Christmas service 2021- Memories of a snowball fight
And so we come to celebrate Christmas, a time of giving thanks and looking forwards, but also looking back. In the Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens speaks of how each Christmas brings to mind the times, the people, the events of our childhood. All those Christmases ago, and yet still present to us, the memories fresh, the spectacles perhaps a little rose tinted. But it is true that we have lost something along the way. The question I ask today is, what might be learnt from a snowball fight that I had so many years ago as a child?
Of the three virtues that Paul names as over and above all, faith and hope and love, it is love that he names as the greatest. In many ways faith is not only a gift but also as an act of will. We can now see what the disciples later came to perceive, that mutual love is the hallmark of the Christian community, and without it the community cannot claim to be Christian at all. However, this love must extend beyond the demands of mutual dependence and reciprocal service, one hand washing another. It must extend beyond the group that merely cares for its own members and reach out to those beyond its boundaries and notions of what is fitting, included, or acceptable or worthy. Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said ‘The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’. But if we believe this do we truly live out the logic of that statement?
‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’
The feast of Dedication was a very particular festival of the Jewish year, and a very profound statement about allegiance and faithfulness, contrasted with disloyalty and betrayal. You can imagine that now under Roman rule the Feast of Dedication took on new meaning and relevance, with this time Roman pagan invaders, and those who resisted as best they could, set against some in the Jewish elite who sought to curry favour with their conquerers. In certain ways our modern world, with its accelerating inequalities and divisions resembles the Roman world of Jesus, into which he delivered his Gospel of hope and of choice. As a church and as individual Christians, those choices come starkly to us again as once they did before, though perhaps in new and updated ways.
Today’s gospel is a rather curious reading.
You might get the feeling that underneath the words on the surface there is a sub-agenda. And you would be right. On the face of it, the rather convoluted words appear to say one thing, but something else is actually taking place. Because John is drawing together some loose threads in this final narrative, this epilogue of his gospel. The main action concerns the relationship between Jesus and Peter – something needs to be put right, something needs healing; but in the background there is also ‘the beloved disciple’. The relationships are clearly complex, at times anxious, perhaps needy, certainly all too human. What can we learn from the episode itself, and the lives that the disciples then go on to lead?