A Sermon preached on 31st December 2017, Christmas I, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
If you have been living in Germany for a while, you will know that today is not referred to as New Year’s Eve, but just as “Silvester.” It is named after Pope Sylvester I whose feast day it is today, although he had nothing to do with fireworks, drinking sparkling wine, or eating fondue. It is his feast day today simply because he died on 31st December, over 1,600 years ago in 335 AD.
We do not know much about Sylvester, although he was Pope during an important and turbulent era in the history of the Christian Church. The Council of Nicaea took place during his pontificate: out of which developed what we call the Nicene Creed, and which defines some of the basics of what we believe about God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Constantine was the Roman emperor. So, this was the time when Christianity changed from being, at best a tolerated sect, to becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire! This was the beginning of what we call Christendom, a society nominally built around Christian values. Others have called it the beginning of the Babylonian captivity of the Church to the State and the world.
It is perhaps therefore not a coincidence that a few hundred years later, the doctrine of papal supremacy and the forged Donation of Constantine were backdated to this period. In the fictional account the Emperor Constantine was cured of leprosy by the virtue of the baptismal water administered by Sylvester and out of gratitude supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope. It sounds like an attempt to reverse the dependency of the church on the state that dates from Sylvester’s pontificate.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul looks back to the time when “we were imprisoned and guarded under the law,” (Gal. 3:23) until God releases us: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4:4-5) In the prologue to his Gospel, John has a similar description of this change of priorities: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17)
The law that both Paul and John are referring to here is not the law of the Roman Empire that Christianity became part of, but the Mosaic law, that detailed and extensive system of laws set in place to guide the conduct of the Jewish people: their worship, diet, and rituals, but also issues of ownership, dealing with debt and disagreement, and many other aspects of human relationships. Before Paul put his faith in Christ, he says, he lived under the supervision of the law. But after he put his faith in Christ, his life was lived under the supervision of Christ and Christ’s Spirit.
Neither Paul nor John are claiming that we can do whatever we want. That would be a very dangerous freedom indeed, then many of our laws are put in place to protect us from our greatest enemy, ourselves and our selfish desires. Instead we are liberated from what holds us back from becoming God’s children and heirs. What both are saying is that we must try and do what God wants, as individuals and as a society.
Paul was quick to defend himself against any accusations of lawlessness. He knew that we need reliable rules to govern our interactions. In his mission he profited from the rule of law, from a reliable infrastructure, and from his right as a citizen to appeal to Rome when he felt he had been arrested unjustly. But he was also willing to be arrested and punished if laws got in the way of his mission of bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible.
To be redeemed and liberated from the law means that our acceptance by God is not dependent on us obeying a set of rules about worship and ritual. I want you to come to church every week, and I want you to come to this church every week, and I truly believe that you will benefit from hearing the Word and even more from receiving the Word in the bread and wine made holy at the Lord’s Table. But your relationship with God does not depend on it. Your relationship with God depends solely on you responding in faith to how God has already acted in Christ.
Both Paul and John tell us that we have received adoption as God’s children, and that we are called to act like God’s children, and that because we are children, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,” (Gal. 4:5) a spirit of grace and truth that directs and guides us. Liberated from the law and guided by the Spirit, we have both the freedom and the duty to act primarily as God’s children in our interactions with one another, with the state, and with those in power.
It is a good thing that the State does not run the Church and that the Church does not run the State. Wherever and whenever that has happened, it has not turned out well. Our relationship with the State and with governments will always be both constructive and critical. Our primary allegiance is to our Father, God, not to any particular country or party.
To be critical means to judge existing and new rules and laws by God’s standards: Are they just? Are they equitable? Are they based on the principle of equality – that all human beings are made in God’s image? Do they reflect God’s preferential option for the poor, the powerless, and the stranger? If not, we need to work to change them or to prevent a change happening. In exceptional circumstances we may even need to disobey them. If I were living in Poland, Hungary, and more recently in Austria, there are rules I would actively oppose, because they are discriminatory and simply un-Christian. Even in Germany some churches break or at least stretch the law to offer Kirchenasyl, church asylum in exceptional cases: Protecting a refugee or a refugee family threatened with deportation back to allow their case to be reexamined. And here in Germany I am definitely very critical of the current regulations that prevent a whole group of refugees, those who have temporary, subsidiary protection because they fled a warzone, from being reunited with their families, without at least taking the individual case into account. I continue to be astonished by the hypocrisy of those who proclaim the value of the family one day, only to deny this to a whole group of people another day. No government can be forced to do what the church says anymore, but equally no government and no politician has the right to stop us saying what we believe God wants for the world. We cannot let darkness overcome the light of Christ.
To be constructive means engaging with and working with those who govern and hold power. Incarnation is about God coming into the world: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him.” (John 1:10), “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14) We cannot, as some Christians have argued, separate ourselves and try and live in some sort of parallel society. God sent God’s Son to bring light into this world and that very Son, our Lord and Savior, calls on us to testify to that light. Good laws can prevent discrimination and offer restitution for past wrongs. The best way of caring for the poor, the powerless, and the stranger is through society. We need taxes to ensure that wealth is more evenly distributed and to finance the provision of health, education, and social services. In many countries, the Church is a provider of some of these services.
Coming back to our friend Sylvester, I think we can assume that his motivation for working with the Roman Empire and with Constantine was positive. He hoped for a constructive engagement with the Roman State. Christians were freed from persecution; the Church was able to grow and reach more people. Christian ethical considerations began to influence and change laws and practice, leading to greater respect for the value of human life, for children, women, and slaves. For Pope Sylvester it will have seemed as if the world had finally begun to know Christ and to accept him.
That is what God wants of us to. That through our testimony and our lives the world gets to know the light that is Christ. That his light and life continue to transform the world. And that we are all liberated from anything that prevents us loving God and our neighbor.