fearing, law-abiding subjects of the Crown, and to foster English standards of morality and culture. That was part of the religious legacy of Henry VIII who, 300 years before, had declared himself to be the head of the church.
Well, being a friend and ally of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, Bp Medley strongly promoted its teaching that the Church is not a branch of Her Majesty’s government, but a divine society established by Jesus Christ for the sole purpose of drawing all people to himself, and not for the preservation of peace, order and good manners throughout the Empire. And as such, the Church stands above kings and queens and parliaments. The Oxford Movement also placed a high value on the supreme authority, under God, of bishops, and a very high value on the sacraments as the chief means of ministering God’s grace in the Church. The leaders began to teach these things through a series of what they called Tracts for the Times, which is why they and their followers came to be known as Tractarians.
So to this end Medley set out, during his 47 years as bishop, to build churches in his diocese that reflected these values. He wasn’t a fan of the 18th-century Georgian church architecture that resembled government buildings and the pagan temples of Athens and Rome on the outside, and were designed on the inside primarily to be preaching halls. That’s because there’s more to Christian worship than just preaching. It’s an important part of it for sure, because the chief purpose of preaching is to immerse people more deeply in the Word of God, and to prepare them to meet God when he comes to them in the sacraments, especially baptism and holy communion, which are at least equally as important as preaching.
So Medley designed long gothic buildings with deep chancels and high altars to emphasize the transcendence and the majesty and the holiness of God. Most of those churches are still standing, and scattered all over the New Brunswick countryside. And on the pulpits of several of those churches is the simple message, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” a message that’s intended more for the preacher than the congregation. It defines the role of the preacher in the simplest of terms. It tells us that what we are called to do is not to grandstand on hot-button issues as ends in themselves– that’s for special interest groups to do, not preachers. The preacher’s role is not to draw attention to himself, but rather to preach the Gospel of Christ in a way that directs all attention to the reality of God in every situation in life, and to remind his people that in every situation our first priority is to seek and to follow his will. In short, it’s to show them Jesus. St John the Baptist summed the preacher’s job up very nicely when he said, “He [Jesus] must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
Bishop Medley and his fellow Tractarians tended to base their entire preaching ministry on the fullest expression of God’s will– the Incarnation. They shared an endless amazement over the fact that the Creator of everything emptied himself, being born as one of us in order to sanctify his creation from within, and to begin to restore it to its original dignity, and to recall his people to unity in him. And this amazement is largely rooted in the first chapter of St. John’s gospel, which we heard this morning.
Matthew and Luke give us the historical accounts of the Incarnation. They each locate the birth of Jesus by locating in a particular time and place, in Palestine during the reign of Caesar Augustus. But in today’s gospel, John tries to convey in human terms those realities that are ultimately beyond our understanding. Matthew, Mark and Luke talk about who Jesus is by talking about the things he did. They show us the historical Jesus in order to prove that he is the divine Christ, the Son of the living God. John begins by showing us the divine Christ in all his glory as the eternal Word that God spoke to create everything, who has now stepped into his creation in order to redeem it. It makes sense that the story of the Gentiles saying to Philip, “We wish to see Jesus,” should be found in John’s gospel, because it’s John that attempts to show us Jesus in a way that none of the other writer have done.
Austin Farrer was a 20th-century Tractarian who compares the mission of the Church and of the preacher to the purpose of a telescope. We spend too much time making a fuss about the Church, he says,
as a clever boy may make a fuss about a telescope, admiring its mechanism of tubes and lenses, and fiddling with the gadgets. But the purpose of the telescope is to eliminate itself and leave us face to face with the object of vision. So long as you are aware of the telescope you do not see the planet. But look, suddenly the focus is perfect; there is the hard ball of silver light, there are the sloping vapourous rings, and there are the clear points, the satellites. And where is the telescope? It is no more to us than the window-pane through which we look into our garden. (The End of Man, SPCK, 1973: 52).
The worship of the Church is like that. From the first ring of the bell to the dismissal, and all the components and gadgets in between, including the sermon, it’s intended not to be admired in and of itself as a well-orchestrated event. But when it is well-orchestrated so that every hymn, the sermon, the prayers, everything points to God as he has revealed himself in the reading of his holy Word, that’s when the people of God are carried into the awesome presence of God, when they’re able to see him whom they came here to see.
This is what Bishop Medley intended his church buildings to do– and what this church was built to do– along with the worship that happens inside them. And this is what John’s gospel is intended to do. And he sets up the whole of his gospel with the part of it that we read today. It begins by laying out the basics of Christian belief. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” At this point John the Evangelist inserts his account of John the Baptist in order to help sharpen the focus (we need to keep the two Johns straight here– the Evangelist wrote the gospel; the Baptist is the first human person he introduces). The one John says of the other, “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” “Through him,” John the Evangelist says, because John the Baptist is merely a lens in the telescope, not the central focus.
From there the Evangelist continues with his focusing narrative toward the climax of today’s reading: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”In profound simplicity John the Evangelist tells how earth and heaven are brought together. The more familiar way that it’s phrased is in the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
Then John sharpens the focus a little more. He’s already explained God the Word, who he is, where his authority comes from, and how the Word spoken brought creation into existence. Now he tells of how that eternal, creative Word has entered into his creation in the form of one of his creatures. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory…”
For several centuries after the apostolic age, the Church struggled with the idea of God becoming human. A lot of interpretations and speculation had to be weighed and prayed over before it was all settled. But in a sense it’s never yet been settled. In every age there have been movements which, although they act with the best of intentions and with deep commitment to God and his Church, have attempted to move the Church away from orthodoxy, right belief. There is what Bishop Fitzsimmons Allison calls a cruelty inherent in these claims. The first cruelty is that to stray from orthodoxy causes division within the Church, which leads to the second and greater cruelty, which is that our internal wranglings weaking the Church’s unity and lessen her credibility in the eyes of the world. Archbishop William Temple described the Church as the only organization on earth that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members. In other words, our mission is to evangelise, to show Jesus to the world. But as long as we argue among ourselves, the world will be less willing to listen to what we have to say.
So as the Church, we need to resist allowing our difficulties to get the better of us, and to concentrate all the more on seeking, serving and celebrating God’s will “at all times, and in all places.” If Temple’s description of the Church is true, if it exists for non-members, then it follows that our primary ministry is to those on the outside. Bishop Medley understood this, and so did Fr Farrer, Abp Temple and Bp Allison. And what is the role of the minister, if not to show Jesus to his people?
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory”– this is what we believe. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace”– this is what we celebrate. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known”– this is our message, the true message of Christmas and the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Lk 2:10). We, the Church, are the telescope. And the Church’s purpose is not to draw attention to herself for her own sake, but to be the instrument that brings the world face to face with the Word made flesh, and then to do what ever it takes to sharpen the focus for all those who really wish to see him. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+