And the word became flesh sermon John 1:10-18
May I speak in the name of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And the word became flesh and lived among us…grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. In the beginning was the word and the word was God. From this word and foundation the world was made. It is through Jesus the Christ who was the word and who also became flesh, that we have our model for life and behaviour. It is from this primary source that we receive life in this world and life in the world to come. It is not enough though to leave it there – to simply believe and to have faith without examining what this means in practice. How we live our lives and conduct our societies gives witness to the truth and glory of Christ in the midst of a world where there are many who do not know him. Christianity has informed not only the personal faith of countless individuals, but governments and the whole of the systems of western law, values and tradition. Nowhere more is this found than in a few of the seminal documents that have helped to create modern Europe and the United States of America.
FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. This first line of the Magna Carta or ‘Great Charter of Liberties’ first agreed by King John in 1215, established freedom as a fundamental right. The Magna Carta also influenced the early American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies and the formation of the American Constitution in 1787, which became the supreme law of the land in the new republic of the United States. It begins as follows:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”.
Another pivotal document was The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War. The war had drowned Europe in blood in battles over religion and the treaty defined the principles of sovereignty and equality in ways countries had not adhered to before. This treaty also paved the way for constitutions and systems of government for a new network of nation states in Europe. These were the precursor to the political and economic systems we see today.
Article I begins:
“A Christian, general and permanent peace, and true and honest friendship, must rule between the Holy Imperial Majesty and the Holy All-Christian Majesty, as well as between all and every ally and follower of the mentioned Imperial Majesty…And this Peace must be so honest and seriously guarded and nourished that each part furthers the advantage, honour, and benefit of the other…. A faithful neighbourliness should be renewed and flourish for peace and friendship.”
These documents, however, are only as effective as the motives and actions of those who carry them out. The law of Moses gave people rules and a law with which to structure their lives, but it was Jesus who offered to us the grace and truth that make up the spirit of the law and the motivation to live a godly life. It could be argued that this concept was first emphasised within a political context by Baron de Montesquieu in the 18th century. He claimed that each classification of political system must be what he called a “principle”. This principle acts as a spring or motor to motivate behaviour on the part of the citizens in ways that will tend to support that regime and make it function smoothly. For democratic republics, this spring is the love of virtue and a willingness to put the interests of the community ahead of private interests.
Her Majesty the Queen and The Archbishop of Canterbury both talked about Jesus, refugees, hospitality, and by inference, responsibility in their Christmas and New Year’s messages, respectively. They cited the Bible, but also used examples from today’s society to illustrate their points. They referred to the fundamental principles of hospitality to the stranger, freedom and equality in reference to the refugee crisis. They did not cite current laws or suggest particular policies to adopt, but reminded us of the fundamental principles or values that make up the heart of our faith and foundation of our governmental structure. We are governed by the law of the land, but something happened 2000 years ago that rocked the world. No longer are we enslaved by the rule of law alone, but most importantly, freed by the spirit of the law, the consequences for which are measured by love.
The Queen highlighted the heart of the matter in her Christmas message, “Despite being displaced and persecuted throughout his short life, Christ’s unchanging message was not one of revenge or violence but simply that we should love one another”. Jesus did not advocate for a loud, destructive path avenging for every wrong, but a quieter, more profound response. As Paul wrote in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
We are not confined or defined by the rules or laws of this world. Christianity has given us permission to pursue the more loving choice, which respects the
law, but gives us the freedom to expand the spirit of the law in order for the common good to be accomplished. This is not some wishy, washy position that does not allow us to advocate for the weak or to fight against injustice. On the contrary, it would be sinful not to.
At the beginning of this New Year let us give thanks for the forethought of our forefathers within Europe, the United States and other Western countries who were profoundly inspired by the Gospel. They did not create structures of violence or retribution. They did not create a law that victimised and overpowers the vulnerable. We must not confuse the historical misinterpretations and misrepresentations by leaders with their own agendas (indeed, there have been many horrific miscarriages of justice) with what our predecessors have provided for us – a blueprint that can be adjusted as needed in order to be true to the ‘spirit of the law’. That law is not stagnant, but must be reinterpreted and adjusted to meet new threats, challenges and changes. From looking at local food banks, effects on individuals of the latest budget cuts to terrorist threats from groups with a different history and fundamentally philosophically different political structure, we need to shape our societies and communities with laws that can accommodate change and differing circumstances while still keeping the peace and reaching for the best for the common good.
One of my favourite theologians is called Origen who lived in the second century and is credited with being Christianity’s first systematic theologian. Amongst his great body of work was De Principiis (On First Principles), and was the first systematic exposition of Christian theology ever written. In it he created a Christian philosophy. There are two pertinent quotes that I believe sum up my thoughts beautifully: the first is, “conscience is the chamber of justice” which for me leads to the second, “it is in our power to stretch out our arms and, by doing good, to seize life and set it in our soul.”
In this new year I challenge all of you to make only one resolution and that is to not fall back on the familiar rules or be slaves to the dotted line, but to reach out, seize life by the spirit of the law and be free to do good and make the most loving choices.