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By grace we are gathered and by grace we shall be gathered.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 5th January 2020 at 11.15 AM
Having Christmas behind us can feel like quite a relief. I find myself, long before this twelfth night, itching to take down the cards and decorations – they are so untidy. And it is a relief to have the fridge a little less clogged with sclerotic excess – cheese beyond measure; cranberries in everything.
There is also, it has to be admitted, some relief to have got through the various gatherings of the season. Colleagues may hope that enough time has now elapsed since the office party for any indiscretions to be forgiven or forgotten. Families may have been reminded precisely why it is they don’t spend very much time together during the rest of the year.
Now I hope your Christmas gatherings were far more uncomplicated, convivial and joyful than that, and even for those of us who found it all a bit of a trial, gathering remains essential to Christmas, with the theme of gathering running through our readings for this second Sunday of Christmas.
‘Sing aloud with gladness’, (cries the normally rather gloomy Jeremiah)
…’See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth.’
This isn’t the gathering of a dispersed and disconnected family around the Christmas table. Jeremiah is speaking of the gathering of an exiled people – the Jews who were forced from their land by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC. Jeremiah speaks prophetically of them being brought back to their land; the restoration of Israel.
It is a joyful prophecy, and it has some interesting features. Jeremiah doesn’t foresee a triumphant procession, like a conquering army, returning home. This is a more ragged company, including, Jeremiah says:
‘the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together;’
It is quite a vulnerable group, bearing the scars of exile.
‘I have become a father to Israel’ says the Lord.
The image is of a refugee family, broken and suffering, being tenderly gathered back to their home; a shepherd bringing a battered and bewildered flock into the safety of the fold.
Now, we know that the return of the exiles from Babylon was not entirely uncomplicated. Those who had remained in the land, mostly quite poor, eking out an existence, were not entirely delighted to see a lot of people coming back and making a claim on their limited resources. Jealousies and rivalries affected the people of Israel as much as any family, and while those jealousies and rivalries might have been managed quite easily at a distance, they became much sharper the closer everyone was gathered together.
Nevertheless, the prophet Jeremiah remained undaunted. This gathering would, ultimately, be the greatest party ever.
There will be feasting, and dancing and making merry – ‘they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord’ he assures them. ‘Their life shall become like a watered garden’ in what sounds like a restoration of Eden.
Where does such optimism come from? Given our lived experience of human gatherings, (our very recent experience, perhaps) we might raise a sceptical eyebrow, and wonder whether Jeremiah has got a bit carried away with the Christmas spirit.
But then along comes St Paul with an even grander vision:
‘a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth’
This isn’t just a gathering, a party, for one people, but for all people; not just for one land but for all lands; not just for the human creation, but for all things. It is the gathering to end all gatherings.
St Paul is aware that such a cosmic party seems like a distant dream, but he calls on the Christians in Ephesus to nevertheless get this party started. We are God’s adopted and redeemed children, who have already been given our inheritance by the Holy Spirit,
‘so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, (he writes) might live for the praise of his glory.’
We who have been gathered together in Christ, by the Spirit, offer the praise and celebration into which all things are to be drawn. This is a joy intended for all people, all things, everywhere.
Again, we wonder what has got a sober intellectual like St Paul quite so excited. This hardly seems credible. I’m guessing that the Churches in Ephesus were probably not unlike our Churches – full of people who struggle to get along, and who struggle most when they are most intimately gathered. You can imagine more than one or two raised eyebrows in Ephesus.
And here we reach the pinnacle of irony. Christmas is a time for gathering, which can be a joy, but often feels more like a duty, and having done it we may be left wishing we hadn’t bothered, or at the least secretly wishing we could have just done our own thing – a long lie-in, a nice walk, a dinner of re-heated nibbles from Waitrose, and not a sprout in sight. The closer we are gathered the more we feel the sharp edges of our jealousies and rivalries – how does my brother-in-law make so much money when he is so boring – why does 30 minutes with my parents turn me from being a reasonably functional adult into a sultry and uncommunicative 12 year old?
Gathering brings out the worst in us and yet, for some hard-to-fathom reason, it is what God wants for us, not just at Christmas, but eternally. The thing we find so hard is the thing we are made for. We are made for gathering, in Greek ‘ecclesia’; we are made, my friends, for Church. We each want to fulfil our individual desires, but we are called to have those desires schooled and shaped within an ever deepening common, gathered life, in Christ; so that our fulfilment turns out to be not the triumph of our individual will, but a shared victory; Christ’s victory over sin.
Those sharpnesses we feel when we are gathered closely, those just might be the prompts we need, to help us focus on those relationships, those difficulties that most need attention.
But we can be forgiven if there are times when we feel it’s not worth the struggle; when we need to get some physical distance even (or especially) from our nearest and dearest; when we heave a sigh of relief that the duty has been done for another year.
God knows gathering is hard – and it is important that we realise how unequal we are to the struggle; it is truly beyond us.
But then a child is born, and we gather around, with oxen and donkey, with mother and guardian (poor Joseph), with vagrant shepherds, with approaching Magi – we gather and gaze at the infant in whom we see, in wonder and some terror, the fragile miracle of our existence. Into the midst of our dysfunctional human family, uncomfortably gathered on this overheated globe, at odds with one another and with this planet on which we rely, we are addressed without words – human to human. And if we can listen carefully enough, steadily enough, we may discover a power; not a power to possess, nor a power to wield, but a power to be received:
‘power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God’
This power is grace – ‘From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.’ Grace to overcome the sharpest jealousy, and the deepest rivalry. Grace to allow ourselves to be changed, and our desires purified. Grace to be gathered into Christmas and into the unending celebration of life. By grace we are gathered and by grace we shall be gathered, and by grace alone we will be able to cope.