Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Grace Has Appeared

The familiar gospel reading appointed for this holy night takes us on a journey to the hills of first-century Palestine. But the epistle reading invites us to the island of Crete, a lovely spot in the Mediterranean just off the coast of Greece. I wonder what it would be like to celebrate Christmas Eve there? Different, I imagine, from winter in New England...

At the time the letter of Titus was written, Crete had quite the reputation as a rough place. In fact, one of the locals said “Cretans are liars and evil beasts and lazy gluttons.” To which the writer of the Epistle of Titus simply responds, “well, yeah…”

Yet it is to this early Christian community in Crete that Titus is called to serve as bishop. That title is a bit misleading, because those roles were not yet very clearly defined in the first century. Titus isn’t expecting a cathedra to sit on or a miter for his head. Even so, he is called to oversee the flock there; to serve as an episcopos to a flock taken from a bunch of liars and beasts and gluttons. The letter is written as advice from a friend to a friend on how to be a good bishop to a bunch of Cretans. (While the epistle claims to be from St. Paul to his dear friend Titus, most scholars think it was written by somebody else claiming Pauline authority, but that's another post for another time.) It's not a big deal. In any case, here is a paraphrase of what the writer tells Titus:  
Good luck, because you have your work cut out for you! You are going to need to be tough on these people: their minds are easily corrupted and while they say they know God they really aren’t living in a way that would make anybody notice. Their actions and their deeds deny the very God they profess to believe in. (See Titus 1:1-16)
That, in a nutshell, is the background for today's epistle reading. Ministry in a context like this isn’t about nuance. One has to cut to the chase, speak clearly and concisely, not mince words. Basically what we get is a pretty clear and concise summary of the gospel and a mission statement for this bishop and the young church he is called to serve. While it may not be as familiar to us as Luke’s telling of the Christmas story, in truth it has everything to do with celebrating the dear Savior's birth:
 ...the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
Grace has appeared. It’s an interesting way to put it, and more or less the same way that John’s Gospel tells the Christmas story as well. Most of us tend to think of grace as an abstract concept or a doctrine to be affirmed or debated. But the claim being made here is that grace is experienced as a person: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld his glory, full of grace and truth. When we see Jesus we see grace, and out of that encounter, "Cretans" of every time and place are invited to leave our old lying and gluttonous ways behind in order to become a people after God’s own heart, a people called to live more self-controlled, upright, and godly lives; a people zealous for good deeds.

It’s become rather popular for people to claim that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” As I hear it this is a claim made by those who wish to distance themselves from the institutional Church and Lord knows there are plenty of reasons people may wish to do that! There are many days when I feel the very same way, and I'm enmeshed in it and get paid through it. Don't bite the hand that feeds you and all that. But I appreciate the fact that for far too many people, religion signifies something close-minded and bigoted and out-of-touch. It sounds politicized and dogmatic, suggesting that you are either “in” or “out.” 

Spirituality, on the other hand—well, only the most hardcore materialist-atheist is against spirituality. Spirituality grows out of the awareness that we are more than our physical bodies, even if we only get in touch with those feelings on a dark winter night or walking along the beach collecting shells on a lazy summer day. Spirituality suggests something that unites rather than divides Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim and Christian and Jew.

The Church needs to own the fact that we have contributed to the situation in which “religion” has become a dirty word. But our work is to reclaim this word, “religion”—not as an end in itself but so that people don't have to choose. Spiritual and religious becomes a call to discipleship. This work is not very different from what Titus was up to back in Crete two thousand years ago. To behold grace is in some measure to be invited to become grace for others. Or as this epistle reading puts it: “the appearance of grace, which brings salvation to all” not only redeems us but trains us, forms us, uses us to continue that work of healing and renewing the world around us. The birth we celebrate tonight is about forming a people after God’s own heart to share in this work of making things new again.

While the ultimate origins of the Latin word religio are a bit obscure, Joseph Campbell and others have made the case that the derivation comes from a word that means “to bind or connect;" or more precisely, "to reconnect."  The work that God gives us to do is about making connections: about reconnecting and binding things back together with their Source. In spite of the commercialization and trivialization and sentimentalization of Christmas, God keeps breaking into our world and into our lives and calling us to true religion by giving us a mission and a vocation. We who come to adore him on this night are changed by this encounter because in seeing grace, we glimpse what is yet possible for our own lives and families and beyond, for this fragile island home. That vision changes us, or at least it is meant to change us. When we see grace, the work of Christmas begins as we begin to participate in this work of binding up a broken world.

The good news we remember and reorient our lives around on this holy night is that God has come into the world—this world as it is, this world of Cretans. God seeks us as we are, not waiting around for some sanitized version of what we hope we might become with our New Year’s resolutions. God has come into this world in all of its pain and all of its glory to overcome separation and estrangement and to repair all that has been rent asunder; to bind all things together again. 

Sometimes the biggest estrangement we need to overcome is the internal one, the inward spiritual journey toward integration and wholeness. Until we are healed from within it may be impossible for us to become true agents of reconciliation. But ultimately we must move beyond ourselves and into the world, this world that God that God loved so much as to be born into it as one of us.

Do religious institutions need to be changed and redeemed and revitalized and reoriented around God’s mission? Yes, always! But on this night above all other nights I am proud to call myself religious, because it suggests to me that Christmas is more than sentimentality or nostalgia for a distant past: it is a calling to share in God's mission. We then need to develop spiritual practices and disciplines that build up the Body of Christ so that together we can do that work, for the sake of the world. Our spiritual practices grow out of this calling, for without mission, spirituality is doomed to become little more than narcissistic navel gazing.

To say it another way: we don’t become more "spiritual” by avoiding all of the challenges of life in community. Rather, we discover a more authentic spirituality when we become religious enough to embrace it all, for the love of God in Jesus. Our neighbor has been given to us to be a companion along the way. We are invited (even commanded) to love one another as God has loved us. As that great mystery unfolds, we really do find ourselves in a place where we can see grace and truth, and where we see grace and truth we see this child, Jesus.
Merry Christmas!

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