Thoughts from last year... In my 2009 Advent study book, I noted that we display poinsettias in our churches at Christmastime, but maybe we ought to intermingle Easter lilies among the poinsettias to remind us that Jesus’ whole life--birth to death to resurrection--was for our benefit.
In communicating the Gospel, balancing justification and sanctification (that is, salvation and holiness) can be tricky. Salvation is unearned, God’s love is constant and undeserved, Christ’s death covered all our sins “not in part but the whole” as the hymn goes---all these are wonderful, freeing aspects of the Gospel message.
On one hand, growing in grace, and loving and serving one another, are essential aspects of Christian living: “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life ….For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin….So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:4-7, 11). Paul is clearly thinking of a personal, ongoing effort on our part to “own” and live our salvation: our salvation is a reality which, nevertheless, we could neglect.
On the other hand, nothing we do in our Christian living is Gospel, strictly speaking: the Gospel is still Christ’s person and work which saves us and gives us the Spirit. The Gospel is what God does, not what we do. The things we do are important in so far as they are results of the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives--which, again, is included in the wonderful things God does for us, not our own feeble efforts to screw up our courage, force ourselves to love jerks, overcome our psychological defects, and so on.
Unfortunately, many people don’t get the message, or they get it and lose it. The Ligonier website, which I recently discovered from a Facebook friend, discusses the problem of “sad Christians.” http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/gospel-broken/ I very much empathize with laity who sometimes feel more lost than fulfilled in church. I worry that we pastors try to motivate and pep-talk our congregations into serving and giving and, as an unintended consequence, we thereby underemphasize the basic message of the Gospel (or, at least, to bracket it) and substitute works-righteous messages that would shame or inspire people to do more and be more.
Another way of encouraging people to serve is simply to preach love. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley stressed “holiness of heart and life.” As many people have lamented over the years, he used the word “perfection” to describe the cleansing that we can experience from impure motives so that we are characterized in all our relationships by love. Consequently, he spent a lot of time qualifying what he meant by perfection instead of focusing on his main idea: the fullness of Christ’s love in our hearts. Perhaps he should have used a phrase like that one instead of a single word.
In his book, Housing Heaven’s Fire: The Challenge of Holiness (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002), John C. Haughey, S.J., calls attention to the fact that, in the Bible, we are holy because we belong to God. We’re holy before we do anything good and admirable; we’re holy by association, holy because God already loves us. Think about the experience of being loved and accepted by someone you think is fabulous: you feel happy and proud of your association and want to do things that please the person. That’s an imperfect analogy for our relationship with God: we need to realize deeply how much God loves us, and to hold fast to that unchanging and guaranteed reality. Holding fast to God’s unchanging love may not shield us from discouraging church experiences, but we can keep in mind that church people and preachers are, like us, human and fallible, but God’s Gospel is always wonderful and life-changing.
Which brings me finally to the hymn, “On Christmas Night All Christians Sing,” set by R. Vaughan Williams to a folk tune. The line “news of great joy, news of great mirth” is wonderful. How many Christians do you know who are joyful and characterized by “mirth”? I’ve certainly dealt with “the blues” over the years. I can think of some who are sad Christians as described above, others who were glum and disapproving because they had faith but also sour personalities. How do we stay joyful?
The answer is to hold to the promise of God’s unfailing love, and to assume (correctly) that it‘s the only reliable thing in our lives. Christmas is “news of mirth” because God has made us his very own and won’t let go!