Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection (2012), makes the point that Christian faith relies too much on the deus ex machina. Rather than taking pain and evil seriously, it robs them of reality by jumping too quickly to the happy ending. Believers do not allow themselves to feel the sense of abandonment expressed in the words of Jesus on the cross, because there is always the consoling thought that “it doesn’t really matter because he rose on the third day anyway”. Similarly, we do not take the problems of the world seriously because we believe either that this world is just a “vale of tears” we are passing through on the way to heaven, or that Christ will come one day “on the clouds of heaven” to do away with this world.
These beliefs, says Rollins, are unreal and ineffective, and it is partly because of them that organised Christianity in Western society is dying out. This kind of “faith” makes no real difference to anything, and where it exists it is marginal even to the lives of those who profess it. In order to practise real faith we have to feel the pain and tragedy of human life and the guilt in which we are all involved as part of society. He suggests that this kind of awareness should be built into the life of the Church so that worship becomes a truly honest and authentic experience. Our prayers and hymns should have more genuine lament and less easy confidence, and our preaching should address reality and not hold out the easy assurance that God puts it all right.
Some of the implications Rollins draws from this are very radical and uncomfortable, but, believing that he is making an important point, I bore this in mind in preparing my Christmas sermon this year. Here is a brief summary of it.
“The light shines in darkness”
I am always very moved by the story of the “Christmas truce” which happened 100 years ago. It is a hopeful story that reminds us that ordinary people want peace, and at the same time a tragic story, because after that one day they all went back to killing each other. If only they had stopped the war then! 16 million people would not have died, the Second World War (with its 60 million deaths) would not have happened, and the whole history of the 20th century would have been different. But that didn’t happen. The following Christmas there were strict orders not to fraternise with the enemy, and by the Christmas after that the fighting had become so bitter that there was not much inclination to a truce. The story is yet another reminder that Christmas makes very little difference to the real world.
As we are celebrating Christmas this year there is fighting in many places, including the land where the whole story began. Syrian children are starving in the cold. People in Pakistan are mourning the senseless murder of more than 130 children in a school. But then, doesn’t the Christmas story itself include a mass murder of children? Terrible things happened then, and they still do.
We often have some fun pointing out the totally unrealistic scenario in the first verse of “In the bleak midwinter”. Winter in the Bethlehem area is never as cold as that, and we don’t know that Jesus was born in the winter anyway. Nor, in spite of “Silent night” and the tradition of Midnight Mass, do we know that he was born in the middle of the night. But the story grips us at a deeper symbolic level. We celebrate the light and love of God coming into the world at its darkest and coldest. But in what sense did this light come?
At Christmas we sing about “peace on earth”. But where is this peace? Will it ever come? Today it seems as far away as ever. The prospects for the future are no better, what with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the spectre of climate change. Some parts of the world may become uninhabitable in the next few decades. There will be more refugees than ever. There will be wars not just over oil but over more vital things: water, and space to live.
Will Jesus come to put it all right? Some people believe this whole world will suddenly end when Christ comes down on the clouds of heaven, and so until then we need not worry about what happens to this world. Some think Jesus came so that we would have the chance of going to heaven when we die. I think both those ideas are a cop-out. I believe in the much more difficult hope that the biblical prophets believed in: that God is at work in this world, and his will is done in the course of history. This belief calls for unreasonable faith in the face of real circumstances.
Did Jesus come to rescue us from war and suffering? Was there really “good news of great joy” for the shepherds of Bethlehem? Yes and no! No, in the sense that the hope of peace was not fulfilled at that time, nor has it been in the centuries that have followed. The Messianic age did not come. Israel was not set free. Jesus was rejected and crucified. Those who preached that he was alive were persecuted, and their successors went on to create a church that was just as corrupt and violent as anything that had gone before. So it looks as if the coming of Jesus, like the Christmas truce in 1914, was just a brief moment of hope that was soon extinguished.
Does that mean that the coming of Jesus did not save us? Does it mean we are on our own? In a sense yes. If there is to be “peace on earth” we are going to have to make it ourselves. The solution is not in a long ago event nor in an imagined future: it is in what we humans do here and now.
Part of the answer is in John’s Gospel. One of the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world? His answer was, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John, in his first Epistle, says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us …”
Yes, God did come into the world, and he is still in the world – in us. Is our celebration of Christmas escapism? Is it fantasy? No, it is possibility.